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Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart was considered strange by the public when it was first published in 1958. Today, it has gained the reputation of a classic, and has changed the world’s perception of Africa. Read on as Dhanush reminisces about how he picked up this book, and what it did for him.
I first heard about Chinua Achebe in Mathrubhumi Illustrated Weekly’s My Book column. It is a column in the Malayalam Weekly about favorite books and it is one of the sources that has introduced me to some great books. Once, someone had written about Things Fall Apart; I didn’t read much of the article, but I did read about the author and his genre of writing. Native Africa was something that I hadn’t read much about then; I had read two of J M Coetzee’s books before, but they never spoke much about the struggled prevalent in the continent. Chinua Achebe did that, and since then, his name has been stuck in my mind.
I got my first Chinua Achebe book back at the 2012 Bangalore Book Festival, and it was Things Fall Apart. But the reading had to wait; in the maze of unread books I have (currently numbered at 141) I forgot about that book, even though Achebe’s death in March 2013 reminded me of it. Finally, this last month, I started on it.
Things Fall Apart tells the story of the great warrior Okonkwo of the Igbo tribe who live in the village of Umofia. He was a successful man who believed that manliness lay in the tribal traditions of having more wives, more land, and more titles. His father, Unoka, was lazy and didn’t have much foresight; he was heavily in debt to a lot of people in the village. From an early age, Okonkwo decides not to be like his father. With his hard work, he acquires three wives, two barns and a few titles. But things start to go wrong when he takes up the guardianship of Ikemefuna, a boy who was taken by Okonkwo’s village as a peace settlement offering with the neighbouring village. Disaster when Okonkwo joins the group of men who take Ikemefuna to the jungle to kill him, on the orders of the village elders, and at the decisive moment, he himself strikes the killing blow, even though the boy is crying to him for protection. Later, during the funeral of a village elder, when his gun accidentally fires and kills a fellow tribesman, he is forced to go into exile for seven years. By the time he is back, he sees his village being partially controlled by the church and white people. He is deeply disturbed that his village men are doing nothing about it, and to add insult to the injury, his own son joins the church and follows the new religion. The rest of the story tells us about how he takes on the white men and how it affects him.
The novel’s beauty lies in the fact that Achebe has taken a situation unknown to the readers, and yet made a universal impact with it. The village ceremonies, culture, rituals, myths and customs are all exist within the African community, and yet are relatable to everyone. Change the character names and some of the rituals, and Things Fall Apart could be a novel set in pre-independence India.
Biyi Bandele writes in the novel’s introduction that Chinua Achebe’s great uncle, who brought up his father, was a person who had taken the ‘highest-but-one-title’ in the clan, and was considered to be an important figure in his tribe. He gave space for the missionaries to operate, but later sent them packing. Achebe’s father, on the other hand, joined the missionaries and received education from them. Achebe grew up in a house where they sang hymns and read the Bible every night, but he was also interested in his great uncle’s legacy and would often take part in pagan festivals. Achebe lived at the crossroads of culture, and from this, he has set up this beautiful novel, which is largely the story of his own tribe.
Things Fall Apart is a novel that can tear you apart, if you put yourself in Okonkwo’s shoes. It tells you the story of a proud but powerless man who is forced to clash with his own society and foreigners. At the same time, it also depicts the clash of two opposite cultures, which makes this novel a truly great one.