Saturday, February 12, 2011

Book Review : Things Fall Apart - Chinua Achebe 8*


Chinua Achebe speaking at Asbury Hall, Buffalo...Image via Wikipedia
Chinua Achebe
Okonkwo is a proud man, he is the greatest wrestler and the bravest warrior in the district, but behind his fierce exterior manner Okonkwo is a man who is not always at ease with himself.  Okonkwo's father was a weak man, a bad debtor and ill thought of, and everything Okonkwo accomplishes is partly to try to push the shadow of his father further behind him.

Okonkwo believes that his strength of character derives from his physical strength and his emotional toughness, and that this is a way a man should be.  However, when he participates in the clan ordered killing of a young man who has been placed in his care, one of his friends speaks up and says that in his place he would not have done the same thing, and that Okonkwo may have brought down the wrath of the gods for his hand in the affair.

Achebe depicts the tribal Africans as a people with a strong cultural and religious heritage, and a common sense of decency and justice, although one that can be skewed by beliefs, such as the abandoning of twins born in the village.  When white Christian missionaries come to the area, the fine balance between the people is upset, their traditional religion is unfortunately usurped when they give a portion of the dreaded Evil Forest (where twins and those deemed unfit for proper burial are left) for the building of a church.  The villagers expect that the new god and his priest will be struck down by evil spirits, but this does not come to pass and seems to affirm the power of the new Christian God.

After Okonkwo has helped in killing the boy Ikemefuna, he accidentally kills a clansman at a wedding when his rifle explodes, he is exiled to his mother's village for seven years as punishment for killing in a woman's way.  Okonkwo bides his time, but when he returns the missionaries have divided the village and in his opinion the man have become weak and can no longer behave as warriors.  Okonkwo's stance does not fit with the new white governors and he is soon in trouble, humiliated and imprisoned, after he kills one of the District Commissioner's men and his fellow clansman do not rise up with him Okonkwo he is confounded and his spirit is crushed.

Achebe's novel demonstrates the culture clash that happened between black Africans and the new white settlers and missionaries, with both sides being in the wrong as they struggled to accept or understand the faith and culture of the other side.  In the novel the static culture represented by Okonkwo is destroyed when it cannot adapt, the adaptable culture represented by the missionary Mr. Brown is cautiously accepted because it seeks to understand and to meld the two groups, whilst the domineering colonial culture as embodied by the second priest James Smith causes tension and anger which escalates into arguments and violence.

Things Fall Apart is a powerful and moving book book, and has an ending which displays the breathtaking arrogance with which white Europeans saw the rest of the world and the shallow regard in which they held the people they had lived amongst.  As the District Commissioner considers writing his memoirs about his time in Africa, his thoughts turn to Okonkwo..."The story of the man who had killed a messenger...would make interesting reading.  One could almost write a whole chapter on him.  Perhaps not a whole chapter, but a reasonable paragraph at any rate.  There was so much else to include, and one must be firm about cutting out details."

82 books read from the 1001 list.
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