Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, now in 50 languages and 8-plus million copies worldwide, is arguably the best-known written work by any African writer … not counting Moses, the famous Egyptian, and his five notable books of the Old Testament.
Achebe in 2007 won Great Britain’s Man Booker Prize for a lifetime of work attempting to tear down stereotypes about African life – and in particular African life before the arrival of the white man.
Achebe finds himself nearing his 80th year with the world’s attention – he’s known as the Father of African Literature – and with a handsome 50th anniversary issue of Things Fall Apart from Anchor Books, a subsidiary of Random House. The work has stayed in print for five decades at a time when most novels have a shorter shelf life than a package of Twinkies.
Things Fall Apart tells the story of daily life in a Nigerian tribe, the Igbo, before its fall from grace. That fall, of course, comes in the form of white colonization.
Achebe makes a case for how Christianity and its European champions caused tribes living in relative harmony to abandon their customs and traditions. The writer believes this cultural unmooring led to the disintegration of Africa’s complex, well-ordered tribal societies and then to disillusionment, corruption and poverty. It’s much the same story as the tribes in the Americas, New Zealand, and in many other places.
This book is utterly fascinating. It brims over with small and large details of African tribal household life, religion, law, marriage, meals, conversations, codes of friendship. Achebe renders a fully realized world, ethical within its own codes. It puts a great lie to the savage and primitive portrayals of native Africans in Tarzan movies or in the fevered pages of Western classics like Heart of Darkness.
Achebe’s second-best-known work, in fact, is an essay that assails Joseph Conrad for his “thorough racism,” as Achebe puts it, in presenting pre-colonial Africa as blindly savage. The real savagery, Achebe argues, came when white missionaries began to dismantle a culture without a single spiritual care for the effect it might really have on the soul of the Dark Continent.
Things Fall Apart is rich in cultural revelation. Here’s a taste of Igbo life, with an introduction to the protagonist of the book, the hawkish, man’s man, Okonkwo:
… in the nine villages of Umuofia a town crier … asked every man to be present tomorrow morning. Okonkwo on his bamboo bed tried to figure out the nature of the emergency – war with a neighboring clan? That seemed the most likely reason, and he was not afraid of war. He was a man of action, a man of war. Unlike his father, he could stand the look of blood. In Umuofia’s latest war he was the first to bring home a human head. That was his fifth head, and he was not an old man yet. On great occasions such as the funeral of a village celebrity, he drank his palm-wine from his first human head.
If it sounds shocking, read on. Okonkwo and every other villager share lives bound on all sides by laws and customs, conservative and often harsh, but always strictly observed. The Igbo abandon all newborn twins, which they believe bring very bad juju, to death in the jungle. The tribespeople itch and twitch with such superstitions, and even demand human sacrifices at times. Still, in the context of Igbo spiritual belief, these acts are as orthodox as holy communion or the reading of the Torah.
Okonkwo brings to mind flawed Greek heroes like Oedipus or Hercules. The great warrior lords it over three wives and his children, flashing enough hubris to let us sense that pride and his dominating sense of manhood just might ruin him in the end. Still, like the best Greek plays, the inevitable path toward Okonkwo’s downfall packs such drama that it’s impossible to look away.
Still, it’s not always easy to look. Especially if you’re a woman. This is no country for old feminists, or new ones. Wives in the Igbo world are bought with yams and cowries, those little seashells, or with goats. Okonkwo’s three wives each cook a dish for him every meal, and they risk beatings for even small mistakes.
In the end, Christianity drops like a deus ex machina suddenly into the jungle. The faiths of the white men and black men come into a great contest. It will spoil a fine read to say too much of all this in a column, but I do want to close with one more idea.
For the Igbo, worldly events were governed by dozens of frightful gods. But we’re told the villagers believed in a greater god, above all others, and that these lesser gods are simply delegates for the One Big Guy upstairs. “We approach a great man through his servants,” explains an Ibgo villager to a missionary. “It is right to do so.”
One might think of Achebe, this novelist, in just such a way. He is a delegate sent to us by the lasting and immortal Great Spirit of literature.