Friday, January 11, 2008

Things Fall Apart, by Chinua Achebe

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

--W.B. Yeats, 1920--

(I got this one done early, so I thought I'd post my comments on it now.)

Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart is one of those stories that seems deceptively simple at the start, but then unwinds itself into a rich, complex story that can't be easily defined or categorized. In brief, this is the story of Okonkwo, a man who is entrenched in his own cultural heritage (and more importantly, in his level of success within that culture) and in unable to accept the changes that inevitably come when tribal Africa meets industrialized Europe. What makes Okonkwo such a difficult protagonist is that he really isn't one throughout a good portion of the story. He is stubborn, arrogant, narrow-minded, and difficult to like at times. He is also hard-working, ambitious to improve himself, surprisingly gentle at unexpected moments, and thoroughly in love with his homeland. He is at all times a fascinating character and one that demonstrates the complexity of human beings. Perhaps to undercut any European expectation of the African as simplistic, Achebe presents a character who is far too complex to ignore. He is not always likable, but he is always real and struggles with very real. Yes, Okonkwo appears easy to categorize at times, but he is not. He is the image of a dying way of life, and shows readers that--for Okonkwo, at least--so much is lost when that way of life fades into obscurity.

The passing of one way and the emergence of another lies at the heart of the challenge in reading this book. Central to all of the conflict is the appearance of the Christian missionary into Okonkwo's village and the gradual conversion of many of the tribe's members. There is a temptation to read this book and to assume that Achebe is anti-Christian and anti-West, because Western Christianity destroyed the traditional way of life in Nigeria. And yet such a comment fails to tak the big picture into account. For one, Achebe himself is a product of the Western influence in Nigeria, having been very well educated. What is more, the Christians are not necessarily portrayed badly; in fact, Achebe makes it clear that the first people they reach out to are those who have been rejected by the village. An example is a woman who runs from her husband during her fifth pregnancy because each of the previous pregnancies has resulted in twins--a very bad omen. The children had been abandoned to the wild, and the woman feared losing her babies again if she gave birth to yet another set of twins. The missionaries slowly but surely make progress, bringing much good to the people. But with this good comes the defeat of the traditional gods, which also means the defeat of a huge part of the village's cultural history. It's an interesting problem and one that doesn't have an easy solution. I think that Achebe's goal is not to much to mourn the loss of something as it is to explore what happens when this loss occurs. It is the loss of an identity for many people, in particular Okonkwo.

In the end, Okonkwo cannot accept the changes, and the book ends rather surprisingly on a negative note. But what this does is remind the reader that the story has not been fully told, even today. The story of Africa and Europe (and America, I suppose) is being written every day. Much can still be changed in the perception of "the West" toward Africa, and that--I think--is what Achebe is trying to say. I do recommend this book, because it is definitely a classic but also because it is a nice change from the typical "classics" that fill the canon of Western literature. I'm certainly not going to suggest that it replace anyone but rather that it be added for its qualities as a piece of literature.

As a final note, the poem quoted at the beginning explains the title of the book. Yeats is a tough nut to crack, and I wouldn't say that the poem properly conveys the tone of the book toward Christianity. Nevertheless, it does offer a glimpse of how great a conflict occurred when Christianity appeared in Okonkwo's village.

Cross-posted to Dwell in Possibility.


At 8:59 PM, Blogger Carrie said...

Yay! I read this one in December but didn't want to be the one posting on it. I figured you would give us much more to think about.

I LOATHED this book at the beginning of it. By the middle, I was intrigued by its surprise twists and turns. But the end I was disheartened and tempted to tell myself, "I told you so" in regards to my not liking it. But I can't quite say that.

It is a book that, if read without much knowledge of the background history, leaves you with the impression that you are not very well educated. If you are reading it simply for the story and the emotions any story would randomly produce - then it is a worthy read because it unfolds in unexpected ways.

In short, I have to say, that I rather liked this book in retrospect.

At 6:49 AM, Blogger calon lan said...

To me, this isn't an easy book to like, but it's easy to appreciate for its importance as a different perspective. I've had an ongoing series of problems with much that Achebe has written, starting with his opinions on Joseph Conrad (just plain wrong, in my mind), but I can't ignore the power of this story. I didn't quite get it at first, but I found that by the end of it I had gained a real respect for it.

At 9:43 AM, Blogger Queen of Carrots said...

I was impressed by this book. I found the character of Okonkwo, even though not usually a pleasant one, to be a comprehensible (and complex) one, especially in the father/son relationships. There were no easy answers, but there seldom are.

At 8:28 AM, Blogger elrj said...

I'm so glad we read this one, Carrie. I know it's a difficult book to like, but I think it speaks into the current cultural struggles many "Africans" are facing; ones we need to be aware of. Good pick!

At 8:51 AM, Blogger Mirlandra said...

Well, to be frank, I didn't much care for this book. It's not the fault of the book, or Achebe who seems to be a well versed writer which I do appreciate. However, it just wasn't me, and wasn't in me to spend a great deal of time with it.

If I don't like the cover ( and I HATED this one) the book and I are likely to fight right through the end.

However, I do like and value what Calon Ian says about the West, and changing it's view towards Africa. And the idea that the story of the countries is being written every day. I like this outlook on the book. And maybe, like Montaigne, I will fight it only to come around later and treasure it.

If you liked this book: Try Nectar In a Sieve by Kamala Markandaya, very powerful book on India, warning, hard to read and covers topics of prostitution in a very difficult manner.


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