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"Things Fall Apart" by Chinua Achebe
Published by Penguin books
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Chinua Achebe was born in Ogidi, Nigeria and was the son of a teacher in a missionary school. His parents educated him many of the values of their traditional Igbo culture but they were also devout evangelical Protestants. Chinua Achebe was christened Albert after Prince Albert but changed his name, husband of Queen Victoria. Whilst a university studying English, Achebe rejected his British name and took his indigenous name Chinua. In 1953 he graduated with a BA and then he travelled around Africa and to America. He worked for a short time as a teacher before returning to Nigeria to work for the Nigerian Broadcasting Company in Lagos in 1954.
During the Nigerian Civil War (1967-70) Mr Achebe was in the Biafran government service, he then taught at US and Nigerian universities. In 1967 Achebe and hid friend, the poet Christopher Okigbo, (who was killed during the Nigerian Civil War) founded a publishing company in Nigeria. Sadly a car accident in 1990 has left Achebe in wheel chair.
THINGS FALL APART:
This was Achebe's first novel and was first published in 1958 but since this time has been published in over 50 languages. My husband said he read it while living in Lesotho in the 70s but I picked up my copy in the Derby book crossing shelf in Gloria Jean's cafe. It is not along book only 190 pages and I read it in about three nights but it has left me feeling quite disturbed.
The front cover shows a black face in mud and the entire picture is cracking like dried mud which is perfectly symbolises the title of the novel and indeed the story within. Also on the cover is a quote from Nelson Mandela;
"The writer in whose company the prison walls fell down."
I would have thought that this was not exactly the book to read to cheer you up in prison but obviously Mandela felt differently.
WHAT IS THE BOOK ABOUT?
This is the story of a traditional village "big man" Okonkwo who is an ambitious and powerful leader of an Igbo community, who counts on physical strength and courage. His father was a lazy good for nothing and Okonkwo is determined not to be like him and works very hard to build his fortune in his village. During this building of his fortune we are told about various Igbo traditions and learn what is considered to be important in Igbo village life. Okonkwo builds himself a good life: his compound is large, he has no troubles with his wives, he has many children, his garden grows yams, he has a good barn, and he is respected by his fellow villagers.
Some of the descriptions of traditional village beliefs I found quite upsetting such as when twins were born they had to be cast out of the village and killed. Some babies were mutilated as they believed that they were bad spirits returning. The women were often beaten for misdemeanours such as not having their husband's food ready for them and other things like this I found quite uncomfortable reading. One young boy was brought from another village in payment for some crime and lived with Okonkwo for years and then for some reason the village decided that he had to be killed. The poor boy was taken out of the village after being told they were taking back to his mother then they killed him and Okonkwo killed him with his machete as he turned to him for help. I found scenes such as this very difficult to understand or to feel any sympathy for the hero when he did things like this.
One day Okonkwo accidentally kills a clansman and because of this he is banished from the village for seven years. He has to go back to his mother's village and they treat him kindly. Giving him seed yams and helping him build his barn etc but he is not at all happy as he doesn't have the same position of power in this village.
During this time the missionaries move into the area and white men come selling the word of God. The Christians tell the villagers that they are wrong to worship their 'heathen' gods and that there is only one god and so on. Some of the villagers move towards the church, the missionaries are given a piece of land to build their church on, it is land where there are bad spirits and the villagers find it a bit of a joke that the missionaries are grateful for this land when it was all going to go bad as the spirits would destroy the church. The church is not destroyed as you might have been able to predict and the church stays, more people are converted. The new religion particularly attracts women and others who have not been dealt a happy life in the traditional village.
Things come to a head when one of the converts unmasks one of the spirits in a village celebration; the church is destroyed by the villagers in retaliation. The new white authority becomes involved and things spiral out of control for Okonkwo and others.
HOW DOES THIS STORY REFECT UPON EVENTS IN WESTERN AFRICA?
This novel is not a sentimental look at things past being good and what came to change being bad. It tells an honest story and I was quite horrified at some of the tribal customs and beliefs that existed in pre- colonial times. It certainly was not a perfect society, it was harsh and cruel and they had some very strange beliefs regarding children and the role of women.
The story is set in the 1890s, when missionaries and then colonial government started to intrude into Igbo society. In this process Okonkwo is destroyed, because his unwillingness to change set him apart from the community and he is fighting alone against colonialism. Okonkwo is symbolic as he is destroyed while fighting against this change. The change was taking place and it was bigger than any one village and so any individual resistance was futile.
The African nations were taken over by different colonial countries as their tribes were not united in a force strong enough to reject colonial invasion.
