Things Fall Apart

Chinua Achebe

This is the archetypal modern African novel, and funnily enough it wound up on my list partially from Aaron Bady’s list of African novels to read before you die — posted in response to a list he found to be predictable. Of course this book is on the latter list, but I’ll be following it up with one of Bady’s suggestions.

Things Fall Apart presents a bit of a challenge because the main character Okonkwo is largely unsympathetic. He is strong and hard-working but also hyper-masculine and ruthless. He laments that his oldest son Nwoye is weak-willed and wishes his favorite daughter was a boy instead so she could follow in his footsteps, as his son likely will not. The first part of the book functions largely to establish the village of Umuofia and its Igbo customs — it’s a tight knit community yet misogynistic and sometimes violent. When a man’s wife is killed in a neighboring village, a young boy from that village is given as part of the settlement (in addition to a girl to “replace” the wife), and this boy goes to live with Okonkwo’s family. Years go by until suddenly the Oracle of Umuofia decides the boy should be killed. Despite another clan leader telling Okonkwo he shouldn’t be involved, Okonkwo joins them and ends up being the one who kills the boy. Without being there his son Nwoye understands what has happened, and the experience of this later becomes a key reason why Nwoye leaves his family to join the church. In this way Achebe shows how Christian missionaries were able to arrive in these communities and attract converts and gain enough power to unravel the existing culture.

It felt especially poignant reading this at a time when the news out of Nigeria involves brutal violence stemming from supposedly religious forces essentially seeking political power; there are reports of a large massacre that happened last week. The circumstances and scale are different from colonial forces, but the lack of respect for others’ beliefs feels very similar.