Things Fall Apart, by Chinua Achebe: re-creation without idealization

“ Does the white man understand our custom about the land?”

“ How can he when he does not even speak our tongue? But he says that our customs are bad; and our own brothers who have taken up his religion also say that our customs are bad. How do you think we can fight when our own brothers have turned against us? The white man is very clever.” Things Fall Apart, Chinua Achebe.

I’ve read Things Fall Apartseveral times, as a student and as a teacher.

The first time, I was fascinated and enthusiastic. I loved the rhythm of the story, the peaceful narration, the quiet dialogues, full of proverbs, the invitation to this entirely new culture, and, above all, this copernican revolution, for the European reader that I am, in the focalisation: a story told from the other side of colonisation.

Things Fall Aparttells the story of a man, the fierce Okonkwo, but also that of a clan, and of a culture, the rites and traditions of  which are depicted throughout the novel. Okonkwo, one of the greatest warriors of Umuofia, rose from great poverty to being one of the most respected men of his village, until a tragedy forces him into a seven-year exile. When he comes back, the white men have settled, built a church and started preaching and attracting converts. For Okonkwo, who cannot and doesn’t want to forsake his traditions and beliefs, things start to fall apart.

Last year, I read it to prepare a lecture. I was slightly more bored than I was the first time and strongly disliked Okonkwo for his stubbornness, cruelty and violence.

I read it for the third time last week, in preparation for my class, and this time I got to appreciate, once again, the writing and the stories inside the story. When the narrator describes a marriage ceremony which involves cooking for a whole village, I found myself longing to be part of that joyful and bustling activity, to hear the drums, to share the frenzy of the dances… If that doesn’t prove the evocative force of Achebe’s writing, then what does?

And I also took pity on Okonkwo. By the end of the novel, when he prepares his war dress, examines it and feels “a childlike excitement” at the thought of going to war against the white men, I felt my heart break. His determination to go to war is the only thing he can cling to in the hope of reestablishing the communal life he used to know. However, whether we have read Things Fall Apartor not, history tells us that this strategy is doomed to fail. It’s all the more sad since Okonkwo doesn’t know how to behave differently: beatings and whippings are usually the answer to all his problems, be it his stammering or a careless wife who didn’t prepare his meal. He is so afraid of appearing weak that he is stuck in this conception of life in which being a man is being violent, and being gentle is being “a woman” (meant derogatorily of course – we could talk about gender, too…). His only way out is violence, but for the first time, he finds himself face to an enemy whose cunning ways prevail against the violence and determination of a single man. At the end of the day, the strength that Okonkwo thinks he draws from violence turns out to be a weakness. His demise foretells that of his village which is broken from the moment that the white men have “put a knife on the things that held [the villagers] together and [they] have fallen apart”.

Things Fall Apart, Chinua Achebe, Heinemann

The story isn’t made of stark oppositions for all that. First of all, the white men’s arrival occurs pretty late in the novel, which to me illustrates the fact that the novel is not just about colonisation. The first part, devoted to the life in the clan, occupies more than half of the novel, and it details the rites and customs of Umuofia: from the description of great, festive gatherings and public trials, to the daily life in Okonkwo’s compound, the reader is shown many aspects of the Igbo culture. Achebe said that he wrote Things Fall Apartas an act of expiation because, having received a christian education,  he was taught to look down on “heathens”. However, his father converted quite late, so Achebe also grew up, for a while, in the traditional culture, which placed him, as he put him, “at the crossroads of cultures”: an ideal position to write about the life before colonisation, and after.

Achebe considered that it was the African writer’s duty to teach his readers about their past. He wrote, in a famous essay entitled “The Novelist as Teacher”: “The writer cannot expect to be excused from the task of re-education and regeneration that must be done. In fact, he should march right in front… I for one would not wish to be excused. I would be quite satisfied if my novels (especially the ones set in the past) did no more than teach my readers that their past—with all its imperfections—was not one long night of savagery from which the first Europeans acting on God’s behalf delivered them. Perhaps what I write is applied art as distinct from pure art. But who cares? Art is important and so is education of the kind I have in mind”. (Achebe, “The Novelist as Teacher”, 1965) Achebe believed in the social role of the African writer and rejected the “art for art’s sake” concept, a fairly common traits in African writers of the time.

However, this role requires intellectual honesty. It demands that the writer does not hide from the most shameful elements of his culture. In reading the traditions and beliefs of the Igbo people, we get to discover unsettling conceptions, such as the necessity to do away with twins who are considered to be evil, or the existence of outcasts. These are things that puzzle some of the characters in the novel, too, and the example of Nwoye is particularly striking: Okonkwo’s son is obsessed by the cries of the twins, abandoned in the forest. As he cannot solve this moral question, he eventually turns to Christianity, which shows how the cruelty of some customs paved the way for the eventual establishment of the white men. Achebe makes a lucid portrayal of his culture and doesn’t flinch from things that are less pleasant to reveal, which allows to avoid idealisation: a necessary honesty at the moment when the novel was written, just before the independence of Nigeria. And I’ll leave the final word to Achebe himself: “The question is how does a writer re-create the past? Quite clearly there is a strong temptation to idealise it—to extol its good points and pretend that the bad never existed. This is where the writer’s integrity comes in… We cannot pretend that our past was one long, technicolor idyll. We have to admit that like other people’s pasts ours had its good as well as its bad side.”

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