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Things Fall Apart Paperback – Unabridged, September 1, 1994
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One of Chinua Achebe's many achievements in his acclaimed first novel, Things Fall Apart, is his relentlessly unsentimental rendering of Nigerian tribal life before and after the coming of colonialism. First published in 1958, just two years before Nigeria declared independence from Great Britain, the book eschews the obvious temptation of depicting pre-colonial life as a kind of Eden. Instead, Achebe sketches a world in which violence, war, and suffering exist, but are balanced by a strong sense of tradition, ritual, and social coherence. His Ibo protagonist, Okonkwo, is a self-made man. The son of a charming ne'er-do-well, he has worked all his life to overcome his father's weakness and has arrived, finally, at great prosperity and even greater reputation among his fellows in the village of Umuofia. Okonkwo is a champion wrestler, a prosperous farmer, husband to three wives and father to several children. He is also a man who exhibits flaws well-known in Greek tragedy:
Okonkwo ruled his household with a heavy hand. His wives, especially the youngest, lived in perpetual fear of his fiery temper, and so did his little 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.And yet Achebe manages to make this cruel man deeply sympathetic. He is fond of his eldest daughter, and also of Ikemefuna, a young boy sent from another village as compensation for the wrongful death of a young woman from Umuofia. He even begins to feel pride in his eldest son, in whom he has too often seen his own father. Unfortunately, a series of tragic events tests the mettle of this strong man, and it is his fear of weakness that ultimately undoes him.
Achebe does not introduce the theme of colonialism until the last 50 pages or so. By then, Okonkwo has lost everything and been driven into exile. And yet, within the traditions of his culture, he still has hope of redemption. The arrival of missionaries in Umuofia, however, followed by representatives of the colonial government, completely disrupts Ibo culture, and in the chasm between old ways and new, Okonkwo is lost forever. Deceptively simple in its prose, Things Fall Apart packs a powerful punch as Achebe holds up the ruin of one proud man to stand for the destruction of an entire culture. --Alix Wilber
Praise for Chinua Achebe
“A magical writer—one of the greatest of the twentieth century.” —Margaret Atwood
“African literature is incomplete and unthinkable without the works of Chinua Achebe.” —Toni Morrison
“Chinua Achebe is gloriously gifted with the magic of an ebullient, generous, great talent.” —Nadine Gordimer
“Achebe’s influence should go on and on . . . teaching and reminding that all humankind is one.” —The Nation
“The father of African literature in the English language and undoubtedly one of the most important writers of the second half of the twentieth century.” —Caryl Phillips, The Observer
“We are indebted to Achebe for reminding us that art has social and moral dimension—a truth often obscured.” —Chicago Tribune
“He is one of the few writers of our time who has touched us with a code of values that will never be ironic.” —Michael Ondaatje
“For so many readers around the world, it is Chinua Achebe who opened up the magic casements of African fiction.” —Kwame Anthony Appiah
“[Achebe] is one of world literature’s great humane voices.” —Times Literary Supplement
“Achebe is one of the most distinguished artists to emerge from the West African cultural renaissance of the post-war world.” —The Sunday Times (London)
“[Achebe is] a powerful voice for cultural decolonization.” —The Village Voice
“Chinua Achebe has shown that a mind that observes clearly but feels deeply enough to afford laughter may be more wise than all the politicians and journalists.” —Time
“The power and majesty of Chinua Achebe’s work has, literally, opened the world to generations of readers. He is an ambassador of art, and a profound recorder of the human condition.” —Michael Dorris
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One is a story of traditional African village life and culture in full detail (including a glossary of African terms). This story begins late in the pre-colonial period, and occupies at least two-thirds of the book before moving almost imperceptibly into another story, that of the way in which the village people deal with the arrival of Christian missionaries and the eventual establishment of colonial authority (in this case, British).
It is also a life story of Okonkwo, a traditional African warrior of that time and culture. As Okonkwo matures and moves through early adulthood, the reader learns about the events in his life that shape the man he eventually becomes.
In one respect, this could be considered just another chapter in the tale of how Christianity served as seeming helpmate to European colonization of not only Africa but many natives of the New World. In this story, however, there are certain signs of early tolerance and attempts at mutual understanding. Later attitudes harden when the tolerant head of the local church is replaced by someone much more stiff-necked, setting in motion a train of events leading ultimately to tragedy.
For a story so simply told and without any real complicated plot twists, there are lots of interesting things to think about. Suggestions:
- The story seems short on details concerning the way in which colonial power is established—one day the whites are barely worth mentioning in marketplace chatter, and almost overnight, their presence seems to have changed almost everything. But perhaps this is exactly the way in which that story would be told from a villager’s perspective.
- Tolerance is a major issue even today. Yet the villagers seemingly become victims of their own tolerant attitudes about the missionaries. If they had rejected them from the beginning, and had not allowed them to stay, things might have come out differently. By the time they recognized the destructive influence these beliefs had on their own lives, it was too late.
- After a church burning, the colonial district commissioner gives village leaders a speech about the justice system the British have brought them. However, this justice system is not in evidence at that time; instead, what is visited on those leaders is summary “justice” by the commissioner, followed by corruption on the part of his henchman as their penalty is raised even further.
An amazing little book with so much packed into it and so much to think about.
Glossary is a huge help and subtle way of forcing outsiders to see the world through the main character’s proud and brooding perspective.
Achebe was only 28 when he wrote this classic 50 years ago. His pacing, humor, command of the words, customs, impact and power of the natural world for his characters all make this a haunting tale. It’s a story everyone should read.