Thursday, April 19, 2012

Review: Things Fall Apart, by Chinua Achebe

Things Fall Apart is a novel of loss and cultural contact. It tells the story of a west African village community some time around the turn of the last century, from the point of view of its prominent citizen, at an especially transitional time. The plot moves from the drama of local life to the drama of its disruption by British colonials and missionaries (evidently penetrating further up the Niger than the slave trade did). It's told from the African perspective in the vehicle of an English-language novel, which is an interesting contrast on its face. If it works as a window on traditions that are unfamiliar to most English speakers, that hardly seems to have been the intent. I don't believe for a second that it was written with the edification of the colonialist culture in mind, and Achebe's defense of writing in English includes his schooling and habits, and the fact that the native Igbo written form was drained of its lyricism when the Brits went and standardized it. The author himself grew up among the Igbo communities in Nigeria, but as a recognizably bright kid, quickly found himself moved into the European educational system. The novel could be a chronicle of his parents' or grandparents' generation.

It is a short, compact book. And while it's recognizable as a "novel," the happenings of the plot move on without a overburdening heap of western literary tradition. There's not much in the way of foreshadowing, for example, and no quasi-scientific psychological churnings, but the actions make sense both in the context of the setting, as well as in a broader human one. You can get a sense of an African storytelling tradition in there (or at least to the extent I've been exposed to it--this amounts to some folktales I read in grade school and since, and some writers who were enchanted by them), and the early characterization runs short and sweet like that, introducing the outlines of the characters, and then filling up the narrative with story elements that illustrate their traits. In that sense, the people often feel like archetypes, but if they are, they are not simple ones, and there is not a lack of depth to them. It is just revealed simply, which is a powerful thing to pull off.

The story is told in two broad parts. The first is the rise and fall of Okonkwo, the protagonist, within his own community. Okonkwo is a fairly complicated man with any number of uneasy conflicts at his core (that could certainly offer plenty of material for agonizing psychoanalysis were this a different kind of book). The product of a difficult childhood, he rebels by becoming ten times the man that he felt his father was, which brings him relentlessly close to tradition, and perpetually on the verge of violence. His anger, his work ethic, and his discipline conflict with his actual affections, and if he makes some progress toward reconciliation, it takes an arbitrary loss to bring him down the first time. I'd describe the first half of the novel as a tale about the costs of ambition and the fragility of success.

Against a cultural invasion that has grown in momentum (and force) during his exile, however, Okonkwo finds he is much less well prepared. Missing some expected literary tells, I didn't quite predict the dramatic arc, making the climax that much more unexpected, even as, looking back (starting with the title, so maybe there's one cue, duh), it seems inevitable. But until Okonkwo meets the new authorities, the culture shock is delivered in the second half of the book in small, relentless sparks. I was reminded suddenly at the end that Achebe had been gauging the story for its moral impact as well, and it hit me like a hammer.

The sometimes fable-like quality of the telling lends to that feeling of universality. Transporting the reader to a less modern setting seems like it can be a perilous exercise, one that can lurch into spectacle, judgement, piety, or insincerity, but Achebe avoids all this. Tribal life is different from mine, but it's given matter-of-factly, on its own terms, with obvious room for joy, loss, failure, decency, deceit, frustration, respect, and so on: all the range of human drama that we will find anywhere. The author doesn't really romanticize the culture left behind (there is surely sadness and fondness in the memory, but it's implicit) or brought in (there are good and bad missionaries too, also trending toward archetype), and although the mind and motives of the African characters is accessible, they don't betray modern thinking at moments convenient to the plot (like you might get in any number of mediocre speculative fiction novels).

If it seems a little sacrilegious to compare it to sf, please bear with me: it is the genre with which I usually associate stories of first contact and (you might blame Tolkien for this one) decline of an older, more firmly rooted culture. It's full of writers that try very hard to represent the subversion of different societies, with wildly mixed results. It's enough to get a sense for just how bloody hard it is to develop an understanding that is both accessible to a wide audience and which comes off as authentic. I found myself brewing up similar comments for this review, for example, as I did about Mission Child, also impressed at the skill it took to present an intimate portrait from the point of view of the invaded, but someone like McHugh has exceptional works like this one in her canon to draw from. Achebe's not inventing the world he writes about, and is instead portraying directly his own experiences of two cultures, living in one, and remembering the other with humanity and regret.

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