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Things Fall Apart

August 12, 2009

Things Fall Apart

I just finished reading Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe, a Nigerian born scholar and author. “Things Fall Apart,” Achebe’s debut novel in 1958, is considered one of the greatest African novels ever written. It is widely studied throughout the world and, after having read it, justifiably so.

“Things Fall Apart” is set in the mythical African village of Umuofia, a part of the Ibo people of Nigeria. The main character is Okwonkwo, a brash and hyper-masculine village leader, eventual outcast, and inevitable martyr for the preservation of his culture.

His story is set on the cusp of colonialism, when European missionaries just begin to enter African shores and “preach the Gospel.” We view life before their presence, witnessing the customs and traditions of this distinct culture, and we view life after their settlement, with the initial confusion and eventual assimilation among some people and resistance among others.

Achebe writes with a patience and steady cadence that illuminates the story and backdrop. Born after these situations occur, his language feels remarkably like a seasoned observer. The color, complexity and vibrancy contained in a fragment of Ibo life is told with a brevity that is powerful and inviting at times, yet shocking at others. Moments of communal happiness, like a popular wrestling match or festive holidays, are peppered with stories of richly historical and deeply mystical practices, like the appearances of the egwugwu or the belief in ogbanje children.

Rather than depicting them with stereotypical exoticism, Achebe writes with a measured level of dignity and respect. Even with the emergence of the European settlers, one never feels a sense of favoritism or bitterness. Instead, Achebe is carefully caught in the middle, a testament to his African upbringing and Western education.

Long after the book is finished, its words linger. Like Achebe, one feels caught in the middle, neither angry nor sad at the dilution of a once-thriving society. I expected my anger at European intrusion confirmed, yet am left feeling as if I just witnessed a love blossom, beautifully flourish, then end in “Romeo and Juliet“-esque tragedy. I resumed my position as an emotional bystander, only with more questions than before.

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