As I have said already I found the book quite upsetting. The tribal behaviour was extremely cruel and difficult to comprehend from a modern point of view but it was what they believed at the time and they were not educated people. Their behaviour was not so very different from that of the slave traders who treated people barbarically at exactly this time. The novel is written in an unsentimental way, it tells it as it was so to speak, and is not judgemental.
The missionaries and the church are the catalyst in Okonkwo's downfall. The missionaries and colonial governments are not without blame but Achebe was the son of a Christian teacher so I think he is aware that they were not ALL bad either. Achebe shows in his story that although traditional society was not perfect it worked and things began to fall apart when the missionaries came and interfered. They did not belong and their behaviour destroyed a society that had survived for many generations.
I have not read any of his other books and would be interested to see how the traditional beliefs versus the Christian and colonial beliefs develop in future writings. I am told that Achebe's deep personal disappointment with what Nigeria became after independence is reflected in his later writings.
I find African history and culture very interesting and as it is such a huge continent different events have affected different countries. Western Africa was most affected by the slave trade .Countries in West Africa had different colonial rulers from the French , German, English, Spanish, Portuguese and Dutch which had a big impact on their history too.
It certainly made me think and really that is what most authors want you to do so in that Achebe was successful but it certainly did not uplift me; in fact I found it rather a depressing read.
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Things Fall Apart - The Plot
Things Fall Apart tells the story of the mighty Okonkwo; a man who defied adversity to establish himself within the Obi tribe and to overcome the failings of his father. He becomes a well respected member of his community through his notoriety as a fighter and with his wives and children continues to thrive and take on the problems that arise. Then the white man comes and Okonkwo's life begins to change; this novel tells of the trials and tribulations Okonkwo faces which lead to being exiled from his tribe and returning to a wholly different lifestyle that disagrees with everything he has managed to achieve for himself.
Chinua Achebe is a Nigerian novelist born in 1930; raised in a village called Ogidi which became one of the centres for the Anglican Missionary work. He is a university graduate who has gone on to write many novels, poems and essays.
I was first recommended this novel whilst studying at A-Level - my teacher told me to read it and I picked it up again recently hoping to rekindle the fascination it brought to my imagination the first time I read it.
It is a very simple text to read; not overally difficult language wise and the way in which the narrative is told allows you to become embedded in the patterns of tribal life, recognising their traditionals and beliefs and for me instilling a sense that something beautiful was destroyed with the appearance of the 'white man' who corrupted their harmonious life.
Being a woman, you might think I might get a little up in arms about the obvious suppression of women and the abuse that was acceptable to their culture because of the clear cut understanding of status within such a culture. This is tempered by the harsh, insensitive and aggressive warrior Okonkwo endearing to one of his daughters by constantly reminding himself "She should have been a boy" and allowing her into his world at times just by being there is his isolation.
Okonkwo is an unlikely hero and not someone you can endear to easily. He is principled in terms of his cultures expectations; his had high aspirations and high expectations which limit his ability to be accepting of absoloutely anyone who does not adhere to his moral standing. The tribe are an unlikely lot to expect yourself to connect with - the disposal of twins because they are 'evil', polgamy and the acceptance of domestic abuse are woven with an incredible tale of their religious beliefs; the animated ancestors who physically appear when summoned from the centre of the village where they are drawn from their resting places - one with smoke billowing in a constant stream from his head, another smelling of death, putrid and rotting as he walks...and so much more which in my review may come across as fanciful and completely beyond belief...but once you're reading, you're in there and you're viusalising the terror and fear, the belief that sacrifice and traditional is to be maintained, honoured and respected and that something beautiful is desecrated by the white man's encroachment on their way of life. Through creating laws, stepping in on the natural order and in some places killing whole villages in order to take power, I found it difficult to decide which was the lesser of two evils.
This isn't the most emotive read - there is something very direct and at times impersonal about the way in which the characters and plot is drawn out. An interesting read, enciteful but sometimes a little cold. You very much get a sense of the culture but there is an order to things which is explained directly as appose to coloured in the way many writers do. For example, when describing the changing season requiring the huts to be coated with red mud of the outside, this is how you will literally be told. Another writer may become steeped in more emotions and colourful portrayals of their life but in a way I think the writing is reflectant of the life of Okonkwo's tribe - ordered, predictable and repetitive. Everyone knew what was to come and prepared for it appropriately, therefore it becomes less of an event and more part of real life for the tribe.
I highly recommend this book - it is a small volume and is a different style and subject to matter to the typical books I pick up. Available used for as little as 0.01p on Amazon, it's definitely worth a look!