Thursday, January 15, 2009

Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer,
Things fall apart, the center cannot hold,
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.

--W. B. Yeats, "The Second Coming"

Things Fall Apart has been likened to a Greek tragedy. Its hero, Okonkwo, is an honorable man with a fatal flaw: a kind of hypermasculinity that feeds on anger and violence, seeing only weakness in others. Okonkwo lives in a time and place that match his character, an Ibo village in nineteenth-century Nigeria, but even in the midst of a clan that values tradition and war he is dangerously unbending. And as in all Greek tragedies, it is this flaw which proves his undoing, and smaller undoings along the way. Early in the book, when his adopted son Ikemefuna is put to death by the decree of the article, he refuses the advice of the village elders and helps to murder him, to show others--and himself--that he is not weak. When his pistol explodes at a funeral, killing a boy and sending Okonkwo into exile, it isn't his fault, but it is symbolic of the lightness of his own personal trigger--or perhaps is the result of his affront to gods regarding Ikemefuna's death. When white missionaries descend upon the Ibo, Okonkwo's righteous anger is aroused and his fate sealed.

And yet I am uncomfortable drawing too strong of a parallel between Okonkwo and Agamemnon or Oedipus because the Greek tragedy is a fundamentally Western tradition and Things Fall Apart is ultimately a rejection of Westernism. As the Ibo culture values community over the individual, so the real story in Things Fall Apart is the unraveling of a local culture, and the story of Okonkwo just one bead in a string. His story is tragic, but it is only the tragedy of his people
writ small, Okonkwo's flaw is the flaw which does in an entire society.

We see literature as an exercise in character, but is character as we know it a Western tool for reading Western literature that fails when it contacts non-Western literature? It seems to me that to some extent Achebe wants to have it both ways, but at the same time is telling us, "This is the best I can do; my mode of storytelling is corrupted in the way that this culture of mine has long been corrupted."

Like his novel, Achebe himself cannot be extracted from white influence; he grew up in a Protestant home and attended school in London. His decision to write in English has been controversial among African writers who wish to reject the forms imposed on them by colonization; so Things Fall Apart is by its nature a tacit admission of the grim success of European colonizers. It is easy to imagines those critics as Okonkwos, proud and resolute against invading forces, but ultimately the ones who pay the most for immutability.

While I found Things Fall Apart, as I did in high school, a little dull--as a stylist, Achebe rivals the greatest textbook writers--I also think that it is impossible to appreciate it without reflecting on what it represents merely by existing. When Okonkwo's tragic downfall is considered beside the contradiction that is the world's greatest English language African novel, then, and only then, can you recognize how powerful it is.

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