Sunday, April 17, 2016

Reflections: Things Fall Apart

I went into Things Fall Apart thinking it was a straight down the party line anti-colonialist book.  I feel I got quite a bit more out of the book, although I'm not sure I'm culling the lessons the author or the book's biggest fans would have me walk away with.   Things Fall Apart is a fascinating book, partly because it pulls back a portion of Africa's cultural curtain and what is seen behind it isn't purely pleasant.  Chinua Achebe wrote a simple but thematically layered book and the story provides readers plenty to talk about.

Returning to my initial feeling, I was somewhat stunned by how unsympathetic the main character was at the beginning and throughout the duration of the book.  Okonkwo is an abusive husband and father, albeit protective and a sufficient provider, but is not anything out of the ordinary for his time and place in Africa.  Herein lies one of the fascinating aspects Things Fall Apart.  If the book is anti-colonialist, or if its framed within that context at times, I think the categorization is wrong.  This book provides plenty of reasons, in my mind, to not care one whit if the people chronicled in this story are conquered and tamed by civilization and Christianity.  But at some point during the first half of this book, I realized I was reading it as a Westerner.  I was reading it as someone who might have stumbled onto a tribal people who believe in the most outlandish of superstitions, commit infanticide (Westerners have their own problems with that), abuse their wives as a standard way to resolve marital conflict, and hold tightly and forcefully to established traditions and mores.  When everything does fall apart, which apparently is not when the people of Umuofia act according to clearly unjust but established rules, it's when Western society with its new rules, laws, missionaries, and God comes bursting on the scene.  However, the question must be asked: is that all bad?

It seems apparent from everything I've read that Things Fall Apart is a book about African identity and the loss of it.  I feel the book, deliberately or inadvertently I'm not sure, poses the very valuable and potentially divisive question regrading the equality of cultures.  Are all cultures equal?  My sociology teacher would have emphatically answered in the affirmative; however, I think a book like Things Fall Apart challenges the assumption, even when he might have used Things Fall Apart to prove the exact opposite conclusion.  Regardless of my feelings on that topic, I was moved by the raw emotions at the end of the story related to the loss of an identity, good or bad: "It seemed as if the very soul of the tribe wept for a great evil that was coming--its own death."  Loss of identity, a cultural element, or some other defining feature can be painful, but is it wrong? 

I'm not an expert on Africa, but I know the debate surrounding colonialism is impassioned and probably more complicated than we realize.  (As one character prophetically says: "There is no story that is not true.").  Years ago I read A Long Way Gone and realized some of the deep and terrible trials afflicting the African people, many of which were inflicted upon themselves.  Things Fall Apart shows a little bit more of the African personality and history and it is layered indeed.  It's a fine book and no doubt one I'll remember for a long, long time.

Notable Quotes:
  • "We say he is foolish because he does not know our ways, and perhaps he says we are foolish because we do not know his."
  • "Among the Ibo the art of conversation is regarded very highly, and proverbs are the palm-oil with which words are eaten." 
  • "The world has no end, and what is good among one people is an abomination with others."  
Other Topics of Interest:
Reflections: Death Comes for the Archbishop
Reflections: Guns, Germs, and Steel
Reflections: Cows, Pigs, Wars, and Witches: The Riddles of Culture

1 comment:

  1. Doesn't knowing that the book is "anti-colonial" cause a prejudice going into it? Honestly, unless I'd been told what an important book this is, I would never have come to that conclusion on my own. Not impressed.