The one word that best describes Things Fall Apart is ‘unputdownable’. It is the story of an African Igbo man who has taught himself to rely entirely on the strength of his arms – Okonkwo has had to make his way in the world and to fulfill his ambitions he believes that he must do away with all emotions and fight all the way to the top. To make his presence felt he chooses to be intimidating all the time. But when the British colonizers come to his village he finds that he has been made answerable to a system of rules that he has no intention of following. In his own society he can work hard to attain a position of power, but when the British become more powerful than the native people Okonkwo feels that he is on the verge of being stripped of his identity.
Chinua Achebe was born into a Christian Igbo family. But he learnt about the culture of his own tribe from the village elders. In the 1950-s the Nigerian people faced a crisis of identity – British colonization had changed their society so much that they could not go back to their traditional lifestyle though they wanted to disassociate themselves from British culture. Things Fall Apart (1958) explores how Nigeria changed in the span of about a hundred years.
Achebe wrote this novel in English because he wanted to show the world that Africa had had a rich culture long before the British decided to come and ‘civilize’ the ‘savages’. And for this very reason he had to incorporate the oral literature of his own people into his novel. The language is a beautiful blend of simple English prose and African oral story-telling. Achebe paints pictures with his words. A village that is totally alien to non-African readers comes across as extremely familiar. Okonkwo’s home becomes our home. In one very memorable passage in the novel, Ekwefi, Okonkwo’s second wife, tells her daughter the tale of how the tortoise got a bumpy shell. This passage is so rhythmic and moving that we can almost hear our own mothers telling us a bedtime story.
I read this novel recently and I feel that it has somehow changed my perceptions about language and literature. The most amazing thing about Achebe is that though he is writing a tragic novel he does not allow himself to vent any kind of personal angst. He looks at things objectively – he shows us the problems in Igbo society and how the British missionary Mr. Brown tries to solve some of them. In addition to this figure of benevolence and liberality, Achebe also sketches the character of an insensitive and tyrannical British District Commissioner. Achebe never tries to gloss over the dark aspects of Igbo culture. He seems determined to look at things as they are.
Book Reviewed by Amrita Dutta
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