In 1958, the Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe published Things Fall Apart, a novel destined to become a classic of world literature, and the first African work to appear frequently on school curriculums in Europe and the United States. Many events are planned to celebrate Achebe’s achievement this year.
Things Fall Apart is set during the colonization of Nigeria in the late nineteenth century. In a pivotal scene, the powerful clansman Okonkwo is forced to choose between adhering to tribal tradition or risk losing face by succumbing to his emotions. Three years earlier, a young boy called Ikemefuna had come to live with him as compensation for a crime committed by another tribe, and their relationship has grown akin to father and son. However, custom now demands that the boy be executed and Okonkwo’s peers expect him to play his part in the slaughter. After one man strikes the first blow, Ikemefuna turns to Okonkwo and screams, “My father, they have killed me!” But, “Okonkwo drew his machete and cut him down. He was afraid of being thought weak.”
Okonkwo’s fatal flaw and, Achebe implies, the flaw inherent in much of mankind, is a fear of being ridiculed and ostracized. Achebe contrasts this horrendous murder with a second death later in the novel. After Okonkwo accidentally kills a young boy during a funeral rite, he is banished from his home village for seven years. That the deliberate slaughter of the first boy earns the community’s respect, yet the accidental death of the second merits hefty punishment, is an irony that Achebe lays before the reader with skillful subtlety.
Sometimes I wrestle with novels that are deliberately allegorical in nature, where I suspect that the author started with an idea rather than character or story. Although Things Fall Apart engaged me intellectually, forcing me to reflect on the human condition, it failed to fully move even as it shocked. Many disturbing events occur – yet it is similar to the experience of hearing a fable, or a family history recounted. Achebe’s style reminds me of other novelists whose cultural inheritances are based on an oral tradition, like M. Scott Momaday or Ben Okri, novelists whom I admire immensely but whose work I would not necessarily pull off the library shelf. This is purely a matter of taste.
Achebe’s supreme stylistic achievement is his tone. He maintains the same voice throughout, regardless of whether he is discussing the weather or a wife-beating. This infuses the prose with mild irony, and ensures that neither the fates of the indigenous Africans nor the colonists are sentimentalized. The suppression of the Igbo society during the colonization of Nigeria is not presented as an Eden being pillaged by the ignorant white man, but as a tragi-comedy of mankind stumbling upon itself, as though it had bumped up against a mirror. The Igbo and the colonists reflect one another across an un-navigable cultural and religious divide – both equally as capable of committing great good and appalling depravity.