Achebe’s Things Fall Apart is the most translated African work of all time, appearing in over 50 languages, and has sold more than 8 million copies. It was not only the author’s first novel, but also among the first African books to be written in English, both of which facts make it all the more remarkable that it is still widely regarded as the seminal work of English language African literature.
The novel tells the story of Okonkwo, a wealthy Ibo man with three wives, who is highly respected as a wrestler in his home village of Umuofia. His father, an idle man who loved to play the flute, ended his life as something of a failure, and Okonkwo is constantly spurred on by a fear of following in his footsteps. When the missionaries arrive, and begin to disrupt life in Umuofia, Okonkwo , along with some other men, burn down the new church, and are thus all briefly imprisoned. Okonkwo kills a colonial employee in response, and when he becomes convinced his village will not join him in rebelling against the foreigners, is so overcome by shame and anger that he hangs himself.
The novel creates a compelling picture of pre-colonial Ibo culture, based on Achebe’s recollection of the community of his childhood. We learn a great deal about life in the village, from its day-to-day activities, to great festivities and religious ceremonies. It would be easy to idealise this now vanished world, but Achebe instead creates psychologically complex and believable people, within a culture both admirable and flawed. Likewise, he does not take the easy path of making the newcomers – the missionaries and their converts – into either fools of monsters. Indeed, the first missionary, Mr Brown, is quite sympathetically presented, and we can very much understand what leads Nwoye, the eldest son of Okonkwo, and thus the one he is hardest on, to abandon his father on earth for the one who in heaven.
It’s a truism that simplicity is immensely difficult to achieve, and Achebe’s clear, uncluttered prose is truly impressive in this regard. Here, for example, is Okonkwo lying awake at night, troubled by the missionaries: “He saw himself and his fathers crowding round their ancestral shrine waiting in vain for worship and sacrifice and finding nothing but ashes of bygone days, and his children the while praying to the white man’s god. If such a thing were ever to happen, he Okonkwo, would wipe them off the face of the earth.”
There is an unexpected and elegant change of style at the end of the book. For the last two paragraphs of the novel, we move abruptly from the detailed and complex world of the Ibo to the mind of the District Commissioner, who has examined Okonkwo’s dead body. He is planning to write a book, and the very last lines of Things Fall Apart concern his thoughts on the matter: “The story of this man who had killed a messenger and hanged himself would make interesting reading. One could almost write a whole chapter on him. Perhaps not a whole chapter but a reasonable paragraph, at any rate. There was so much to include, and one must be firm in cutting out details. He had already chosen the title of the book, after much thought: The Pacification of the Primitive Tribes of the Lower Niger.”
Thus is the entire culture summarily described and dismissed. Perhaps by our modern standards, it is a rather obvious twist, but I found it a very neat presentation of the inescapable fact that how a people’s stories are told is vital to the survival of that people. Thus this book – Achebe’s attempt to capture a people that he remembered – is given a certain grander importance, as an attempt also to preserve that people.
Sarah Norman is a Zimbabwean who splits her time between Harare and Nairobi. She documents her reading life in the blog White Whale (www.booksof2010.blogspot.com)