I finished reading this book almost a month ago and am only now writing it up. Why? First, life is crazy. We’re only a few weeks away from our cross country move – I’ve been in a flurry of sorting and decluttering so we don’t pack things that we don’t actually need. Second, this book is one of the most thought provoking I’ve read in a long time. I haven’t resolved all my thoughts about it; I continue to ponder. Let me fill you in a little.
Let me start with a summary. Things Fall Apart is a novel by Chinua Achebe, a Nigerian author. The novel is focused on a traditional man living in a traditional village… until things fall apart. Okonkwo is a wealthy man with 3 wives, a bunch of kids, a sturdy compound, and a very successful farm. He has fought for all this on his own strength because his father was lazy and, in his eyes, worthless. Okonkwo makes most of his decisions with the motivation of proving he is not like his father. An accident ends Part 1 and sends Okonkwo and his family fleeing from his village to his mother’s ancestral home to live out a seven year banishment. During this time, English colonists and missionaries move into the region, bringing it under their control. They bring churches as well as government structure. This structure is firmly held by massacres and unfair courts. In Part 3, Okonkwo has completed his banishment and returns to his home in Umuofia with great expectations of picking up where he left off – powerful marriages for his daughters, social status for himself. Yet things have changed too much under the colonial government and he is faced with a crisis: adapt or die.
According to Sparknotes (Yes, I’m well aware this is not the most excellent source, but I returned the book to the library and can’t spell on my own, and ended up clicking around a bit): “Tired of reading white men’s accounts of how primitive, socially backward, and, most important, language-less native Africans were, Achebe sought to convey a fuller understanding of one African culture and, in so doing, give voice to an underrepresented and exploited colonial subject.” Achebe wrote Things Fall Apart in respond to Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, seeking to give voice to the indigenous people he identified with. The Igdo people are portrayed as complex, full people, with the divisions and complications found in every society. This shouldn’t be noteworthy. Unfortunately in much of Western literature, indigenous people are not full characters but only tools used by the author for minor purposes – or worse, foils showing how good the main characters are.
Okonkwo is not a likeable character. Although Achebe writes beautifully – often poetically – the things he is writing about make me uncomfortable. Okonkwo beats his wives. He speaks horribly about others in the community and his family. He kills his foster son because it was expected by the tribe and he values his position most. Even his closest friend warns him not to kill the boy Ikemefuna but he does it anyway lest anyone call him a coward. Every action reeks of pride. Although he is the protagonist of the book, I have yet to decide if Achebe is holding him up as one to be respected or just one who *is*.
One element of the book I continue to wrestle with is the handling of Christian missionaries. These men sweep into the communities without respect for the established community structure. They enforce their beliefs without love – in one town, with a massacre. Achebe presents the missionaries as negative overall; though, I can’t gauge his opinion on the kindness they show the social outcasts. As a missionary, this book challenges me to be very careful. Our organization does church planting within tribal cultures, but from what I’ve observed and the people I know, we all seek to be as respectful as possible. When we have been rejected by communities and even martyred in the past, the response isn’t retaliation. We desire to see indigenous people first and foremost as real people living real lives within a real culture. The last thing we want is to forcefully take over, crushing people. And yet, we must be very careful.
I don’t have a lot of clear thoughts after reading this. But I do have a lot of thoughts! There is a lot I still don’t understand even a little, such as the witch doctor’s midnight hike with Okonkwo’s daughter Enzinma on her back. Many parts of the novel don’t seem to tie together. In that way, it’s more of a journalistic style – this is what happened, compared with a more story based novel. Maybe I just need to read it again for the pieces to fit.
This is my 4th book for the Back to the Classics Challenge 2016. I’m linking this up to category of Classics by a Non-White Author – follow the link to see other reviews within this category. And after this, I’ve decided to do a little lighter reading while we move. I’ll get back on my challenge reading this summer. Most of my book list is heavy lifting!