Things Fall Apart
Book Review: Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe
Reviewer: A. D. Konwar
It had been a long time since I have read a whole book in one sitting and then 'Things Fall Apart' happened. Read it on the day of Uruka and the Bihu will be almost over now, yet can't shake off the effect of this harsh prose. Achebe's characters are unapologetically human in their actions, grounded in their own sensibilities of right and wrong. The novel is not a preachy sermon on the 'greatness of ancient practices of yore' or the 'practicality of colonial civilisation', but is rather a critique of both and this is where it's charm lies. Set at the time when the Europeans were entangled in a 'scramble' for the exotic resource that was Africa, the novel, in subtle ways, documents the colonisation of the continent. Achebe's writing is lyrical, he is so economoical that this doesn't seem to be a debut work but rather the work of a seasoned novelist. There does not seem to be an element out of place but then again, this impression could also be because it presents an insider's view into a world that is still very much opaque and as such, mistakes, if there are any, are misted in the unraveling of the mystery of an African's Africa. His tone is neither diminishing of the tribal customs nor is it sympathetic. He treats them as they should be, without glorification or vilification.
Published in 1958, around the first strokes of decolonisation in Africa, the novel was a monumental reminder to the 'gentle crimes of the white man' of whom as Okonkwo's friend Obierika explains: "The white man is very clever. He came quietly and peaceably with his religion. We were amused at his foolishness and allowed him to stay. Now he has won our brothers and our clan can no longer act like one."
English, here, is just a vehicle for the train of thoughts and experiences that are, to their core, African. It does away with the pretentious pre-assumptions of language or the pre-assumptions of the culture from which the language originates and the culture that places itself on a higher pedestal as its language is used to describe cultures that it places on lower rungs. Achebe's writing strays as further away as possible from these notions and in doing so, writes in a language that is his own, rife with African proverbs and even ways of expressions. Writing it in English, then, is also some sort of poetic justice, perhaps, to the novel that ends with the haunting lines describing the white Deputy Commissioner's assessment of Okonkwo: "The story of this man who had killed a messenger and hanged himself would make interesting reading. One could almost write a whole chapter on him. Perhaps not a whole chapter but a reasonable paragraph, at any rate. There was so much else to include, and one must be firm in cutting out details. He had already chosen the title of the book, after much thought: The Pacification of the Primitive Tribes of the Lower Niger."
The novel, then, is not a story of Okonkwo and his fall from grace but rather a story of the tussle between two cultures at the crux of which, people like Okonkwo are sacrificed.
However, the success of Achebe's prose lies rather in creating a new narrative for later African writers to follow and expand on: claiming agency of their own stories. As he writes in the novel, "There is no story that is not true, [...] The world has no end, and what is good among one people is an abomination with others." He foreshadows the process of de-abomination that his novel paves way for.
The novel then bears remembrance of a time that has gone long by but its repercussions have come to shape our experiences. Being citizens of a post-colonial country, understanding the process of colonisation and how it had stripped us of ourselves is crucial to our being and Achebe's novel must therefore be read towards the same if not for anything else.
Arunabh Konwar is an undergraduate student at Jorhat. Their areas of interest are English literature, linguistics, film studies and sociology. They have previously worked under the aegis of Jean Drèze and Reetika Khera in rural Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand, and, have also served as the editor of the 24th volume of the annual journal of the Jorhat Institute of Science and Technology.
Things Fall Apart and other books by Chinua Achebe are available at NEthing