Novel * Chinua Achebe * Colonial Apocalypse * 1958
Hoo, boy. Here we go. Things Fall Apart is a very slight novel, told in clear prose, in a way which still manages to capture the essence of tribal story-telling (by which I mean the deft use of repetition and in telling a de-centralized narrative). That said, it will certainly make you feel some ways about stuff. It is a tremendously complicated novel which I have come to appreciate more with each re-read. It’s an impressive work that asks questions of the reader that they may or (more likely) may not be able to properly deal with. It is this troubling aspect of the novel, however, which is perhaps its most important accomplishment. The story told here is not something the vast majority of readers are able to immediately identify with. It’s a historical novel, after all, and even though the after-effects of colonialism are wide-ranging and felt by billions, the actual moment of being colonized is something that very few people alive have experienced. Achebe himself would have experienced the very tail end of the, uh, process. I am woefully ill-equipped to speak about colonialism in any kind of depth, I’m afraid. Regardless, the point of the novel is to illustrate a particular way of life. And, of course, what happened to that life when it was exposed to outside influence.
The story is about a man Okonkwo. He is a respected man in his village and a successful farmer. More than half the novel is a description of life in his village, Umuofia, told mostly from Okonkwo’s perspective. The structure of the novel is actually very clever. Achebe spends a good deal of time easing us into the world of the Okonkwo’s people before direct contact with outsiders (although it should be noted that there are guns and the like in tribal life, so we’re not talking about the dim, distant past as the novel is set in the late-19th/early 20th century). Once we’re at home with this very different way of life and are comfortable dealing with these characters on their own terms (but still identifying with them with humans) Achebe pulls the rug out. Suddenly there are white people and churches and conflict and it makes for a brutal transition. The arrival of the colonists was a true apocalyptic event, and in terms of Things Fall Apart, it happens quickly. Achebe manages to make seven years go by in about thirty minutes, speeding the arrival of the downfall of Okonkwo’s village and culture to better mimic how fast the world changed for these people.
This book doesn’t have any answers for you, by the way. That’s what makes it troubling. It is merely a window into a time that has passed. It’s also a platform for observing an incredibly complicated issue. Colonialization happened. It is done, and this is what it looked like (in this part of Africa, at least). The consequences of what happened, however, are vast and continue to resonate to this day, as they will going forward. Things Fall Apart is a nuanced and elegant way to begin to come to terms with how to feel about all this stuff.
As I mentioned, this is a story about a respected farmer named Okonkwo. What I left out was that Okonkwo is a troubled protagonist. The trouble is, he pretty much sucks, pretty much all of the time. He’s a short-tempered, violent jackass more concerned with his own self-image than anything else, and then gets confused when shit goes bad for him. Achebe is not hesitant in calling Okonkwo out for being a douche, either, or why Okonkwo acts the way he does (in short, a hefty dose of daddy issues). Yet Okonkwo being a dickhead is not what sows the most discord in the reader. The source of the unease is the culture itself, which to a late 20th century reader would be just as alien as it is now. Not only does Okonkwo exist within an extreme patriarchy, he is one of his village’s most respected residents. You can tell because he has three wives and several children who all pretty much exist in order to make Okonkwo’s life easier. Of course, this kind of entrenched patriarchal organization isn’t exactly rare in the wider world, and it’s not this in particular that instigates the true culture clash. However, from a 21st century, developed-world perspective, the treatment of women is alarming to say the least.
Meanwhile, there’s all kinds of other troubling aspects of the culture within Umuofia and beyond (the societal set-up is unfamiliar and still kind of confusing. There is a larger tribe, it seems, separated into various villages, all of which have subtle variations to cultural practices. I am absolutely going to use shorthand because I’m not here to document the history of Nigeria). It seems that twins are evil, so when they are born the infants are tossed into the woods to die. Great! Sometimes, when a woman has many children who die in infancy, the corpse is mutilated in order to discourage the spirit from dying young again. Awesome! You see, what makes this novel so troubling and important is the unwillingness of Achebe to turn away from these things. Okonkwo’s culture is frankly unacceptable to pretty much everyone not raised within said culture. You do not throw children in the woods. Maybe sometimes the lady wants to be on top during sexy time. Probably also don’t abduct a random child from an enemy village, raise it as a son for a couple of years before taking it into the woods and murdering him with a machete. All that said, what gives anyone the right to tell these people that what they are doing is wrong?
Of course, the colonial powers at the time figured that God and their own power were all that was needed to not only tell entire continents that they were living wrong, but to actively make them stop living. The coming of the whites was, in effect, an apocalyptic event for thousands of small, contained cultures worldwide. Things Fall Apart is a window into that process, and offers insight as to how the thoughts of those attempting to cope with the cultural cataclysm may have looked. Here is such a moment while Okonkwo laments his son’s decision to join the white man’s church:
“As Okonkwo sat in his hut that night, gazing into a log fire, he thought over the matter. A sudden fury rose within him and he felt a strong desire to take up his machete, go to the church and wipe out the entire vile and miscreant gang…. Now that he had time to think of it, his son’s crime stood out in its stark enormity. To abandon the gods of one’s father and go about with a lot of effeminate men clucking like old hens was the very depth of abomination. Suppose when he died all his male children decided to follow Nwoye’s steps and abandon their ancestors? Okonkwo felt a cold shudder run through him at the terrible prospects, like the prospect of annihilation. 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 praying to the white man’s god.”
Heavy bummer, Okonkwo. First of all, maybe if you weren’t such an absolute douchelord your kid would have stuck around. Secondly, despite Okonkwo’s temperament, this is still heartbreaking as it represents that brief historical moment when an entire way of life dies. The fall is completed not long after this particular sequence, and ends with Okonkwo giving in to despair and hanging himself, in direct violation of his culture’s mandate against suicide. Actually, the very end of the novel is a sudden shift to the white oppressor’s point-of-view, which is suitably chilling in its brevity. The old ways are dead or dying, and for someone like Okonkwo, who has struggled their entire life to become a master of his world is suddenly left bereft of power or stature in a system which is utterly alien to him. So of course we feel bad for him. Yet still the troubling aspect of Things Fall Apart: are these people really worse off in the long run? Yes and no? Obviously there must have been better ways to modernize than the abhorrent methods the colonial powers used to “pacify the primitive tribes” of whatever landmass they wanted to exploit. Still, change is inevitable, which is the truism baked into the title from Yates’ “The Second Coming”:
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
As change is inevitable, so is it invariably destructive and chaotic. When something new (for better or for worse) is born, something else must die. And that death is rarely pleasant.