TITLE: Things Fall Apart (The Africa Trilogy #1)
AUTHOR: Chinua Achebe
209 pages, Anchor Books, ISBN 9780385474542, $11.95
PREMISE: (back cover copy) Things Fall Apart tells two intertwining stories, both centering on Okonkwo, a “strong man” of an Ibo village in Nigeria. The first, a powerful fable of the immemorial conflict between the individual and society, traces Okonkwo’s fall from grace with the tribal world. The second, as modern as the first is ancient, concerns the clash of cultures and the destruction of Okonkwo’s world with the arrival of aggressive European missionaries. These perfectly harmonized twin dramas are informed by an awareness capable of encompassing at once the life of nature, human history, and the mysterious compulsions of the soul.
MY RATING: 4 out of 5 stars
MY THOUGHTS: When I was setting up my various reading challenges for 2018, one of the things I was aware of is how woefully under-read I am regarding literature from the African continent and the African Diaspora. In the past year or so I’ve made efforts to correct this; in fact, Things Fall Apart was purchased almost two years ago for this exact purpose (along with a bookstore clerk’s emphatic recommendation). It affected me enough that I immediately purchased the remaining two books in Achebe’s Africa Trilogy, and made the series part of my “Complete The Series” Challenges for 2018.
Achebe’s writing is lyrical, poetic, descriptive, emotional, but also spare and pointed. He doesn’t waste words describing Okonkwo’s pre-colonial world; he gives us the broad strokes of how the village (and Okonkwo’s compound within it) functions, how the village relates to other villages, but he lets our imagination fill in the color and proliferation of fauna, the exact facial features of the main characters, the way the villagers dress. Nor giving us the exact years as to when the story takes place; he assumes we are either familiar with when European colonialism swelled across Nigeria or that we can look it up for ourselves after the fact. Achebe also doesn’t waste words, or time, explicitly showing us any scene that doesn’t propel the narrative: years go by between chapters, and sometimes even between scenes. The lack of these physical and time details helps maintain the novel’s fable-like structure and tone.
Another thing that intrigued me: Achebe doesn’t go out of his way to make his main character likeable. Oknokwo is domineering, mean, judgmental, rigid, closed to advice from even his closest friends unless that advice involves “saving face” in the community, quick to blame others for things that are clearly his own fault … essentially full of what we would now call “toxic masculinity.” And yet, he’s also a captivating figure. I could not look away from the narrative, had to know what would happen next. As much as I didn’t like Okonkwo, I had to know how he would navigate (or fail to navigate) the cultural changes around him – both those of his own doing (like his banishment to the village of his mother for something he was advised against doing) and those outside his control (the mesmerizing hold of the European Christian missionaries on the disaffected youth of the villages).
I did like a number of the other characters in the story, especially Okonkwo’s daughter Ezinma who starts out seeming a little bit spoiled but grows to a strong, impressive woman by the end of the book. Ezinma’s mother Ekwefi also stood out, as an exemplar of how far a mother will go to protect her daughter, whether that protection is wanted or not. Okonkwo’s friend Obierika provides some moments of good counsel and some moments of comic relief. But Ezinma, Ekwefi and Obierika are about the only characters Okonkwo lowers his guard and shows love to.
Okonkwo has a number of sons, but the only ones whose names we learn are his foster son Ikemefuna and his natural son Nwoye. Repeatedly, Okonkwo laments how he wishes Ezinma was a man because his sons are disapointments to him. Okonkwo ignores Obierika’s advice about Ikemefuna’s fate and pays the price later; his relationship with Nwoye is an almost textbook example of how withholding love and affection results in deep family rifts.
Ultimately, Okonkwo is so rigid in his beliefs, and in his own sense of self, that he cannot bring himself to accept the way the world is changing around him, nor can he see himself as a part of that world as it moves forward and envelopes all he loves. I read the closing pages thinking “I know people like this; I know men who can’t talk about what they really feel because it would make them ‘weak,” men who are still so mired in what they believed decades ago that they are driving their children and grandchildren away.” This not to say that everything Okonkwo believed was wrong, or that he was wrong to react strongly to certain changes – I cannot imagine what it feels like to see one’s history and belief system not just subsumed but obliterated. In the end, although I didn’t like Okonkwo I could feel pity for him, could understand where such a strong-willed and rigid man would be battered by the sea-changes around him and find himself unequal to the task of changing. And that, more than anything else, is what moved me about the book and made me want to read the rest of the Africa Trilogy as soon as possible. I need to see where Achebe takes these themes in the succeeding books.
Things Fall Apart was the second book I read this year towards the TO BE READ CHALLENGE hosted by RoofbeamReader. Click here to see my original post about the challenge and which books I chose for 2018.