Sunday, August 28, 2011

Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe

Things Fall Apart

"Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold” is from Yeats's poem "The Second Coming". Fifty years after Chinua Achebe wrote this deceptively simple Nigerian tragedy, Things Fall Apart has never been out of print. It's hailed as Africa's best known work of literature and I can easily see why.

At the heart of the story is a strong man, Okonkwo, with an overwhelming need to prove himself--to himself and his tribe; he must overcome the bad reputation of his drunkard ne'er-do-well father. Although Okonkwo can easily defeat enemies he can wrestle, chop or kill; his stubborn pride and anger collide with and fail to overcome those aspects of life which he cannot so readily tackle: providence, family and tribal laws.

So much of the appeal of Things -- for me at least -- is watching Okonkwo encounter a traditional village. I was fascinated (and repulsed) by its customs, mores, and overall precarious harmony. The appropriateness of the title is in the extreme delicacy of that tribal balance which is rocked to the core by the arrival of the English missionaries. All that was as Okonkwo understood the world to be, changes with the introduction of Christianity and Western civilization. It is both a clash of one individual against his own society and a foreign power, as well as the collision of two diametrically opposed cultures. You don't often find so much carefully-contained conflict in a book of this size. Truly incredible!

Chinua Achebe wrote this masterpiece before most of the African nations had declared their independence. Since that time, the Dark Continent has been washed in rivers of blood. One wonders when, and prays for an end to, all the suffering. Such a sacred place and beautiful people; in many ways so like the Garden of Eden. Long live Africa! 


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