A milestone of African literature, first published in 1958, Things Fall Apart is an early, widely-published voice of Africa. Chinua Achebe paved the way – most novels about Africa until then having been written by condescending European authors.
Set in the southeastern part of Nigeria prior to the arrival of European colonialists in the late 19th century, Things Fall Apart follows Okonkwo in the fictional village of Iguedo, part of the extensive Umuofia clan. A former champion wrestler, through hard work and determination, Okonkwo has risen to prominence and influence in the village with a large compound to house three wives and his ten children. Proud, arrogant, flawed, he’s dour and mirthless, driven by the shame in his wastrel of a father who left only debt behind on his death.
Told in a series of relatively short chapters, Things Fall Apart tells of the traditions of the village, the clan, the people (the Igbo). It’s an insight into the everyday lives – the planting and harvesting of yams, the role of men, wives, children. Okonkwo has little time for his eldest son, Nwoye – it is Ezinma, the only child of Okonkwo’s second wife, Ekwefi, whom he favours. With her intelligence and strong will, it is she who Okonkwo laments was not born a boy.
But then, by accidentally killing a young clansman during celebrations, Okonkwo is banished for seven years to the village of his mother to appease the spirits. And it is during these years of exile that the white Christian missionaries of colonialism arrive in the remote villages.
It’s a fascinating insight into pre-colonial Africa and the disintegration of a society and its tribal beliefs bought about by the arrival of Europeans looking to ‘save’ the Igbo. Achebe looks to colonialism and traditional culture, animism and christianity, male and female, masculine and feminine as Okonkwo falls from grace, unable to prevent change through sheer force. Even Nwoye converts to christianity.
One could almost write a whole chapter on him [Okonkwo]. 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. So writes the (European) Commissioner at the end of Things Fall Apart, dismissing not just the man, but a culture, a way of life in a few final words. Luckily, we had Achebe, who wrote more than a whole chapter, providing the perspective of Okonkwo and his people.