My TIME’s 100 Best selection for February was Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe for two reasons: It was short and appeared infinitely more readable than a Pynchon novel. The added bonus of reading an African writer didn’t hurt matters. My reading history is sorely lacking in African post-colonial novels and this unfortunate fact needs to change.
Okonkwo lives in a small Nigerian village with his wives and many children. He has risen from the ashes of his shameful, lazy father to be one of the most powerful men in his village only to eventually fall from grace. Interwoven is the fateful colonization of Okonkwo’s Nigeria by the white men who bring their Christianity, education, and bizarre ways of life. And so, what life and community exists at the novel’s beginning has literally fallen apart by the turn of the last page.
Achebe’s storytelling is striking. His prose is concise and almost starkly simplistic, but manages to build a world so effortlessly complex. Okonkwo is not a man you will like. More than likely, you’ll come to somewhat loathe him. He suffers from daddy issues, sexism, and a violent temper that results in bloody and bruised wives and children. His ideas of what a ‘man’ should be involve ruling with an iron fist, little compassion, and a lust for power. But just when you think he’s completely irredeemable, he reels you back in with his love for Ezinma – his oldest daughter and favorite child. So just when you think a character is only WHAT he is, you realize that they are always MORE. And while their past behavior will never be acceptable or forgivable, you are willing to get to know this despicable person better because you can always learn something, perhaps most especially from those you despise.
Reading Things Fall Apart functions beautifully as a cultural immersion. Achebe doesn’t pussyfoot (yes, I just used that word) with making the immersion easy either. The characters and villages have names that are both authentic and extremely difficult to keep track of. He intersperses foreign words liberally and doesn’t stop to define all of them (although there is a glossary in the back). Cultural customs, tribal legends, and other societal norms of the Nigerian experience are hardly ever fully explained. Achebe prefers to drop his readers into the middle of village life and say, ‘You wanted to know what Colonial Africa is like? Well, here you go. Good luck.” This method was both infuriating and brilliant. As a reader, you start as an outsider, but by the time the ‘white men’ arrive you find yourself with the audacity to now consider yourself a local and fiercely protective of your new home DESPITE THE FACT THAT MORE THAN LIKELY YOU ARE THE ‘WHITE MAN’ IN REAL LIFE (metaphorically speaking, obviously).
A word of warning for future readers who are sensitive to the mistreatment of women: there are many unpleasant episodes in this story. I read some comments from other readers who were put off by Achebe’s supposed misogynistic tendencies, but I think that’s supremely unfair. Achebe’s novel is not belittling to women, but instead is frank in depicting the brutality that sometimes exists in tribal life – or really, life in general. After all, misogynists come in all shapes and sizes. In many ways, I think Things Fall Apart rises above these nasty incidents to become highly respectful and celebratory toward the female gender. Consider my favorite passage:
“It’s true that a child belongs to its father. But when a father beats his child, it seeks sympathy in its mother’s hut. A man belongs to his fatherland when things are good and life is sweet. But when there is sorrow and bitterness he finds refuge in his motherland. Your mother is there to protect you. She is buried there. And that is why we say that mother is supreme.”
Without a doubt, I highly recommend squeezing this story into your already overflowing TBR piles. Achebe is an author I’ve only just now discovered, but plan to spend many days with in the future. Definitely deserving of the TIME’s list and far more accessible than Pynchon – thank goodness.