Things Fall Apart

January 18, 2011

Finally, thanks to my Book Group, I’ve gotten around to reading a book that’s been a classic for half a century, Chinua Achebe‘s novel Things Fall Apart. The book depicts the life of an Igbo village community in Eastern Nigeria just before and during the first encroachments by the English in the late 19th century. It was inspired by the author’s own family history; his father was an early convert to Christianity, like protagonist Okonkwo’s son Nwoye/Isaac, and saw to it that his children got a good Western (specifically Anglican) education, though not without contact with still-unconverted branches of the clan from whom the boy could hear stories of the time before and during the transition.

One thing I especially like about the book is that on the one hand it presents traditional pre-contact Igbo society and culture sympathetically, on its own terms, as an organic whole which sustained people’s lives for many generations, and in which people worked and made friends and married and raised children and mostly supported one another, so that the reader cannot but perceive the overthrow of it all by the English as a great tragedy if not a crime against humanity; yet at the same time the white guys are presented as more clueless than malicious,  the personal tragedy of Okonkwo himself is clearly seen as resulting from his own psychological flaws, and the weaknesses in the old way of life are not glossed over, so that we can see how some people – especially the young (like Nwoye) and the outcast – could easily and authentically perceive the new religion and government as preferable to the old.

Coincidentally, the day I finished reading the novel the NY Times published an op-ed by Achebe himself, who is now a professor at Brown…

Now I have to read the sequel, No Longer at Ease, which follows the fate of Nwoye/Isaac and his own son in turn in the new English-dominated world, and Arrow of God, which I gather takes place in the same or a similar milieu…

I also want to learn more about the Igbo. What Achebe tells us of their religion fits in with what I imagine to have been the early history of religion everywhere; the way the people governed themselves, in a decentralized way with councils of elders rather than anything quite like the monarchical institutions common elsewhere in pre-colonial Africa, touches my interest in the history and nature of state formation; and having avidly tried to follow different countries’ experiments in democracy for as long as I’ve been able to read a daily newspaper, I’ve always been aware of the Igbo as a major player in all that (remember Biafra).

So. One more thing to take up all my time.


One Response to “Things Fall Apart”

  1. […] as I was reading this I suddenly found myself thinking of the precolonial society of the Igbo,  generally described as “stateless,” and depicted by Achebe and others as based on […]

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