(2016) The Year in Books – Things Fall Apart


Chinua Achebe – Things Fall Apart

Things Fall Apart centres around Umuofia – an Igbo village in Nigeria, towards the end of the 19th century, as they deal with the European colonisers newly arrived to the region. Split into sections, it first acclimatises readers to the culture and customs of Umuofia before introducing the European settlers, and exploring the gradually building threat they pose to this now-familiar way of life.

Many critics have already pointed out the obvious parallels in Things Fall Apart to Joseph Conrad’s classic (and terrible (I don’t care what any of you have to say – it’s rubbish)) Heart of Darkness. There Conrad presents Africa as a different word, and black Africans as not only inferior beings, but thoroughly alien ones. And in Things Fall Apart we see similar first encounters from the other side, with very similar reactions: the characters in Things Fall Apart struggle to interpret the lives and humanity of these alien invaders so different from themselves. From the perspective of Umuofia, and especially the novel’s protagonist Okonkwo (a village leader and all around I’m A Big Man Do You Want To Fight Me personality) the Europeans are presented, at least for a time, as unpredictable, wholly unknowable creatures – more akin to alien visitors or a spread of potentially-benign fungus than anything wholly human.

But Things Fall Apart isn’t just a story of conflict between the Igbo people and the European colonisers. It’s also deeply interested in exploring historical Igbo culture, and presenting it in a complex, sympathetic light. Which isn’t to say an unquestioningly positive light – we see the harsh, apparently uncaring nature of many of its rules of law, its abandonment of infants suffering from deformities, and the deeply patriarchal framework that allows Okonkwo to violently beat his wives without consequence for himself (side note: obviously European culture has had to struggle with literally none of these problems, especially not in the late 19th century).

These distatesful aspects of historical Igbo culture aren’t explicitly condemned. Nor is Okonkwo’s constant violence and general awfulness towards various members of his family and the village. There’s a sense of detachment that serves the novel well – instead of simplisticallyjudging these aspects of Igbo culture as immoral, Achebe explores the mindset, the hundreds of years of context that led to these aspects of the culture – the sort of benefit-of-the-doubt exploration of context that white European culture readily grants itself, but often unthinkingly fails to extend to others.

As a result the reader is presented with complexity, both historical and ethical, and not prodded towards a conclusion or neat summing-up. Never is this more true than with its treatment of Okonkwo – instead of crowning him a hero or decrying him as a monster, Achebe invites the reader to explore his character and see how fraught and complicated it is. We see his anger and his self-aggrandizing violence, but at the same time we see his childhood, his deeply-set insecurities, and moments of self-reflection that are at times heartbreaking, despite, and in part because of their sharp brevity: “He remembered his wife’s twin children, whom he has thrown away. What crime have they committed? The earth has decreed that they were an offence on the land and must be destroyed.” [note: upon re-reading I noticed I misremembered, and that this quote is about another, ancillary character. So everything I said about this book is wrong and a lie.]

In other words, Things Fall Apart is not just an antidote to a hundred years of racist, colonial writing that erases the humanity – and the complexity – of the black African cultures. It’s also a deep, empathetic, and often very fraught exploration of both culture and individual character.

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