It occurred to me, shortly after I began Things Fall Apart, that this might be the first time that I’ve read a novel set in Africa written by an African. At first I thought that this was sad but probably not a big deal since I am at least trying to reverse the trend now; but after thinking about it some more I realised that in effect this means that my entire literary picture of a whole continent has been filtered through the pens of western writers. I was surprised by how embarrassed I was by this realisation but it reminded me exactly why I wanted to take part in the Around the World in 80 Books challenge. With all this lurking at the back of my mind I begin the African leg of my reading journey in pre-colonial Nigeria.
Things Fall Apart is the story of Okwonko, the proud, forthright son of a man notorious for his laziness and drinking. Determined to shake off his father’s disgrace, Okwonko fights hard to rise to a position of leadership in his Igbo village, until he has a profitable farm, three troublesome wives, many children and an impressive reputation as a warrior. The first part of the book follows Okwonko’s rise, the second his sudden fall from grace, and the third the growing confrontation between his community and British colonisers. It’s this part of the novel that’s most unsettling I think.
“The white man is very clever. He came quietly and peaceably with his religion. We were amused at his foolishness and allowed him to stay. Now he has won our brothers and our clan can no longer act like one. He has put a knife on the things that held us together and we have fallen apart.”
The blurb on the back of my book (the 1985 African Writers edition if you’re interested) consisted of a quote from The Observer that contained a massive spoiler so I’ll be more tactful and end my synopsis here.
Okwonko isn’t a likeable character. He’s obsessed with proving his own manliness and is dismissive of men who aren’t as strong. He beats his wives, is cruel to his children and advocates war as the only course of action in most situations. It says a lot, then, that he’s so compelling. I was grateful for those brief glimpses of light in his character (when he secretly follows his sick daughter to the cave of the oracle, for example), even though he sees them as moments of weakness in himself. By the end of the novel, as he’s doggedly trying to prevent the destruction of his world by the colonisers, I pitied him. I felt like I understood what the community meant to him and why he couldn’t let go. Achebe couches this clash of cultures in very simple, unemotive language. In fact it’s the starkness of the book that probably makes it all the more powerful.
After finishing Things Fall Apart, I decided to have a break from the challenge so I reached for the shortest book in my TBR pile: Agatha Christie’s Death Comes as the End. I didn’t know anything about it at the time but the unintended irony of this is that I now find myself reading a book about North Africa written by a Brit. Ho hum.