After reading Heart of Darkness, which I liked for its lyricism and denunciation of imperialism, I turned immediately to Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe. Achebe’s strong criticism of the racist undercurrents in European accounts of Africa, such as Joseph Conrad’s work, should be well known to all. On hindsight, certainly I could see that he made many valid points about European literature, though I hesitate to accuse Conrad of blatant racism (from the way he used certain words, his framing technique, his opposition of imperialism). That aside, I wanted to witness the contrast for myself. How would Achebe do justice to his own people and country? Would Things Fall Apart be an admirable introduction for Western readers to true African Literature?
Achebe did not disappoint. There is a stark contrast between the prevailing Western description of the African people and Achebe’s enthralling prose. Immediately one is thrown into village life in pre-colonial Nigeria, with the great wrestler Okonkwo, son of the weak, lazy, gentle Unoka. It details Okonkwo’s ultimate fear of being weak like his father, his great rise and fall. His fall is closely followed by the arrival of British colonialists and missionaries. From then on, Okwonko’s life, the village, the African people, all things fall apart. The title of the novel could not be more apt.
“Perhaps down in his heart Okonkwo was not a cruel man. But his whole life was dominated by fear, the fear of failure and of weakness.
It was deeper and more intimate that the fear of evil and capricious gods and of magic, the fear of the forest, and of the forces of nature, malevolent, red in tooth and claw.
Okonkwo’s fear was greater than these. It was not external but lay deep within himself.
The most important difference is how African characters are treated in this story. Since the world is viewed through the lens of African culture, Achebe sheds light on African (perhaps more accurately Nigerian) village practices, the beliefs and fears of his people, their skills and superstitions. Achebe also utilises many delightful African proverbs that spark the imagination. From early on, we, across the years, distance, cultural differences, are immediately able to identify with the characters as fellow human beings. Imagine how foreign this must have been to Western readers accustomed to reading literature such as Conrad’s tale of savages in the wild jungles, who either inspired fear or pity.
Very much like Joseph Conrad, however, Achebe doesn’t have a simplistic view of the atrocities being committed by the colonialists. Achebe shows both the strengths and the pitfalls of his people: their superstitious beliefs, the sacrifice of one member for the greater good of the village, their treatment of women. Indeed no other scene best illustrates this than Okonkwo’s son defecting to the missionaries. He is understandably encouraged into this by his many reasonable doubts about village culture, law and beliefs. The missionaries are not all demonized and presented as evil imperialists: Mr Brown, the first missionary takes in village untouchables, rescues twins abandoned in the forest, he respects the villagers and tries to live in harmony with them. And yet Okonkwo warns:
The white man is very clever. He came quietly and peaceably with his religion. We were amused at his foolishness and allowed him to stay. Now he has won our brothers, and our clan can no longer act like one. He has put a knife on the things that held us together and we have fallen apart.
The tragic ending leaves you with many conflicted feelings. (in fact I was reminded of Brave New World) It calls out and rejects the racism in previous Western literature, explores cultural conflicts and is a bright window into the true soul of the African people. Bookmania’s take on it:
Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart is fantastically flocked with the consciousness of the African cultural paradigm, a multitude of evolving characters, and words that sing the mouths of the African post-colonial community […] The novel derives its simple, yet powerful characteristics from that of the realms of African social and religious connections. Okonkwo’s story defines the prospect of his widely-branched family, and ultimately, the tragic breaking down of his illustrious clan. Overall, this three-part-novel which paves the way to the societal, religious and cultural clash is an example of an insightful breadth and a powerful hand which penned not just for the purpose of showing, but also for the intention of provoking the readers.
There is no story that is not true, […] The world has no end, and what is good among one people is an abomination with others.