Things Fall Apart – Chinua Achebe

This month’s book group read was Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe. I read the slim volume quite a few weeks ago now so I was glad of the discussion in the local pub’s ‘snug’, to refresh my flaky memory of the finer details before writing this post.

This modern classic has been collecting dust on my TBR pile for a shameful amount of time as from all the reviews I’d encountered, I knew it would be an uncomfortable read. However, Achebe has been called ‘the founding father of the African novel in English’ (The Guardian) so I knew it was an important novel and would, no doubt, have a powerful impact on me.

From the very first page I enjoyed the telling of this simple fable. Achebe writes about a young man, Okonkwo, who works hard to support his family after his father, a man considered lazy, leaves him and his family unprovided for. Over time, Okonkwo begins to establish himself and when he wins a wrestling competition, his reputation as a fierce warrior spreads across West Africa. His hard work and physical strength see him rise in status within the village and he begins to enjoy the prosperity and respect that he has worked so hard to achieve, against the odds.

When he accidentally kills a neighbour, local custom requires that he is exiled to his mother’s village for a period of seven years. During that time things change in his village. Missionaries arrive, followed closely by colonial governors, and while they are initially mistrusted, they gradually win the trust of enough villagers to tip the balance of power in the community. By the time Okonkwo returns from exile, his village has changed irrevocably and his position of power in it has evaporated. As a proud man, Okonkwo refuses to bow down to this new authority and the novel ends in tragedy. 

The life of the village evoked in the first part of the novel has a sense of timelessness about it. There is a strong sense of everyone knowing their place, respecting the local customs and honouring the local gods.
I’m aware how easy it is to see flaws in customs and cultural practices that are ‘other’, while remaining blinded by familiarity to the glaring injustices of our own, and it is with that said that I found certain aspects of the life described uncomfortable, such as the gender inequality and superstitions such as killing twins at birth due to the fear of evil spirits. Achebe does not capture some Utopian idyll, he is unsentimental in his evocation of pre-colonial West Africa. For example, the men might hold the power in the village, but Achebe shows how the masculinity all the men must aspire to is oppressively limited and therefore limiting in scope. 

If anything, Achebe’s ‘warts and all’ rendering of this West African village makes it feel very real, so that when the missionaries come, closely followed by the governors, imposing new cultural and religious practices and eradicating the ancient ones that had held this community for generations, it is all the more devastating. More so, as we know that this same cultural homogenization has happened to so many rich and unique communities across the globe. The despicable arrogance that fuelled such Colonial pursuit is encapsulated at the very end of the novel by the Commissioner. When confronted by Okonkwo’s tragic demise, all he can see is how he can exploit it. 

In the many years in which he had toiled to bring civilization to different parts of Africa he had learnt a number of things. One of them was that a District Commissioner must never attend to such undignified details as cutting down a dead man from the tree. Such attention would give the natives a poor opinion of him. In the book which he planned to write he would stress that point. As he walked back to the court he thought about that book. Every day brought him some new material. The story of this man…would make interesting reading. One could almost write a whole chapter on him. Perhaps not a whole chapter but a reasonable paragraph, at any rate. There was so much else to include, and one must be firm in cutting out details. He had already chosen the title of the book, after much thought: The Pacification of the Primitive Tribes of the Lower Niger.

The simple truthfulness of Achebe’s prose, the novel’s brevity and its abrupt and shocking denouement all contribute to the raw power of the book. I have no doubt that this damning fable about the impact of Colonialism will stay with me for a long time to come.