Reviewed by Howard W. French
When it was published fifty years ago, Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart caused a stir for its revelation of something hitherto strange and unfamiliar in the world of literature: genuine African voices. Achebe was not the first African novelist, as he has sometimes wrongly been called, but his use of standard English to produce believable characters who inhabited a complex and authentic world marked two existing traditions of writing about Africa as evolutionary dead ends.
Before Achebe's breakthrough, there had been folklore-based African narratives, more entertainments than novels, written in English vernaculars that sought to reproduce the aural texture of African pidgins. The most famous of these, The Palm Wine Drinkard and my Life in the Bush of Ghosts, was written by another Nigerian, Amos Tutuola, and published six years before Things Fall Apart was released by Heinemann. Today it is hard not to hear a condescending ring in Dylan Thomas's praise of Tutuola's book for what he called its "young English."
Earlier still, there had been yet another tradition of European writers ventriloquizing what they imagined to be an African voice. The classic example is a novel published in 1939 called Mister Johnson, by Joyce Cary, a former British colonial officer in Nigeria. It is an ostensible tragedy written in a comical style with a central African character, the titular Johnson, whom Cary described as someone who "swims gaily on the surface of life." Two decades ago, an essay about Cary in The New York Review of Books described the book's lightheaded eponymous figure in terms that un-self-consciously echoed one of the oldest and ugliest stereotypes of Africans -- their inability to master the concept of time: "A fragrant breeze, a blazing tropical sunrise, a pretty girl -- such things so overwhelm him that past and future alike momentarily disappear."
In interviews Achebe has suggested that his book, which has been translated into some fifty languages, was written partly in reaction to the patronizing caricature of Johnson. Things Fall Apart, however, unlike Mister Johnson, is tragedy pure and simple, both deeply personal -- in the case of its main character, the excessively proud Okonkwo, whose Sophoclean fall is foretold by any number of omens -- and collective, as Okonkwo's society is sundered and then subjugated by the British empire's one-two combination of missionaries and colonialists.
However remarkable on this score, Achebe's first novel achieved far more than revealing genuine African voices. Things Fall Apart was the first novel in English to depict Africans who exist in an intricate moral universe; one that resonates with indigenous thought and values and concedes nothing, even in the face of the arrival of far more powerful outsiders. In place of the ignorant and superstitious "oogah-boogah"-muttering natives served up by generations of Westerners in literature and film, Achebe breathes life into sentient and articulate characters, people like Akunna, who delights in refuting a white missionary who insists that the Igbo divinities are false idols. "Yes," says Akunna, referring to a carving. "It is indeed a piece of wood. The tree from which it came was made by Chukwu, as indeed all minor gods were. But He made them for His messengers so that we could approach Him through them. It is like yourself. You are the head of your church."
Among the greatest qualities of Things Fall Apart is the vigor of its revolt against the everyday amalgamations and condescension that treat Africa as an undifferentiated wasteland. Indeed, without ever stooping to polemic, Achebe sustains this quiet rebellion on nearly every page. One way is through an accumulation of anecdotal detail. In passage after passage he remarks on differences both subtle and dramatic between the customs and laws of various clans in his Igbo ethnic group, and less frequently with references to the world beyond. Briefly, sometimes, he even resorts to wicked humor, yet still manages to be pointed, as in a discussion of alien marriage rites. "But what is good in one place is bad in another place," a character remarks. "The world is large," replies Okonkwo. "I have even heard that in some tribes a man's children belong to his wife and her family." "That cannot be," comes the incredulous reply. "You might as well say that the woman lies on top of the man when they are making the children." Achebe's defiance of Western contempt is married to a subtle but unmistakable appeal to Africans not to submit to feelings of inferiority, and this achievement is all the more remarkable for the book's utter lack of mawkishness.
One could fill a small library with books examining Africa's failings from the standpoint of economics, political science or even culture, which is usually taken to mean something that Africans lack. Things Fall Apart suggests a different answer. In a recent interview with the NPR program Studio 360, Achebe described the novel as "the story of colonial rule, one people imposing themselves on another people, who in this case happened to be the owners of the land. So you had a situation in which people come from somewhere else and say to the people they encounter, Everything you do is wrong. Your religion is wrong. You have no education. You have no culture. So it was that kind of situation, and it triggers by itself tremendous resistance." The complications from this wound and the manifestations of this struggle echo down through the entire fitful, shambolic and half-realized experience of a half-century of post-independence Africa, and as if by miracle, so much of the coming disaster is anticipated in Achebe's prose.
The full weight of this tragedy dawns on the reader late in the book in a scene where Okonkwo and some of his fellow clansmen are summoned by the district commissioner in the nearest city after villagers have burned down the white man's church after its congregants profaned their clan's god. "An Umofia man does not refuse a call," Okonkwo says. "He may refuse to do what he is asked; he does not refuse to be asked." The men are persuaded that their grievances will be heard, only to be brought before a colonial tribunal, disarmed, humiliated and broken.
"We have brought a peaceful administration to you and your people so that you may be happy," the commissioner says, adding a moment later as he announces their punishment: "I have brought you here because you joined together to molest others, to burn people's houses and their place of worship. That must not happen in the dominion of our queen, the most powerful ruler in the world."
For the self-righteous outsider, the entire encounter is about justice. For the natives, it is little more than a lesson in deceit and power. There are echoes here of the old lament often attributed to Native Americans: when the white man came, he had the Bible and we had the land. Now we have the Bible and he has the land.
In the words of the late Fela Anikulapo Kuti, Nigeria's great musician of protest and one of Achebe's legion of spiritual descendants, these modern institutions the white man has brought, from the statehouse to the courthouse, all ostensibly in the name of progress, but really as a means of imposing and extending their control, were but new "instruments of magic," ill-fitting, alien ones that African leaders have eagerly appropriated nonetheless to "turn green into red" and "blue into white." Indeed, the apprenticeship of the arbitrary and unjust begins in the wake of the tribunal's judgment of Okonkwo, when the commissioner's African messengers go to his village to demand payment of the imposed fine, secretly fattening the penalty by fifty bags of cowry shells to pocket the difference themselves.
What is most refreshing here is how deftly Achebe avoids the siren calls of neat moral conclusions that so often make literature of victimization unsatisfying. Tragedy and blame flow in two directions in his rare universe. "Does the white man understand our custom about land?" Okonkwo asks late in the novel. "How can he when he does not even speak our tongue?" comes the answer from a friend.
But he says our customs are bad, and our own brothers who have taken up his religion also say that our customs are bad. How do you think we can fight when our own brothers have turned against us? 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. He has put a knife on the things that hold us together and we have fallen apart.
Howard W. French, a former foreign correspondent for the New York Times, teaches at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and is the author of A Continent for the Taking: The Tragedy and Hope of Africa.
Books mentioned in this post