Monday, November 16, 2015

Classics Club 18: Things Fall Apart

Okonkwo is a leader among the Umuofia clan of the Igbo, in what is now Nigeria. He is strong, unyielding and often unthinking, He rose to his position through his own hard work and in spite of less than auspicious beginnings - his own father was a drunk. In attempting not to be weak like he perceived his father to be Okonkwo often overcompensates, one of his main weaknesses.

The first part of the novel moves slowly but gives a good insight into the traditional way of life - some aspects of which seem almost idyllic (a communal agrarian society), some unusual (there are many superstitions which influence how people live) and some downright barbaric (the abandonment of twins and Okonkwo's treatment of Ikemefuna) - at least to my 21st century western sensibilities.

Things change for Okonkwo when he kills a clansman and, according to traditional justice, is exiled for seven years. While he is away European missionaries and administrators arrive and the traditional way of life starts to change. On his return he tries to resist incursions by the Europeans, but others in his clan are less resistant. In fact some - most notably those who were not as successful in traditional society - including Okonkwo's oldest son - are eager to adopt at least some of the European ways. Okonkwo ends up killing a European court messenger and, rather than submit to European justice, take his own life.

Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe, was written in English and published in 1958, when the African independence movement was really gaining strength. It was one of the first  novels by an African author to gain worldwide attention. It does an excellent job of highlighting the rich and complex ways in which African societies functioned before the arrival of Europeans. It also avoids the potential trap of simply negatively stereotyping the European characters either. While the District Commander is ruthless and cruel, others are more kindly and benevolent. Some even seem willing to learn a little of the ways of the Umuofia clan.

Despite being simply written and a little flat and slow in places this novel is well worth reading because of the fascinating insight it provides into some aspects of life in pre-colonial Africa and the initial impact of colonialism on the native people.

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