Darkness held a vague terror for these people

things-fall-apartThings Fall Apart
by Chinua Achebe

I first read this Nigerian classic for my A-level English. It was probably the first book I had read by an African author. Back then I didn’t have much to compare it to but I’m grateful to Linda, my English teacher, for introducing me to it.

I remembered this as the story of the arrival of the white man in Africa, and the effect of Western religion and imposed rule, but that’s really only the end of the book and not the main thrust at all. This is primarily the tragedy of Okonkwo, a great and celebrated hunter and wrestler, whose obsessive need to not fail like his father sows the seeds of his destruction.

Okonkwo’s father was lazy and died in debt. So Okonkwo makes a point of opposing everything his father enjoyed, such as music and arts, and becoming great at the things his father did not do well: farming, fighting, war. He has three wives and several children and is an elder in his village, Umuofia. Everything is on track to him earning all the great titles of his tribe. But his determination to succeed is his own downfall.

“When he walked, his heels hardly touched the ground and he seemed to walk on springs, as if he was going to pounce on somebody. And he did pounce on people quite often. He had a slight stammer and whenever he was angry and could not get his words out quickly enough, he would use his fists.”

The style of writing is simple, almost folkloric, heightened by descriptions of the religious beliefs of Umuofia, based as they are around fearsome monster-like gods, terrifying priestesses and awful punishments. There are also beautiful descriptions of the country, the crops, the weather.

My reread was coloured by the significant quantities of marginalia I wrote in the book 18 years ago. A lot of it is inane empty observations, but I was glad to see there was at least some insight. There were also highly spoilerific notes so I’ll have to remember to mention that if I ever loan this book to anyone.

Okonkwo is not without redeeming features. His relationship with his second wife Ekwefi and their daughter Ezinma is rather sweet. He counsels friends wisely and is a generous host. But he is too proud and determined to take advice in return. The gradual arrival of the white man is the final straw, changing the way of life that he reveres.

“He heard the ogene of the town-crier piercing the still night air…It was always quiet except on moonlight nights. Darkness held a vague terror for these people, even the bravest among them. Children were warned not to whistle at night for fear of evil spirits. Dangerous animals became even more sinister and uncanny in the dark…as the crier’s voice was gradually swallowed up in the distance, silence returned to the world, a vibrant silence made more intense by the universal trill of a million million forest insects.”

While Achebe certainly reserves some ire for the white man, the story is not as black and white in moral terms. Many of Okonkwo’s tribe welcome the arrival of Christianity via missionary Mr Brown. The narrow-thinking steamroller style of governance introduced by the Europeans has a clear parallel in Okonkwo’s stubborn refusal to yield ground.

The title of course comes from the WB Yeats poem “The second coming” (which I looked up when I was 17 after reading the excerpt that forms the book’s epigraph and have loved ever since). Though written in response to world politics in 1919, it’s easy to see why Achebe saw a parallel with his own violent story.

This is actually the first part of a series sometimes known as the “African trilogy” but I’ve never actually read the sequels. I think I should, because the next two books apparently go much more into the colonial period in Nigeria and its effect on Achebe’s Ibo ancestors.

First published 1958 by William Heinemann.

Challenges: This counts towards the Classics Club.