Things Fall Apart: 50 Years Later
For many, Chinua Achebe’s classic novel serves as an introduction to Africa, but the continent depicted is now hard to recognize.
Thursday, March 20, 2008
Several years ago, while I was living in Arusha, Tanzania, teaching English at a local secondary school, one of my jobs was to teach literature. This was not as easy as it sounds. Our syllabus said we should cover 13 books. But in Tanzania, books were like bricks of gold, and they were stored in a room at the school that was locked up like Fort Knox.
Early on, I went to the headmaster and asked him what to do about this. In the end, I determined there were only two books that we could reasonably cover: Things Fall Apart and No Longer at Ease, both by Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe.
Things Fall Apart, which turns 50 this year, was a landmark of African literature. It was written by Achebe while in his mid-20s and was meant as an angry fist in the face of Western literature. Moreover, it was Achebe’s answer to Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. It told that story from the other side – the story of Okonkwo, a leader in his Igbo village and an important, powerful and unbending man. He was so unbending that when the white men came with their guns and Bibles and new ideas, he was broken by the changes they brought.
The publication of Things Fall Apart is often cited as the birth of modern African literature, and since its publication the book has sold some 11 million copies in 50 countries. The Chronicle of Higher Education wrote that for Americans, it is “the quintessential novel about Africa.” In fact, it is the foundation of tens of thousands of college students’ introduction to the continent, and forms many of our ideas of the place even today.
That’s fine, as is the fact that Things Fall Apart is required reading. But as important as it is, Things Fall Apart is a novel of the past. Since then Africa has changed so much and so fast that the amalgam of the world Achebe wrote about and the one we see today can be hard to recognize. These days, there are so many other great novels coming out that reflect the Africa of today: Graceland, Waiting for an Angel, Purple Hibiscus, and on and on.
I saw this in my classroom, even among Achebe’s two books that we read. Noble as Things Fall Apart is, reading it today can feel tedious, with its drawn-out descriptions of dances and ceremonies and other forgotten values of traditional Nigerian life. This wasn’t lost on my students. They treated the book with weary reverence, while staring out the window and passing notes to each other.
But when we moved on to the second book, No Longer at Ease, they were suddenly interested. Published in 1960, the book turns away from the past to tell story of modern Nigeria through Obi Okonkwo, the grandson of the tragic hero of Things Fall Apart. After coming home from his studies in England, Obi is poised to be one of the country’s new leaders as it prepares for independence. He is the pride of the village where his grandfather Okonkwo was once a great man.
My students were electrified by the story. This was a book they could see the point in. It was about sex. It was about corruption. It was about how to make your way through the quasi-Westernized world. It was a book about them: Obi won a scholarship. Obi went to night clubs. Obi fell in love with a beautiful girl his parents would never let him marry. Obi got a good government job – with a car! He was torn between the old and new worlds in the same ways they were.
Yet Obi’s story was no less tragic than his grandfather’s. When he first returns to Nigeria, he is happy in his new job at the Scholarship Board, but things soon get complicated. The bright young leader – quoting Auden and Eliot and theorizing about the evils of bribery – soon finds his debts piling up. And as he forges his own path in the same reckless way his grandfather did, he breaks both old traditions and new laws. Obi sinks lower and lower until the temptations and entanglements and blurry lines become too much, and he ends up becoming exactly what he hates.
Things Fall Apart may be a cornerstone of African literature and the book Achebe is remembered for. But Achebe’s second novel is infinitely more relevant to the Africa of today – the world of cars and dance clubs and hospital bills. Achebe may have written the great novel about the moment two worlds collided and fell apart. But the story of what happened when they were put back together is far richer, more complex, and a lot more fun to read.