Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe

Never mind Athens and Rome, the birthplace of civilization is Africa. This venerable continent’s history goes back further than any other. Sadly, our first thoughts of Africa too often conjure up images of bloodshed, conflict, and poverty – it’s easy for Westerners to believe there is little humanity in Africa.

The AbeBooks’ Avid Reader Book Club has chosen to read Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe this September. The book is heralded as a seminal work of African culture - literature written by and for the African people. At first glance, it’s a tragedy, but under the surface the novel holds the beginning of understanding a great future for the human race. The storyline follows an Ibo community in Nigeria and one man’s struggle to accept British rule.

It was 50 years ago this year that Achebe’s masterpiece, Things Fall Apart, was published and it is now considered the birth of African literature. Before Achebe, novels about Africa were largely confined to Western views and opinions. Joseph Conrad’s The Heart of Darkness and Joyce Cary’s Mister Johnson are examples of colonial Western views of Africa. The title of Things Fall Apart comes from Yeats’ poem The Second Coming. This ominous poem describes the inhuman world about to be born and quickly sets the tone for this novel.

Chinua Achebe, an Ibo Nigerian, wrote Things Fall Apart when Nigeria was still ruled by Britain. Two years after it was published in 1958, Nigeria gained independence after enduring almost 60 years of colonial government. As a Christian growing up in a traditional African culture, Achebe’s experiences feature prominently in his novels, which focus on the traditions of Ibo society, the effect of Christianity, and the clash of values during and after the colonial era.

Reading the novel, it’s easy to become caught up in the story. Okonkwo, an Ibo man and a leader in his community, struggles to deal with his own fatal flaw and from the first paragraph one knows this novel will not have a happy Hollywood ending. My first reservations, that it would be difficult to read and an emotionally heavy novel, were quickly laid to rest. While the story is powerful, it doesn’t offer the intense bloody descriptions many modern books rely on to keep readers interested. Achebe, no doubt drawing from the Ibo oral culture, depicts the despair, trials, and tragedies of his characters without resorting to shock value. I found his writing brings a higher emotional connection and understanding to the characters than would be possible with detailed grisly scenes.

The novel is a tragedy but yet it held, for me at least, a lesson still relevant 50 years on. In our world, where so many people and countries believe they are the ones in the right, Achebe guides us to think about tolerance in order to move on to a brighter future. In the novel, the British conquerors were so certain that their way and religion was the right way – to save the “savages” from themselves. They felt they had to “pacify” this region of farmers and survivors. Okonkwo, certain the British could only bring bad times, could not endure to see what was happening to his community and the sacred practices that existed before colonialism. While there is no redemption in the novel, Achebe confronts intolerance from its roots. In our often uncertain world, perhaps tolerance is one of the lessons Achebe ultimately wants to teach.

Chinua Achebe is highly collectible and AbeBooks currently has several signed copies of Things Fall Apart. The novel has been translated in to over 50 languages.