Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart (Fawcett Crest, 1958)
[originally posted 2Feb2000]
This is another classic example of “what in the world are you thinking assigning this to high school kids?” It’s a pretty durned fine book, and there is much therein upon which to reflect, but I’m guessing the adolescent and recently-postadolescent crowd is going to feel a book like this is being rammed down their throats. And they’re probably right.
Thankfully, I’m a year or so too old to have been assigned this in school, and I picked up a copy vaguely remembering classmates below me had had to read it. Perhaps my lack of memory about much of my high school and college days is a good thing, because I went into this novel without any preconceptions. I also went into it having read a few books from Heinemann’s African Writers Series over the past few months, so I have something of a grasp on what African novelists were doing in the late fifties. (Not a bad idea, actually, since the “storytelling” nature of such tales can be jarring to someone who’s used to modern American lit– for example, your typical high school student.) All this being the case, Things Fall Apart, considered by many western critics to be the premier work of African literature of this century, may be quite deserving of its laurels.
Okonkwo is a tribal elder in Umuofia, a large village in southern Nigeria. He’s the very essence of a self-made man, having inherited nothing from his father. Of course, events can’t just go on day to day as we want them to, and a series of stumbling blocks face Okonkwo after he is given the care of a teenager the village has taken as a spoil of war.
The book is compared to classical Greek tragedy, and there are certainly elements of it here. However (remembering recent reading in Abel), to cast this as a true Greek tragedy would force a reading that says the tribal gods sent Christian missionaries to Umuofia in order to punish Okonkwo for various transgressions. I’m about halfway to accepting that this is what Achebe was after, actually. Otherwise, one is forced to read this in kind of the same way as the old joke whose punchine is “Job, something about you just pisses me off.”
One way or the other, the writing is fluid, easy, and captivating, and the storytelling style is one I’ve always been drawn to (as opposed to the missionaries–one white person, at the very end of the book, thinks to himself that one of the most annoying things about the tribe is their “superfluity”). I liked this one, surely more than my schoolmates who were assigned it. Those of you who were, and hated it, might want to try cleansing your palates with something by, say, Cyprian Ekwensi, or a different, lesser-known book by Achebe (A Man of the People would be a good start). Then tackle this one again. It’s worth it. *** ½
50 Years After Things Fall Apart: an interview with Chinua Achebe.