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Michael Dirda
Half a century ago, Chinua Achebe changed the face of African literature.

By Michael Dirda
Sunday, March 16, 2008

THINGS FALL APART

By Chinua Achebe

Anchor. 209 pp. Paperback, $10.95

This handsome trade paperback honors the 50th anniversary of Things Fall Apart, one of the most widely read and beloved novels of our time. It's a true modern classic -- translated into 50 languages, taught in high schools around the country, studied in college history and anthropology classes. What makes it so popular?

First off, there's its plain, dignified English. Achebe portrays the Ibo (now Igbo) world of late 19th- and early 20th-century Nigeria with honesty about its sometimes harsh character as well as respect for its traditions. His mostly declarative sentences -- leavened with occasional Ibo words and phrases -- eschew the emotional, preferring to describe rituals and practices rather than judge them. Only at the very end does he allow irony into his story, and that, appropriately enough, enters with the white missionaries who gradually undermine the indigenous culture. But for most of its narrative, the simple, noble diction of Things Fall Apart recalls that of the medieval Norse sagas, which memorialize a similar world of farmer-warriors ("There was a man named Thorkil Thorkilson . . .") The closest modern equivalent might be Hemingway describing a bullfight. The novel opens this way:

"Okonkwo was well known throughout the nine villages and even beyond. His fame rested on solid personal achievements. As a young man of eighteen he had brought honor to his village by throwing Amalinze the Cat. Amalinze was the great wrestler who for seven years was unbeaten, from Umuofia to Mbaino. He was called the Cat because his back would never touch the earth. It was this man that Okonkwo threw in a fight which the old men agreed was one of the fiercest since the founder of their town engaged a spirit of the wild for seven days and seven nights."

Note how Achebe conveys a mythic, timeless quality to his small postage-stamp of Africa. "From Umuofia to Mbaino" circumscribes the known world. Last names are unneeded. Fame is achieved in one-on-one competition. Ancient heroes, who almost seem to have been known by the village elders, once tested themselves against spirits. Later in the book, the emphasis on folktales, songs, proverbs and ritual impersonations of the gods further connects the people to their ancestors. Yet almost from the beginning Achebe hints that life is changing -- some people are questioning the established ways. Why should twins always be put to death?

Achebe's plot is, for much of the novel, almost nonexistent. He describes roughly 10 years in the life of Okonkwo, his family and his village. Through a flashback we learn that Okonkwo's father was charmingly feckless, lazy and weak. So Okonkwo has made himself into a strong man, hard-working, hungry to acquire status, and violent. He beats his three wives (and even tries to shoot one), regards his sensitive eldest son with contempt, triumphs in battle against other villages (at special ceremonies he drinks from the skull of the first man he killed) and cannot endure the least display of what he regards as womanish softness. In the modern world most of these traits would be judged sexist or criminal, but it's almost impossible to withhold admiration, and sympathy, for Okonkwo. He conducts his life according to the absolutes of tribal law and the respected tenets of honor. He will not compromise, he will not equivocate. But he will suffer. And when the world alters, whether for better or ill, Okonkwo remains true to his code.

Things Fall Apart has long been revered for its imaginative re-creation of Ibo culture just before it collided with British colonialism. A review in the Times Literary Supplement spoke of the book as "penetrating tribal life from the inside." And yet it's important to realize that this isn't an anthropological document, but rather a work of literature, the imaginative creation of a sophisticated artist. There's nothing "primitive" about the author at all. Achebe was baptized Albert, the son of proselytizing converts to Christianity, and he received a privileged British-style education. He was working for the Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation when his book was published (in England). What's more, it was written in the language of the colonizers. (Achebe has argued that English is the lingua franca of Africa as well as the language of the world. A similar argument is made by the writers of India.) Perhaps only someone already distant from his native culture -- through religion, education and language -- could feel so strongly what had been lost. Not surprisingly, Achebe's second novel, No Longer at Ease (1960), takes up the alienation and confusions felt by Okonkwo's educated grandson.

Near the end of Things Fall Apart Okonkwo lavishly celebrates his imminent return home after a long exile. One of the village elders where he has been living rises up to thank him:

" 'If I say that we did not expect such a big feast I will be suggesting that we did not know how openhanded our son, Okonkwo, is. We all know him, and we expected a big feast. But it turned out to be even bigger than we expected. Thank you. May all you took out return again tenfold. It is good in these days when the younger generation consider themselves wiser than their sires to see a man doing things in the grand, old way. A man who calls his kinsmen to a feast does not do so to save them from starving. They all have food in their own homes. When we gather together in the moonlit village ground it is not because of the moon. Every man can see it in his own compound. We come together because it is good for kinsmen to do so. You may ask why I am saying all this. I say it because I fear for the younger generation, for you people.' He waved his arm where most of the young men sat. 'As for me, I have only a short while to live, and so have Uchendu and Unachukwu and Emefo. But I fear for you young people because you do not understand how strong is the bond of kinship. You do not know what it is to speak with one voice. And what is the result? An abominable religion has settled among you. A man can now leave his father and his brothers. He can curse the gods of his fathers and his ancestors, like a hunter's dog that suddenly goes mad and turns on his master. I fear for you; I fear for the clan.' He turned again to Okonkwo and said, 'Thank you for calling us together.' "

Those words "an abominable religion" seem shocking in the context of a speech so lovely and sad. Yet that is the strength of Things Fall Apart. Achebe shows us not only the beauty but also the cruelty of Ibo life, which included the physical abuse of women and ritual murder. He also presents Christianity as a refuge for the downtrodden, the meek and the outcast, even while describing how the church and the British government gradually emasculate an entire culture. The local district commissioner, with a racism typical of the period, actually titles his book "The Pacification of the Primitive Tribes of the Lower Niger."

While it is right that we honor a great work and its author, I can't help feeling slightly troubled by the overwhelming popularity of Things Fall Apart. I own a copy of the novel in a Heinemann paperback -- No. 1 in its "African Writers Series." There are 46 other titles listed (as of 1967), but who among us has read any of them -- apart from the other books by Chinua Achebe? Having studied Things Fall Apart in 10th grade does not mean we have done our duty to African literature. We may have vaguely heard of Amos Tutuola's linguistic tour de force The Palm-Wine Drinkard, or bought a copy of Ben Okri's Booker Prize-winning The Famished Road. We are glad that Wole Soyinka won a Nobel Prize. But beyond these names, and a few others, for most Americans literary Africa remains what colonial Africa used to be: a dark continent. *

Michael Dirda's e-mail address is mdirda@gmail.com.

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