From the back cover of my yellowing 1959, 75¢ copy of Things Fall Apart:
“First published in England in 1958, Things Fall Apart is Chinua Achebe’s first and most famous novel, a classic of modern African writing. It is the story of a “strong” man whose life is dominated by fear and anger, a powerful and moving narrative that critics have compared with classic Greek tragedy. Written with remarkable economy and subtle irony, it is uniquely and richly African and at the same time reveals Achebe’s keen awareness of the human qualities common to men of all times and all places. Things Fall Apart is no less successful as a social document, dramatizing traditional Ibo life in its first encounter with colonialism and Christianity at the turn of this century. Set in an Ibo village in what is now Biafra, the novel vividly re-creates pre-Christian tribal life and shows how the coming of the white men led to the breaking up of the old ways.”
For someone who has been a pretty devout popular fiction reader for many years, Things Fall Apart was a big switch for me. While it presented itself as fiction, the details of primitive tribal life were very real, very hard, and very male.
It occurred to me that I had not read a book by a male author in quite a long time—I don’t think Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden counts exactly.
The tribe was extremely patriarchal, so women were fairly insignificant in the storyline—except to pop out babies and keep house and feed their husbands and get beaten when they didn’t comply. The tribe was extremely violent, seeking out war as retribution, celebrating violent wrestling matches as sport, and killing off life’s oddities in the name of evil spirits.
At first, I had very little empathy for the main character, Okonkwo. I had very little empathy for any of the characters. But gradually, I became intrigued by the stark similarities of our own culture and the Ibo culture. I was humbled, actually, to start with such prejudgment—this is a very male book, I don’t like these people—and then be caught up in the beautiful, organic nature of their lives.
Their days and weeks and seasons were guided by nature and the cycles of an agrarian society. They appreciated and respected their natural resources. They worked together as families, villages, tribes. They had a strong sense of family—immediate and ancestral. They formed a working structure of government, and great rituals of celebration and worship. They were self-sufficient, self-sustaining, and insulated from the dysfunctional workings of the industrialized world.
My affinity for the Ibo tribe, and for Okonkwo, grew exponentially with the arrival of the Christian missionaries. It was at that point, two-thirds of the way through the book, that I truly came to appreciate the experience of Things Fall Apart.
I was no longer reading a male book about a foreign culture, it was as if I had been part of that culture. I had spent time in the villages the arrogant white men were about to destroy; I had participated in the celebrations the missionaries called evil ways; I had honored gods and customs these interlopers would never understand; I had experienced moments of love and friendship, and was a better person for the journey.
With his deft hands and words, Chinua Achebe had taken me there.
• • •
The Unread Book Project
Book #2: A Death in the Family by James Agee
Click here to purchase a copy of Things Fall Apart or A Death in the Family.
• • •
Image of traditional Ibo mask courtesy of Ethnic Arts.
• • •
• • •
• The Unread Book Project
• The Unread Book Project: It Took 20 Inches of Snow