Thursday, July 15, 2010

Things Fall Apart

Chinua Achebe's 1958 novel Things Fall Apart is considered to be the archetypal English-language African novel. It is studied widely throughout Africa and in English-speaking countries around the world. The book tells the story of Okonkwo, a strong man in the fictional tribal villages of Umuofia, Nigeria, who creates his own successful life through hard work and a strict adherence to his own principles. Events cause his personal downfall, which is ultimately overshadowed by the arrival in Umuofia of Christian missionaries.

Okonkwo's father was lazy, leaving neither a successful farming business nor any tribal titles to his son. From his youth, Okonkwo has been determined to travel a very different path, securing the seed yams to start his farm, working hard year-round to cultivate his crops, earning titles, marrying the best brides and building a most respected compound for himself and his families. He abhors weakness: he doesn't accept sniveling or excuses, and shows few outward expressions of love or tenderness.

Because of his high standing in the village, Okonkwo is given charge of a teenage boy who is sent to the village as part of a peace offering. Okonkwo and members of the family grow fond of the boy who, over the course of three years, comes to care for them as his own family. When the village elders determine that the boy must be sacrificed, and when Okonkwo actively participates so as not to seem weak, his downfall is set in motion. Further events send him and his family into a seven-year exile, during which time he lives with his mother's people.

While Okonkwo is away, white men come to Umuofia. Initially peaceful, they bring both religion and a new form of government. Okonkwo returns to find his village greatly changed, and he struggles to regain the high position he once had. A new head of the Christian church brings a more violent regime that is less accepting of native customs and beliefs, and Okonkwo's brand of justice is no longer supreme.

The two most compelling themes for me are the importance of familial and social relationships, and the impact of missionaries on tribal life. Throughout the book Okonkwo remains unable to express his emotions, but he never fails to know the proper behavior for any given situation. Through social norms, life has rules. It makes sense. He is able to function, and, at least early in the book, to thrive. When a new group of people enter the fray - in this case, the missionaries - relationships are changed. New values and processes and structures are introduced. Initially they can coexist. But ultimately, one set of rules must prevail. In the novel, it is the way of the missionaries that wins out. The book is easy to read but complex and thought-provoking.

Next up: The Golden Gate by Vikram Seth. It's a novel in verse, which I have never attempted to read before (nor have I been remotely interested). About 50 pages in, though, I'm thoroughly enjoying it!

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