Achebe, Chinua: Things Fall Apart

AchebeWe arrived at Number 42; it was All Hallows’ Eve. Trick or treat?

Why does no-one invite vampires to parties? They are a pain in the neck!

Where do mummies go for a swim? The dead sea!

Boom! Boom!

Alas, no sweeties were forthcoming from the resident, hiding metaphorically in the back room with the lights off. However, in keeping with the current book, he produced some Yams to eat with the beverage of choice. As Hallowe’en is a night to remember the dead saints, martyrs and the faithful, perhaps it is appropriate that we read a contrary book that deals with the passing of a period in African culture, with due reference to many unfamiliar customs and personages.

Who was Chinua Achebe, asked our proposer? He was born on 16th November 1930 in Ogidi in the Lower Niger Delta. He was brought up in a community still following many Igbo (or Ibo) traditions that he describes in the book. However, his father (Albert) was a Christian missionary and in 1930 the community was mainly Christian, run by a District Officer .The Colonial State of Nigeria had been formed in 1914 and became independent in 1960, 2 years after this book was published. His literary influences included Conrad, Hemingway and Green, but this is a book written very much from the African perspective. The proposer of the book pointed out that Achebe described later his disillusionment with Conrad’s racism, writing “An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness'”. Achebe sided with the “unattractive beings jumping up and down on the riverbank, making horrid faces.”

After writing “Things Fall Apart” in 1956, he completed the trilogy with “No Longer at Ease” then “Arrow of God”, describing the village life as the 20th century progressed. In 1967 Biafra seceded, with Achebe supporting the new state and taking a post as an ambassador. When the Biafran war ended in 1970, he accepted an appointment at the University of Nigeria. Later he moved to the University of Massachusetts, but returned to Nigeria to become Deputy President of the Peoples Redemption Party. The party was banned following a military coup in 1984. In 1990 he was paralysed in a car accident. Nevertheless he took posts at further US universities. He died on 21st March 2013 in Boston. Achebe is generally regarded as the father of African literature and is a major 20th century figure.

Why did the proposer choose this book? He noted the influence it had had on subsequent African writers, such as Chimamanda Adichie. He had also spoken to William Boyd about Things Fall Apart after a book festival talk. As one well versed in Nigerian literature, Boyd said this is a truly ground breaking novel showing intelligence, vigour and compassion.

What then was the general view of our group? How can we consider anew a book that is a cornerstone of so many university and school curricula, and has been widely analysed from European, African and many other perspectives for over fifty years? Your daunted scribe noted one web site that gave not only a detailed history of criticism of Achebe and this book in particular, but also listed 55 substantial reference texts, each of which was written by someone surely more learned than the gathered company. Copies are piled high in the local bookshop in anticipation of the next group of university freshers eager to change the world. (Do students still do that, I thought they just wanted a job? Ed.) Another noted that there were 38 conferences on Achebe’s work on the 50th anniversary of publication, echoing our discussion of Small World the previous month.

The story revolves around a tragic hero, Okonkwo, a respected warrior of the Umuofia clan, the son of an idle father, and father to a son, Nwoye, whom he hopes will adopt his values rather than those of his father. Although this book is universally regarded as the great and ground-breaking African novel written from the inside, one suggested it has more general relevance, applicable for example to MacKay Brown’s treatment of Orkney tradition or even the microscopic Pinter plays. This is the general theme of change and threat brought from outside to a relatively closed community. Things fall apart, indeed.

However, the life of the village is distinctly in the African or Igbo tradition, and presented with straightforwardness that does not judge. Some of the rituals and customs may seem less than humane to our European eyes. For example, Okonkwo kills his adopted ‘charge’ Ikemefuna, won from another village, and a great companion to his natural son, on the advice of a village elder and the local deities. Is this civilized behaviour, and if so in whose civilization? There was disagreement amongst us. Some felt that such a killing was intrinsically bad, but others felt this was making a Western judgment. Certainly, in the UK we retained the death penalty until comparatively recently, so is this so distinct? (“You who build these altars now, To sacrifice these children, You must not do it anymore, A scheme is not a vision”)

The proposer continued serious discussion, noting that the main part of the book has an African rhythm but the end has the tempo of English literature, perhaps coinciding deliberately with the arrival of the colonial power. He saw the book as being driven by the relationships of the main character with the other well characterised residents and incomers. However, he saw the main purpose being to evoke the village and its traditions, to show in a fair way that it was not worse than the colonial power. Is this the case? Certainly individuals within the colonial power, from the clergy to commissioner, were shown as less than perfect individuals, but to what extent is that true of their society? (In a recently aired BBC programme (see below) one talked of wishing the missionaries would arrive!)

So Achebe paints a rational value system, at least in African terms. Writing from the viewpoint of the natives is not unique. What he is able to do is present a balanced account. He has a beguiling simplicity of language, a similarity in prose style to Hemingway. He explains the simple traditions and superstitions. He makes quite a bit about the rather male or macho style of the main figure in a patriarchal society.

