Things Fall Apart
Premise: Okonkwo is a resident of the Umuofia tribe in Nigeria. Having grown up with a father who is “known in all the clan for the weakness of [his] matchet”, Okonkwo doesn't have the best start in life. He doesn’t inherit a barn like the other men in his village and instead has to work hard to become a respectable member of the clan. He is known as a great warrior and is one of the village elders. However, when an unfortunate accident sees him exiled for seven years, he has to start over again. When he returns, things in the village have changed. The source of this upheaval is the arrival of the white man. Whilst Okonkwo tries to fight against it, others (including one of his sons) are won over by the white man’s religion and his imported rule of law. Against this backdrop, everything spirals towards tragedy.
There are some brilliant contemporary writers coming from the African continent and, just as British writers are influenced by the 19th century greats and American writers are influenced by Steinbeck, Twain and Hemingway, these modern day African authors are influenced by the towering figure of Chinua Achebe. “Things Fall Apart” is, without a doubt, his most enduring work.
It is set at the end of the 19th century when European powers were jostling each other to conquer territory right across Africa. It begins in equilibrium with everything just as it has been for hundreds of years. The inhabitants plant their yams, they pray to their gods, their justice system relies on masked elders making whispered decisions etc. It is during Okonkwo’s exile to his mother’s village that change starts to creep in. There are rumours of white men killing the entire population of a village near Umuofia. Then, a group of missionaries arrive and try to convert the population. When Okonkwo returns home, a church and a court have been built and a District Commissioner has been appointed to oversee that the law is carried out.
In describing the turbulent invasion of the white foreigners, Achebe writes in a tone which manages to be starkly matter-of-fact and ironically mordant both at the same time. He is not uncritical of what was in place before and he structures his story in such a way that the reader’s sympathies can’t help but alter as the novel progresses. On encountering Okonkwo as a wife-beater and passionless killer of his adoptive son, most would feel repulsion towards the actions of this rather pugnacious protagonist. But when he is cast out, you can’t help feeling sympathetic towards him. The way that he picks himself up from this setback is truly admirable. And his reaction to his son’s betrayal is an emotional encapsulation of the wider issues – namely, the loss of cultural traditions, the enforced implantation of one culture on another, the inter-family/inter-indigenous rifts caused by imperial settlers etc.
Any Western reader should come away from this novel asking themselves whether it is really right to revel in our imperial past. In these days of Brexit and rising nationalism, when politicians with extreme views look back at the past with rose-tinted spectacles, works such as “Things Fall Apart” are more important than ever in reminding us how much damage was caused by the 19th century land grab of the European powers (not to mention the horrors of the slave trade and everything else that came before).
Other books that deal with aspects of African colonialism: “Nervous Conditions” (Tsitsi Dangarembga), “The River Between” (Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o), “The Poisonwood Bible” (Barbara Kingsolver), “Heart of Darkness” (Joseph Conrad)
The other books in Achebe’s trilogy about Umuofia: “Arrow of God”, “No Longer at Ease”