I keep telling authors that if they want me to read their fifty-year-old classic novels, all they have to do is win an international literary award for a lifetime’s achievement. Fortunately Chinua Achebe recently saw the sense in this policy and won the second Man Booker International Prize, so I’ve responded by finally getting around to reading his 1958 debut novel, Things Fall Apart. (Now Doris Lessing, get your finger out for god’s sake, and don’t make me come over there.)
The book gives us, say the blurb and reviews I’ve read, an insight into white colonisation of Africa from the native’s perspective (Achebe has been critical of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness). But in fact this only happens in the last 50 pages of the book: though as the novel is only 150 pages long, that accounts for a third of it.
Before that the book is divided in two. The first third or so is dedicated to Okonkwo, a warrior and clansman of the Ibo people in Nigeria (Achebe’s own origins). Okonkwo is a larger-than-life character, and not always a likeable one. He “had no patience with unsuccessful men” and believes that “to show affection was a sign of weakness; the only thing worth demonstrating was strength.” All this he owes to his father:
Perhaps down in his heart Okonkwo was not a cruel man. But his whole life was dominated by fear, the fear of failure and of weakness. … It was the fear of himself, lest he should be found to resemble his father. Even as a little boy he had resented his father’s failure and weakness, and even now he still remembered how he had suffered when a playmate told him that his father was agbala. That was how Okonkwo first came to know that agbala was not only another name for a woman, it could also mean a man who had taken no title. And so Okonkwo was ruled by one passion – to hate everything that his father Unoka had loved. One of those things was gentleness and another was idleness.
All this is amply demonstrated when Okonkwo takes the flimsiest opportunity to beat one of his wives, and Achebe neatly compounds our horror by having the villagers complain about this only because “it was unheard of to beat somebody during the sacred week.” He also plays with our expectations of ‘primitive’ behaviour (“On great occasions such as the funeral of a village celebrity he drank his palm-wine from his first human head”).
Okonkwo’s savagery can come to no good, and he lives to regret his bloody ways when he does something terrible even by his own standards because “he was afraid of being thought weak.” However it’s at this crucial point where the steam suddenly runs out of the story, and Achebe spends the middle third of the book illustrating various Ibo mores such as marriage customs and funeral rites. It robs the book of its narrative pull.
Only when the white missionaries arrive, as mentioned above, do things pick up again. We are given a tantalising psychological conflict, and it’s fascinating to observe the slow development of the inevitable. If we didn’t already know it, Achebe makes us aware that one supernatural belief system is the equal of any other, and emphasises again how a white, Western point of view is just one among many. The closing paragraph, not incidentally, is one of the finest I have ever read.