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Ultimately, Worthwhile for Recreating a Culture before Colonization
on March 14, 2007
This novel was set in the Igbo homeland in what is now southeastern Nigeria in the late 1800s/early 1900s. I read about three-quarters of the book before I could begin to appreciate it.
Up to then I'd disliked the main character, Okonkwo, an important person in the village whose major traits were harsh anger, pride and inflexibility, finding him one-sided and uninteresting. I felt the description was plodding and little of importance was happening, and wasn't greatly interested in the village life. Much of the novel was concerned mainly with his point of view, and his interactions with the other, relatively minor characters were unexciting. When a dramatic event occurred, such as his accidental shooting of a villager that led to his exile, it was described in a flat, undramatic tone that seemed inappropriate and puzzled me.
I couldn't help comparing this novel unfavorably with another I happened to be reading, Palace Walk, by Naguib Mahfouz, with its complex, many-sided protagonist, the many other strongly developed people in his family, the dramatic interaction between them, and the rich world around them that was reasonably familiar.
It was only after reading some background material on the Internet that I could begin to understand how Achebe's novel aimed to recreate a vibrant culture that had existed before colonization on its own terms, with its oral tradition, rituals and taboos, and guardian spirits, and show what had been lost. The focus on a period before colonization and the depiction of the whites as interlopers has been called innovative for its time. Likewise the use of language in the words of the villagers, instead of pidgin.
A scholar of African lit, Bernth Lindfors, has described the book like this: "Instead of representing Africa as a barbarous wilderness where savages lived in a permanent state of anarchy until the white man came bringing peace, law, order, religion, and a 'higher' form of civilization, Achebe showed how Africans led decent, moral lives in well-regulated societies that placed strict legal and religious constraints on human behavior. Indeed, according to Achebe, things did not fall apart in Africa until Europe intruded and set everything off balance by introducing alien codes which Africans were then told to live by. Europe did not bring light and peace . . . it brought chaos and confusion" (from the preface to the Anchor Book of Modern African Short Stories).
At the same time, Achebe showed how some elements from outside the traditional culture, such as Christianity, weren't merely imposed from above but appealed strongly to some of the Igbo, especially those at the bottom of the society, and those who felt the new religion was more powerful. And he showed that the traditional society had its own internal problems and was ripe for change. Achebe himself has been quoted as saying, "My sympathies were not entirely with Okonkwo . . . . Life just has to go on and if you refuse to accept changes, then, tragic though it may be, you are swept aside" (from Under African Skies: Modern African Stories).
The conventional action came almost entirely in the last quarter of the novel, when the encroaching missionaries, together with the trading culture and the colonizers' threat of force, began to overwhelm the village. Although I still can't say I identified with the main character even by the end or liked the style, by then I could better appreciate the loss of the village culture.