I found Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart interesting and highly readable not because the writing style made it readable and interesting, or because the content was gripping: I liked it because it was exotic and quite different from the other books that I’ve been subjecting myself to:
Achebe tells the story of the rise of Onkonko in society as a man who commands the respect of his fellow men and is a person of importance in the village. Achebe details tribal culture in Africa- the beliefs, customs, traditions and practices – are described in detail. To an outsider these seem caricaturish at best, and discriminatory and barbaric at worst. Achebe details them in a matter of factly manner that lends a pictoral, almost documentary-like feel to the novel.
This is in contrast with a novel like Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and several movies on the Tribal-African way of life that have portrayed them as barbaric and uncivilised. In fact, I think it puts Conrad down because Conrad focused only on the white men and the mercenary nature of imperialism, and neglected the impact of imperialistic practices on the Africans. Things Falls Apart seems to correct this anomaly, and gives a very realistic insight into tribal life and how with the coming of the mercenary missionary, things actually fell apart.
Tribal culture in Africa- the beliefs, customs, traditions and practices – are described in detail. To an outsider they seem caricaturish at best, and discriminatory and barbaric at worst. Achebe details them in a matter of factly manner that lends a pictoral, almost documentary-like feel to the novel. A majority of the novel focuses on the life and customs in Onkonko’s village and without venturing an opinion, criticises the tribal practices. The society is patriarchial and women are treated like slaves and regularly beaten. Men are brutal and judged on the basis of their success in physical conquests.
The novel ends on a tragic note with the establishment of imperialistic power in the village and Onkonko’s suicide after he finds himself helpless in a changed world, where his word is no longer given the respect it once inspired.
The story is essentially about the frustrations of Onkonko as he fails to imbue the same characteristics that he felt made him a success, in his own son Nwoye, and about his own inability to cope with change. Onkonko’s thinks of Nwoye as less of a man than his daughter Ezinma (“If only she were a man”) – leaves him to join Church. Achebe doesn’t bore us with his opinions; just selective glimpses into tribal life that let us make our own decisions. At the same time, Achebe is also critical of the missionaries and their means of bringing out a change of power – they target the weak, deprived and the outcastes, and build up numbers to threaten those with power. Divide and rule.
While I don’t agree with Onkonko’s values and his rather brutal way of dealing with situations, one ends up feeling that his society has made him the way he is – he took the only route to success that was allowed to him and made the best of his situation. At the end of the story, I ended up sympathising with Onkonko, fully understanding what drove him to suicide. For him, it was the only way out – a man as great as him (or as great as he thought himself to be) could never a live the rest of his life in helplessness and servitude.