African man silhouette - Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe

Wherever something stands, something else will stand beside it - Igbo proverb

Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart (1958) is a seminal text of twentieth century postcolonial writing and is often deemed the forefather of African literature as a force on the world stage. The novel opens by acquainting the reader with tribal life in Umuofia – a set of villages in pre-colonial Nigeria – and the values and culture upon which the indigenous Igbo tribe is built. In this patriarchal society, superstition abounds, conversations are held together by proverbs, custom and tradition is everything, human sacrifice is thought to appease capricious gods, and men settle their differences through violent feuds. It is not always an appealing insight into Igbo life but the structures, the respected order of things that govern day-to-day life for the tribespeople become clear. Young Okonkwo grows up in this society, ashamed of his father who is weak and far from the ideal Igbo man. Okonkwo determines to become leader of his clan and sets about achieving his goal through violence, bullying, and sheer determination. He holds many of the qualities valued by the tribe – physical prowess, virility, and sense of community – but he is fighting always against his chi (his personal god), which carries the weaknesses of his father’s line and which undermines his aspirations of greatness. Nevertheless, he manages to amass great success and becomes a highly respected member of his tribe. However, when an accidental death forces Okonkwo into exile for seven years, he must live apart from his tribe as the presence of colonial foreigners looms over their way of life. When he returns, Okonkwo finds his tribe changed. White missionaries have made deep inroads into the Igbo way of life and the process of ‘civilising’ the natives has led to splits in the community as some members align themselves with the new Christian arrivals and their religion while others cling to their old way of life. It is an irreparable rift that represents the changing of African life and the dawning of a new colonial age.

Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe book cover
Hailed as one of the first novels with an authentic African voice to break into the consciousness of the Western literary world, Things Fall Apart – its title, incidentally, is taken from the W. B. Yeats poem “The Second Coming" – undoubtedly demands an important place in literary history. Bernth Lindfors describes the way in which the novel departs from received Colonial writing on ‘natives’ in The Anchor Book of Modern African Short Stories: “Instead of representing Africa as a barbarous wilderness where savages lived in a permanent state of anarchy until the white man came bringing peace, law, order, religion, and a 'higher' form of civilization, Achebe showed how Africans led decent, moral lives in well-regulated societies that placed strict legal and religious constraints on human behavior. Indeed, according to Achebe, things did not fall apart in Africa until Europe intruded and set everything off balance by introducing alien codes which Africans were then told to live by. Europe did not bring light and peace ... it brought chaos and confusion.” Its educative value is clear, although should be met with reservations, but its value as a piece of art is a quite different question and one that is difficult for a reader such as myself who has been raised on Western standards of storytelling to appraise. Yet I will give it a fair shot and hope to if not throw off my conditioning then to at least acknowledging it as I delve into Achebe’s classic novel.

The novel’s first achievement is in Achebe managing to give some small sense of a tribal community living quite apart from the rest of the world and existing on its own social structures, tied up in its own heritage and fixed in a deterministic view of life where one’s fate is governed by blood lines and the will of the gods. Once one has a handle on this the dynamic between characters becomes easier to understand and more poignant, and there is an element of documenting parts of history that have rarely been written about by authors who understand it from within. Once the rules of the Igbo society become clearer, the trajectory of the story is fairly apparent and it is a matter of waiting for the imperial invaders to take over, pushing the Igbo tribe aside. Ultimately, one macho culture is replaced with another macho culture that has its own set of bad practices and this, while interesting to read, is somewhat limited in its explication here. One does, however, get a sense of the brutality of the tribe before interference from the outside world, and also of the ways in which the Christian missionaries brought about change. With their practices becoming outdated, Achebe appears to suggest that change was coming for the archaic structures of the Igbo tribe, one way or another.

Okonkwo is the absolute driving force of the novel and, as with the rest of the novel, Achebe writes his leading man with compassion in that he presents both sides of his personality, not just the good, which would wrongly paint the Igbo people as inhumanly good. So instead we get a protagonist who is as deeply flawed as anyone in the book. It may seem an odd comparison to make but when reading this domineering, macho leader failing to adapt to the new world I was put in mind of Tony Soprano (from the television show The Sopranos). Both are leaders of men who are trying to maintain order and uphold traditional laws specific to their own group (their extended family) and both are doing so at a time when their way of life is under severe threat. For Tony Soprano, the days of extreme mafia affluence and adherence to the rules of Omertà are slipping into the past; for Okonkwo, the spread of Christianity from colonial missionaries threatens the established religion and laws of the Igbo tribe. Both men respond to these challenges through violence and strict adherence to the rules they protect in a show of macho leadership. Are both dinosaurs who fail to adapt or is it the world around them, which no longer requires patriarchal leadership and traditional masculinity as it once did, or are they victims to a world that is changing for the worse?

Whatever the case, the world that Okonkwo once knew changes irrevocably following the arrival of the colonial visitors. As Obierika – friend of Okonkwo explains: "The white man is very clever. He came quietly and peaceably with his religion. We were amused at his foolishness and allowed him to stay. Now he has won our brothers and our clan can no longer act like one." Divide and conquer tactics are all too easily carried through as members of the Igbo who are disenfranchised by the old ways affiliate with the new Christian missionaries, leaving those too rigid, or too proud to adapt, fighting a losing battle: “Okonkwo was deeply grieved. And it was not just a personal grief. He mourned for the clan, which he saw breaking up and falling apart, and he mourned for the warlike men of Umuofia, who had so unaccountably become soft like women.'”

Now, to talk about Achebe’s style – the tricky part of this review. To a Western ear like mine the characterisation and story often felt painfully thin with just too little of substance to keep me engaged. I write this with some hesitance as it is difficult to say if it is a result of Achebe drawing on literary traditions I am unfamiliar with, whether I am simply missing something that others enjoy – after all, Things Fall Apart has been championed by many Western critics – or whether, in essence, it is badly written. It may be all or none of these but I can’t escape the sense that the book’s reception would have been somewhat different if it had been written by a Western writer. Which brings up the interesting question of how far one ought to take into account the author’s biography when judging a book’s merit. In this case, I would certainly caution any reader accustomed to storytelling that is traditionally associated with the Western canon when picking Things Fall Apart up. For myself, I found it overly simplistic in style and with very little psychological insight into any aspect of the story, which alienated me from the characters, ironically Othering their experience and making them seem quite apart from myself.

That might sound a fairly damning assessment of the book’s style but it is more a reflection of the narrowness of my own reading experience. Achebe does not pander to a Western audience – at least not in my assessment – and delivers a compassionate and balanced portrait of tribal life in a part of Africa as the continent was changed irrevocably by those from overseas. However, there will be many Western readers who, like me, put the book down and wonder if they’ve learned anything or enjoyed the experience. Achebe writes the heritage of his Igbo tribe that the newly independent people of Africa who might have picked up his book in the 1950s/60s would be inspired to feel pride and self-confidence in their nations, not as foundlings but as places that have a rich history far pre-dating the white man’s paternal malevolence. It is rare for art to carry a political message and maintain its appeal as a purely aesthetic endeavour, however, and I will leave you to be the judge of how successfully Achebe blends the two here.