This is my review of Things Fall Apart (Penguin Red Classics) by Chinua Achebe.
Although already a classic, this short and well-constructed novel deserves to be better known. The deceptively simple, crystal clear prose which lends itself to being read aloud has the power to bring alive, even for an urbanised C21 westerner, what it was like to live in a “primitive” West African tribe on the brink of destruction by the well-intentioned but insensitive and arrogant imperialist administrators and missionaries.
Without being in any way patronising, tedious or glamorising tribal life, we are brought to appreciate the humanity and dignity of these people, even though they do not comply with our cultural norms. We begin to understand the rhythm of cultivation based on the yam, the closeness to nature – there are beautiful descriptions of the different types of rain and wind, the complexity of the social networks which bind the tribe together. It is easy to identify with the variety of characters and their distinctive personalities and shifting emotions, very like our own. So, the sudden moments of barbarity are chilling as when Okonkwo, understandably frustrated over no longer being able to control events, is described in passing as drinking wine from the human head gained in battle. Similarly, the dominance of superstition- the sacrifice of twins and mutiliation of deceased infants to discourage them from returning, are shocking. Yet you can see how people essentially “no different from us” may fall into this way of thinking as a way of explaining or coping with events when they do not have access to “science” or “rational explanations”.
There are moments of humour, such as the fact that one may recognise an “ancestor” in a fearsome mask as one’s husband by his gait, but would never dream of admitting this – rather as a child might pretend now not to know that Father Christmas is really his father dressed up. Also, some of the traditional sayings and old stories are very funny and entertaining.
The book succeeds in arousing some shame and anger at the way in which the British undervalued, failed to understand and destroyed this way of life, and played a part in replacing it with a fractured, corrupt “bastardised western” culture which has led to some horrendous civil strife.