Friday, May 17, 2013

Reading group: Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe

Ann suggested this 1958 novel because her interest had been aroused by Chinua Achebe's recent death, and she remembered that it had once been suggested previously but, in our system of voting between two suggested books, had been passed over for another.

The book charts the destruction of a traditional native West African community via the tale of Okonkwo, a great wrestler and warrior, who, through a combination of circumstance and his own proud, hot-headed and uncompromising personality, moves towards tragedy.

Ann said that she was very aware of the status of this book in postcolonial studies, and its political importance in depicting from the inside a society destroyed by Christian missionaries and colonial government. She said she had certainly found the portrayal of the pre-colonisation community interesting, and there was unanimous agreement from the rest of the group. However, Ann said she wasn't so sure about it as a novel. For the first three-quarters of the book that appeared to be all it was, a simple depiction of the society and the history of Onkonkwo's life, and it's only towards the end that it takes on more novelistic form. John and I agreed with this: it's not actually clear for a long time that Onkonkwo is moving towards tragedy, so there's no sense of forward motion apart from the episodic events of a life in progression. There's also a lot of repetition - not only are there recurring descriptions of the rituals of daily living, but events already related are referred to again as if they had not been so - although Ann wondered if that was a deliberate borrowing from traditional oral story-telling. She said that it was only when she got to the very end that she understood the true project of the book. It ends with the colonial District Commissioner considering including a chapter about Onkonkwo in the book he is intending to write, or:
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.
It is at this point that it becomes clear that the book is specifically an answer to such colonial versions, and a redress of the editing of reality implied in that 'cutting out of details' and the unreasonable reduction to a so-called 'reasonable' paragraph. In political terms, this does justify the book's prolonged, sometimes anthropological but nevertheless intimate anatomisation of the life of Onkonkwo's clan. As Jenny pointed out, any society seems strange if viewed from the outside in anthropological terms (she referred to experiments that have subjected our own society to this treatment with telling results), and she thought that this was an implication of the book. Trevor pointed out that, although there was warring between the tribes, the number of people killed each time was a handful, as opposed to the masses killed by the colonising forces, making an irony of that 'Pacification'. This point is graphically  illustrated in the novel by the wholesale colonial massacre of a village in revenge for the villagers' killing, out of fear, of a lone white man, an apparition they had never before encountered, arriving on a frightening 'mechanical horse' (a bicycle). Onkonkwo is indeed particularly warlike, which has made him a hero in his clan, but he is untypical, and, crucially to the plot, village elders counsel him to greater restraint. John pointed out the irony at the end of the novel whereby the District Commissioner is intrigued by the custom which prevents members of the tribe cutting down a man who has hanged himself, yet has his own reasons for not doing so, rooted in just as much of a constructed convention: it would be 'undignified' and would 'give the natives a poor opinion of him'. Trevor would also later note that up to the point in the novel at which the missionaries arrive, the events could have taken place at any time in the preceding hundreds of years. The sense of stasis in the first three-quarters of the novel can thus be seen as a formal reflection of that historical fact, the long prior and undisturbed existence of the society before colonisation. Ann also noted that, as a formal illustration of colonisation, at the end of the novel the point of view and language change to that of the District Commissioner.

People noted here that, although clearly meant as a redress, the book is subtle in its assessment of both indigenous and missionary societies, making clear that it is the flaws or vulnerabilities in the culture of the indigenous tribes (most clearly personified in Onkonkwo) that caused certain of its members - the outcasts, those bereaved by traditional decree - to be open to the Christian message of the missionaries, with a consequent 'falling apart' of their society. And the dilution of the culture is presented as ambiguous: the elders and the first missionaries talk amicably to each other, teaching each other about their respective religions. By contrast, as John said, unlike them and unlike Onkonkwo's father whom he despises, Onkonkwo is no talker:
He had a slight stammer and whenever he was angry and could not get his words out quickly enough, he would use his fists
and it is this particular flaw of Onkonkwo's that leads most directly to his own downfall.

Ann pointed out that in fact, Achebe - as the grandson of a man of Onkonkwo's generation, and the son of a man who (like Onkonwo's own son Nwoye) had been converted by the missionaries - had been brought up in the Western tradition of the narrative arc, and she said she had read commentaries comparing this book to Greek tragedy. Once you get to the end of the novel it is indeed clear that, like a Greek tragedy, it  pivots on the fatal flaw of one man (Onkonkwo), which leads him to defy the gods. However, the incidents which lead to his tragedy, and to the preceding defection of his son to the missionaries, are less pointed than is usual in the traditional Western narrative arc, with consequently less indication (before the end) that they are indeed steps towards tragedy.

As a result, Ann said, if she hadn't been reading the book for the book group, she probably wouldn't have carried on reading, and I thought that if I hadn't known the political importance of the book, I probably wouldn't have, either. However, Jenny and Trevor said that they liked the book unreservedly, and although Jenny hadn't even registered the (in Western narrative terms) crucial point that Onkonkwo defies the god, because of the political importance of the book's revelations she thought it very important indeed. Later, Mark, who hadn't made the meeting, emailed to say that he had loved the book, and took it for granted that our discussion had been entirely consensual.

Our archive discussions can be found here and a list of the books we have discussed, with links to the discussions, here


Creaky door writer said...

Thanks for a really interesting account of your book group. I read 'Things Fall Apart' years ago and remember being very affected by it. Your post has made me want to read it again, even though some of you doubted its force as a narrative. Your book group sounds focused and fascinating - the one I belonged to always descended quickly into chat about children, and half the group would not have read the book. People did not listen to each other's opinions but weighed in with 'Oh no, I thought...' A good book group must be hugely satisfying. I am enjoying yours vicariously!

Elizabeth Baines said...

Thanks, Sophie. Yes, I do love our book group. It's especially gratifying because out of the seven belonging at present, only three of us are literary by profession, yet we do have really in-depth discussions. And it's always great (as a writer) to know how 'non-literary' but committed readers take books, because of course they are the real reading public.

Neha Shayar said...

I was looking for some other book at a book shop, but didn't find it. I had never read any African literature before. When I saw this book I had no idea about Chinua Achebe, but just thought of giving it a try. After reading the first few pages I knew that I have stumbled and a good piece of literature.

Achebe's style of writing is exemplary. He manages to convey a lot with fewer words.

The story is about the erosion of the Aftrican (Igbo) culture because of the colonialism by the British. Though Achebe is not critical about the British, he does feel that they did anhiliate other cultures and religion, and spread their culture and religion as the true ones. In this process, things did fall apart for many a cultures and religions across the globe and Igbo is one of them.

The welfare of humanity is more important and an urgent need than the spread of ones religion or philosophy, and the defeat of all others.