Friday, July 5, 2013

Achebe's Things Fall Apart

Since reading is not work for me I had no trouble taking along two books to  review while on vacation. In fact, while trying to lighten up our luggage to meet the strict requirements for Ryanair, I actually left my paper copy of the new Coetzee novel, The Childhood of Jesus, on a bench in the Charlerois airport in Brussels. Imagine someone's surprise at their good fortune when they pick up a free copy of the Nobel winner's latest novel (even if I wasn't enamoured of it.)

Several months ago I had the honor of reading and reviewing Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's new book Americanah, I'm sure that the review has been published even if my personal copy of Library Journal has been lost in translation between Ft. Myers and Maryland. I read many African authors but she has long been one of my favorites. In her outstanding TED talk that I was able to watch in podcast,
she speaks to the whole concept of storytelling and she credits her countryman (Nigeria) and idol, Chinua Achebe, for her desire to tell stories from an early age.

I know that many high schools have now placed Things Fall Apart on their required reading lists and I was ashamed that I had not read it yet myself. I understand that this is the first in a trilogy about Achebe's homeland and his feelings about the slow tumble of Nigeria from tranquility to turmoil. There's much to be said for globalization but Achebe's novel looks at the downside, when the term no longer means opening borders but taking over.

Through the metaphorical story of Okonkwo, his wives, children, and tribe, we learn of the early lives of Nigerians, how they lived, how they settled scores, their traditions and communistic, in the best sense, way of life before the British, first via the churchmen and then the politicians, arrived to "make things better."

It's a tragic tale as old as the hills, simply told in a scant but powerful 158 pages. Before reading this novel, we of the twenty-first century must set aside our pre-conceived notions of civilization, of what defines justice in today's world and try to inhabit the mores of another time and place and think about the logic of tribal wisdom.

To our current sensibilities, Okonkwo seems too angry, too quick to take offense as he strives to become the leader of his people. He's harsh with his son, expects much of his wives with little sentimentality for any except his daughter, the child of his heart. He works hard to provide for them all but his hot headedness is the beginning of his downfall, when he accidentally kills a man and is banished from his tribe for seven years.

During the time that he and his family are in exile in his mother's homeland, Okonkwo loses precious time to enhance his standing within his own tribe, the Church of England makes inroads, taking even his son into their fold, so that, by the time he can return to what he considers his rightful place within his tribe, his power and position have been weakened beyond repair, his sense of loss and desolation overwhelming.

It's disconcerting to write about such a difficult book while I'm looking out the window at an expanse of Tuscan hillside, olive groves as far as the eye can see. As I sit here I think of the writers over the centuries who have been inspired by this same vista, Edith Wharton, Henry James, the Rossettis, and I marvel. We may not even venture into town today but sit under the grape arbor and read all day. What would you do?

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