Monday, February 4, 2008

Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe

I couldn't put this book down but I don't know that I like it, either. The characters and their circumstances were so alien to me that I had to know more. I suppose that's because Things Fall Apart is set in Nigeria during the 1880s and the characters are all apart of the Ibo culture. I found the anthropological type tidbits more interesting than the story line itself. While this is a work of fiction, of course, this book is arguably the most wide read dipiction of African life that has been written by an African instead of someone looking in from the outside.

Spoilers, kind of.

When the book opens, the reader is introduced to Okonkwo and his family, which consists of three wives and their children. Okonkwo was born to one of the biggest failures in his village and ended up winning his own fame first through wrestling, and then through hard work and the accumulation of yams, which was both one of the village's main dietary staples and a way to show status. Unfortunately, Okonkwo's determination is as much a flaw as it is a strength. The plot follows him as he struggles with his masculinity, upholding his reputation, incurring the wrath of the clan accidentallys, exhile, and a return to a village completely changed by Christian missionaries.

The most interesting part of the book to me was the subplot of Okonkwo's favorite child, Enzima, the girl with the spirit of a boy. Enzima is believed to be an ogbanje child, a child who is locked into a cycle where they are born, die shortly after, and are reincarnated to torture their parents with the loss of a child again and again. Enzima's mother, Ekwifi, has gone through the loss of many a child at this point and Enzima is her only surviving child. Even though Enzima is ten at the opening of the book, her frequent bouts of illness have her mother convinced the daughter she loves and spoils so much is an evil trickster out to break her heart again. Even though she is Okonkwo's favorite as well and is the only one that can calm him when his temper flares, she shares her secrets and with her mother. There are endearing scenes were Ekwifi hides Enzima so that she can eat eggs (which are their greatest delicacy) without being caught and reprimanded, ect.

The second and third sections of the book were primarily about what happened to the Ibo group when they were introduced to the white missionaries, and then the self serving District Commissioner and his government. While I believe in God, I think it's important to point out that even the most loving and well intentioned missionaries introducing monotheism to a group like this could be considered an extremely destructive act in some ways given that theheir culture was built around polytheism with a hierarchy of gods, polygamy, and agriculture. The first missionary, Mr. Brown, has a man willing to learn about their culture and compromise. The second missionary was full of wrath and heavy handed, expecting complete assimilation to his ways and beliefs immediatley. The thing that got me the most about him was that he kicked some of Mr. Brown's flock out of the church because they couldn't yet grasp the concept of the Trinity. I think that's a hard enough concept to wrap one's head around without a language barrier between you and the person doing the explaining, but for two men speaking different languages, interpreter or not, I'm sure that would be almost impossible.

I wasn't pleased with the ending, but at the same time I don't know how Okonkwo's story could have ended any other way.


Carlton said...

If this book doesn't feature an incorrigible dog that just won't quit, then I don't want to read it.

Christopher said...

I have bad news for you re: War and Peace.

Nihil Novum said...

I bought this to read this year, but I'm going to read Heart of Darkness first, since I've read that this book was something of a response to it.

Brooke said...

Yes... Things Fall Apart was written in the fifties but Achebe did not publically speak out against Heart of Darkness until 1975, after he had gained respect in his field.

Christopher said...

Those are some FUN FACTS

Christopher said...


Brooke said...

Brooke facts are always FUN FACTS tm. Get with the program.