Wednesday, 3 April 2013

Things Fall Apart

Things Fall Apart - Chinua Achebe

"Fortunately among these people a man was judged according to his worth and not according to the worth of his father. Okonkwo was clearly cut out for great things. He was still young but he had won fame as the greatest wrestler in the nine villages. He was a wealthy farmer and had two barns full of yams, and had just married his third wife. To crown it all he had taken two titles and had shown incredible prowess in two inter-tribal wars. And so although Okonkwo was still young, he was already one of the greatest men of his time. Age was respected among his people, but achievement was revered."

I was around half way through this book when I heard the news of Chinua Achebe's death. It's the kind of thing that makes you feel connected to your reading, somehow. Things Fall Apart is certainly something to have left behind, fully deserving its reputation as one of the classics of twentieth century fiction. I was pulled into an unfamiliar world and the story of a pretty unsympathetic man but came away feeling I had been granted an extraordinary window into that world, and a greater understanding of the forces that make a man what he is.

I had already read the second part of Achebe's trilogy, No Longer at Ease, set two generations later than this. The cultural shift which is clearly burgeoning in this book has been consummated by the time of the second book. It is a seismic change, although it is easier to understand some of the backstory in No Longer at Ease, particularly the tribal structure of his birthplace, having read about the tribal structure that was in place at the time this book is set, the late nineteenth century.

The book tells the story of Okonkwo. His father "was poor and his wife and children had barely enough to eat. People laughed at him because he was a loafer, and they swore never to lend him any more money because he never paid back." He aims to be different and uses his anger towards his father to spur on his own overweening ambition. "He had a slight stammer and whenever he was angry and could not get his words out quickly enough, he would use his fists. He had no patience with unsuccessful men. He had no patience with his father." In fact his fear of being like his father poisons him as a person and causes him to use a heavy hand with his children. "Perhaps down in his heart Okonkwo was not a cruel man. But his whole life was dominated by fear, the fear of failure and of weakness. It was deeper and more intimate than the fear of evil and capricious gods and of magic, the fear of the forest, and of the forces of nature, malevolent, red in tooth and claw. Okonkwo's fear was greater than these. It was not external but lay deep within himself. It was the fear of himself, lest he should be found to resemble his father."

His own father, despite his 'weakness' seems a tolerant and affectionate man. A musician, he is perhaps too enamoured of the good times. But even if Okonkwo feels affection he dare not show it. From early on it is clear that even as he is building success upon success, Okonkwo is also becoming more lonely and isolated. When a boy from a neighbouring village is taken as part payment for the murder of a woman from Okonkwo's village, the boy is housed with Okonkwo. He slowly gets over his fear and becomes a part of the family. "Even Okonkwo himself became very fond of the boy - inwardly of course. Okonkwo never showed any emotion openly unless it be the emotion of anger. To show affection was a sign of weakness; the only thing worth demonstrating was strength." 

Of course this strength is really just another form of weakness and I guessed early on that Okonkwo was going to be a tragic figure by the book's end. When he abuses another villager at a meeting an elder speaks in one of the proverbs which knit the structure of their society (and of this book) together: "'Looking at a king's mouth,' said an old man, 'one would think he never sucked at his mother's breast.' He was talking about Okonkwo, who had risen so suddenly from great poverty and misfortune to be one of the lords of the clan." The traditions of the tribe always seem to have the idea of balance at their heart, particularly balance between what is represented by masculine and feminine.  Okonkwo is fundamentally flawed and imbalanced by his focus exclusively on the masculine.

What is most startling about this book is how it brings you into the world of the Ibo people, into the village and aware of the strenghts and weaknesses of their culture. It does this because the language and the story are one and the same thing. Reading this reminded more than anything else of Riddley Walker. The language, analogies and proverbs reveal the thought patterns and values that underpin the society in such a way as to allow us to have a clear view of how the characters think and of how their culture and very way of thinking is under pressure from the forces of history. This helps us to see more clearly how our own way of thinking about the world is also in flux, and not based on some inevitable truth, nor particular clarity of thought and moral and ethical values. We can learn to think a little less in black and white, as does missionary priest, Mr Smith. Far better to think, like his predecessor Mr Brown, that everything is relative.

We are told how important conversation and proverbs are to the Ibo early on. "Having spoken plainly so far, Okoye said the next half a dozen sentences in proverbs. Among the Ibo the art of conversation is regarded very highly, and proverbs are the palm-oil with which words are eaten." Customs, too, help to foster communion between members of the tribe and particularly between in-laws, as Achebe's beautiful description of wedding feasts shows.

But all is not peace and understanding.  Wars over incidents seem quite usual and Okonkwo has proved himself in them by killing. "In Umofia's latest war he was the first to bring home a human head. That was his fifth head; and he was not an old man yet." There is also a trdition that twins offend against the Earth Goddess and so when any are born they are simply left to die in the forest. This has had a profound effect on Okonkwo's eldest son, Nwoye. "Nwoye had heard that twins were put in earthenware pots and thrown away in the forest, but he had never yet come across them. A vague chill had descended on him and his head had seemed to swell, like a solitary walker at night who passes an evil spirit on the way."

In their view of life the gods require particular sacrifices or rituals in order to expiate harm - "if the clan did not exact punishment for an offence against the great goddess, her wrath was loosed on all the land and not just on the offender." When survival is so very uncertain, it is a brave man who will risk offending against whatever customs their people have.

Death is dealt without the consideration we feel it should but death is not a stranger in this society at this time. Most women have multiple children die when very young and all sort of rituals are performed to try to stop its reoccurrence, thought to be due to spirits. When one of Okonkwo's daughters falls ill, his favourite daughter, the girls mother talks to a neighbour, who says "I think she will stay. They usually stay if they do not die before the age of six."

Into this world come the first white men and their religion. It seems to answer questions for some of the tribe, it seems a way of finding acceptance not granted in the clan to others. This splits the village and causes tension between the traditionalists and the christians. I was reminded of the parts of The Satanic Verses set in the desert where the many gods were being replaced by one. And when they do not convince by ideas, the colonisers convince by force, applied with a brutality unknown to the culture of the Ibo. Stories of slaughter and humiliation spread from around the region.

One night in Okonkwo's village a Christian convert takes the mask from one of the ancestors. This is such a great and previously unimaginable offence that its possibility has never been acknowledged. No punishment has been set. It's aftermath causes a great disturbance in the village: "It seemed as if the very soul of the tribe wept for a great evil that was coming - its own death."

I don't want to keep going on as I will only reveal too much of the book's plot. I is a brilliant, tragic novel, and by far the best I have read set in Africa. This book is a tragedy of Shalespearian range and proportions, where not just individuals but a society faces it's own end. It fully deserves its reputation as one of the great books of the Twentieth Century. It is a book I will be rereading, perhaps in conjunction  with Riddley Walker.


from The Second Coming - W.B.Yeats

"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."

The title of Things Fall Apart comes from W.B.Yeats' The Second Coming. Achebe is making all sorts of references here, equating colonists with the anti-christ of Yeats poem, the sense of impending doom, and also Yeats' part in the Celtic Twilight, whose writers artists tried to forge an Irish identity from her history and traditions. Achebe serves the same purpose for Nigeria.


  1. A book I've been meaning to read for ages, but one I've never quite got around to. Good to hear it really is a classic.

    1. Glad to know I'm the final arbiter of whether or not a book is a classic ; )

  2. I pulled my copy down to reread later this year a sad loss the first true african writer to break internationally ,all the best stu

    1. I'll certainly be re-reading it at some stage, Stu. A wonderful book.