Tuesday, 2 July 2013

Things Fall Apart (Chinua Achebe)

Things Fall Apart is a great book. It centres around the mighty Okonkwo. Living in a tribal village in Africa, he made his fame from a young age as a wrestler and a warrior. We see Okonkwo building his wealth through hard grit and taking part in village life in the tradition of the tribe. The village is steeped in ritual, and everything has a way. During a wrestling match which his son is taking part in, Okonkwo accidentally kills a tribesman when his gun misfires. He suffers the punishment he must, and is exiled from his village for seven long years. The time away is hard, and he misses his friends and tribe. Eventually the time passes, and he prepares to reenter the village. But when he does, he finds the tribe completely changed. Now there are missionaries trying to convert the villages to Christianity. Okonkwo finds it all strange and struggles to adapt to this alien presence that is slowly infiltrating his tribe. 

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

My thoughts

I enjoyed Things Fall Apart very much. Whilst I found some of the descriptions of African tribal rituals a little hard to get my head around, the whole thing was vivid and powerful. 

I really enjoy books that take me into a world that I don’t know and teach me all about it. They let me live someone else’s life. But for that to happen, trust is important. Although stories are obviously made up, I have to believe they could happen. And I did believe in Things Fall Apart. I trusted that the descriptions of tribal life, and the emotions felt by the characters, weren’t just flights of fancy, but instead described what living in that world was really like. 

The characters are great too. Okonkwo is a fearless warrior, a tiger, and a man. But is he a real man?  He has many manly characteristics. He is strong – physically and mentally. He won’t admit weakness, and has few words to say. He is often short tempered, sometimes brutally so, with his family. And he would die for his people, and his village. Okonkwo is an untamed warrior, a fighter, full of self-motivation, and ambition. He thirsts for success and victory. Is he a real man? Okonkwo certainly ticks some of the boxes, but not all of the ones we would expect from a modern man. He isn’t subtle, shrewd or patient. Okonkwo is a man of the past. And, for better or worse, the world is always rushing onwards towards the future. Not only does his village life fall apart as it begins to embrace Christianity. But even the idea of manhood that Okonkwo embodies is becoming outdated. And in the end, he falls apart. 

Perhaps in another world, Okonkwo could have been a hero. Things Fall Apart follows a similar structure to some of the classics. Okonkwo could have been an Odysseus or Beowulf. How would any of those greek heros, from Hercules, Achilles, even the tragic Oedipus fair today? They would be living in a world that rejects the very notion of their kind of man – and their kind of hero. In a different time, the godlike Okonkwo could have set the world aflame, as he shot across the sky in spectacular glory!

The final point

Things Fall Apart, but new things are built in the rubble. The process of creative destruction is brutal, and people, villages, identities and whole cultures lie in its colossal wake – a watery grave of things that the world rushed by, impatient to get to the next thing. Our atoms are built from stardust, and our culture is too. It is worth remembering that every single thing in our world – everything that we know and love – we have because other things have died to make room for them. But it’s also worth looking back from time to time and mourning everything we’ve lost.

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