The book is titled after a phrase in a Yeats poem (“The Second Coming”) and it was suggested that Yeats was a significant influence on the book. Yeats thought that one historical revolution of his great wheel would take about 2,000 years and then end in chaos (“things fall apart”) to be followed by another antithetical cycle. Aneche is relating this idea to the destruction of traditional Ibo culture by the arrival of the new culture of the white man. Masks are a major component in Yeats’ philosophy, and masks play a big role in the book. For example, Okonkwo puts on a mask of macho masculinity so as not to appear weak like his father. More literally, masks are worn to transform the elders into spirits (this is perhaps similar to when a judge puts on a wig). And tearing off such a mask triggers the dénouement of the novel. Birds are also used extensively in the imagery of the book, as in Yeats.

Why did Okonkwo commit suicide? (“Things fall apart.”) There were several possible factors, remorse at his killing of Ikemefuna and subsequent depression, the failure of others in the tribe to support him against encroaching colonialism and the consequent passing of their culture, the fact that he had to resort to violence. One suggested it was self-sacrifice to save the village. Ultimately, he felt he had no choice. Although he was a manly brute, never wishing to appear weak or indeed imitate his father, he kept going back to the cave to consult the oracle. In Yeats’ terms, the character is the struggle between man and mask. Like all of us, he struggles to be consistent.

At this point discussion diverged from the specific to the general. During the 20th century many non-Western countries had experienced a huge growth in GDP, notably China and India. Why had Africa been left behind? Was this the fault of the colonial powers? Many factors were discussed. Was there a lack of a history of advanced development? Do we impose Western standards on what we call development? Was it due to a comparative lack of evolution in education, to climate, to comparative lack of natural resource? After all, coincident with publication of the book oil was discovered in the Niger Delta in the 1950’s and is the main source of African GDP. One member suggested the dominant influence of corruption and indeed Wiki suggests that corrupt regimes and the complicity of multinationals were major factors in holding Africa back. A lack of corruption is essential for society to flourish. Others talked of curiosity, drive, long term strategy and planning, tradition and superstition. Yet another suggested it was all yet ‘our’ fault. To quote, “Why does the sun never set on the English empire?” “God would never trust an Englishman in the dark”. Boom, boom and thrice boom, and yes Spaeth did say ‘Englishman’, I fear, as we approach the Scottish referendum. Someone stressed that Achebe wrote the book to redress the balance, to put a true picture of African life. “The Empire writes back”.

We returned to more direct discussion of the book. Nwoye questions the tradition of throwing away or killing twins. Some argued that a society that survives has to have survival values, and that twins in general were weaker and so should not survive. Are all traditions and superstitions against curiosity, and hence against development?

Ah yes, said one, he is depicting the missionary position! Boom, boom, boom and four times boom! Alas my copy wasn’t illustrated but we can but visualize this controversial interjection. It was said that some became Christians because there was something missing in their previous way of life. Many Igbo people did not agree with some of the superstitions (such as the twins) and perhaps saw something in the new Christianity. As one gets older, it becomes more difficult to adapt to change. Okonkwo is straight and traditional, whereas Obierika is much more curious, constantly questioning and ready to survive. Achebe sees himself in the Obierika role. He, like Achebe, displays a combination of pragmatism and adaption.

Turning to patriarchy, Okwonko is loving and feels blessed in his daughters, yet still wishes that his daughter was a man. The attitude to women is ambivalent, talking of men behaving as women as a criticism, yet still loving a daughter, who might better be a man. This society believes in strength in manly ideals. Culture is devious and flexible to survive, BUT culture has to be ambivalent to survive, extolling the virtues of women.

What of the comparative justice system? Okwondo was exiled. He accepted the guilt, without question. This was a stronger moral code than we have, where our natural reaction is to place the blame on someone else. Read any newspaper or turn on the television! Arguably, the society that is depicted might have flaws, but is not corrupt.

In conclusion, this is a book about a conflict in value systems, each of which has flaws. This is a short, simply written novel, yet very significant This is Achebe’s first novel, and arguably the first great 20th century novel written from an African perspective. Overall it is simple yet profound. There is a very little ‘purple prose’ and this contributes to the book’s strength.

In passing we also noted that the British Broadcasting Corporation had chosen to follow our lead in selecting not just “Things Fall Apart”, but also Richard Ford’s “Canada” (our next book) for discussion in their broadcast of ‘A Good Read’ on Tuesday October 29th 2013. Was this coincidence or are the BBC turning to the Monthly Book Group, who post the schedule on the Goodreads website, for ideas? Judge for yourself, dear reader, but continue to follow the authoritative version.

So we returned to the dark might, perhaps fearful of warlocks and witches.