Monday, March 19, 2018

Something Old

Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, we recommend "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something Old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published four or more years ago.

“THINGS FALL APART” by Chinua Achebe (first published 1958)


            There may be some diligent readers who are methodical in the way they approach books. Settling upon a particular subject, they will, like good students, systematically read their way through all the books they can find on that subject until they are really well-informed about it.

I confess that, much as I aspire to read that way, I have never (except when pursuing academic degrees or researching books of my own) been that sort of reader. The key to my reading life has always been serendipity. One book leads to another without system or order.

Consider how I got to read Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. As you can see from earlier postings, I had read Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. I was aware that Chinua Achebe was an African writer who had criticised Conrad for his perceived “racism”, but this did not lead me to read Achebe’s Things Fall Apart at once. Instead I read another novel set in Africa, the American Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible. This in turn led me to think about my woeful ignorance of Africa (which I have never visited). I also reflected that just about every book I had read about Africa had been written by a white person. This was certainly true of the ones upon which I had commented on this blog, ranging from John Buchan’s antique racist fantasy Prester John to Paul Theroux’s travel book The Last Train to Zona Verde and his novel The Lower River, to the British historian Martin Meredith’s account of post-colonial Africa, The State of Africa.

So at last my brain told me it was time to read a novel about Africa by a black African writer.

Where better to start than Things Fall Apart? Since it was first published in 1958, Things Fall Apart has been described repeatedly as the first real novel by an African of the modern era. This may not be strictly true (some of Achebe’s fellow Nigerians published novels in the earlier 1950s, such as Amos Tutuola’s The Palm-Wine Drinkard); but it is true that Things Fall Apart has outsold, worldwide, all other African novels and has had a greater impact than any other, often suffering the dubious fate of being taught as a school text. Chinua Achebe (1930-2013) wrote it when he was in his twenties and when he had for some years been working as a teacher and a broadcaster for the (British colonial) Nigerian radio service. Drawing its title from Yeats’ “The Second Coming” (“Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world”), the novel concerns itself with the impact of colonialism on a traditional African society in the late nineteenth century, and the disintegration of that traditional society. For nearly two-thirds of its length, this short novel (c.150 pages in Penguin Modern Classics) depicts pre-colonial Igbo village life. (The novel was written when “Igbo” was written as “Ibo”, so the people are referred to as “Ibo” in the novel.) Only in the last third do first British Christian missionaries, then British colonial administrators, arrive and the society falls apart.

To speak of “plot” in the conventional sense is pointless. Things Fall Apart presents a situation rather than a plot. Its protagonist Okinkwo is a “big man” in an Igbo clan comprising nine villages. He has proven his prowess as a wrestler and as a warrior, he is prosperous and he has three wives. But when he unintentionally kills a younger member of his clan, he is (at the end of the novel’s long first part) cast out of his home village of Umuofia and banished for seven years to another village. When he returns to Umuofia after seven years, Christian missionaries have arrived and are beginning to make an impact. Traditional Igbo society is under threat. I’m sure it had no influence on Chinua Achebe, but this structure is a little like Washington Irving’s satirical tale Rip Van Winkle. Man disappears from a society for years and returns to find how it has changed.

The most striking thing about Things Fall Apart is the way Achebe does not fall into the trap of sentimentalising or idealising pre-European Igbo society. This is not a novel pitting noble African against exploitative European, though its implicit condemnation of colonialism is clear. Igbo society is presented warts and all, and this goes for the way the protagonist, Okonkwo himself, is such a flawed and unsympathetic character. We are early told that he is ashamed of his lazy and improvident father: “He was a man of action, a man of war. Unlike his father he could stand the look of human blood. In Umuofia’s latest war he was the first to bring home a human head. That was his fifth head; and he was not an old man yet. On great occasions such as the funeral of a village celebrity he drank his palm-wine from his first human head.”(Chapter 2) Further “he was possessed by the fear of his father’s contemptible life and shameful death.”(Chapter 3) What is weak is womanly. Okinkwo is aggressive, violent and ambitious: “His life had been ruled by a great passion – to become one of the lords of the clan. That had been his life-spring. And he had all but achieved it. Then everything had been broken. He had been cast out of his clan like a fish on to a dry, sandy beach, panting.” (Chapter 14)

To the probable annoyance of many Western feminists, the traditional Igbo society is very patriarchal with very strictly-defined gender roles (a reminder that an evil white patriarchy is not the cause of all the troubles in the world). It is true that women have roles as soothsayers and prophets, but even so, the strength of men is what dominates the clan. At one point, Okinkwo muses:

He wanted him [his son] to be a prosperous man, having enough in his barn to feed the ancestors with regular sacrifices. And so he was always happy when he heard him grumbling about women. That showed that in time he would be able to control his women-folk. No matter how prosperous a man was, if he was unable to rule his women and his children (and especially his women) he was not really a man. He was like the man in the song who had ten and one wives and not enough soup for his foo-foo.” (Chapter 7)

Okinkwo himself beats his youngest wife during what is supposed to be the village’s ritual the “week of peace” (Chapter 4). Later he almost kills her while fooling around with a firearm. This set of attitudes persists to the very end of the novel, where “Okinkwo was deeply grieved. And it was not just a personal grief. He mourned for the clan, whch he saw breaking up and falling apart, and he mourned for the warlike men of Umuofia, who had so unaccountably become soft like women.” (Chapter 21)

In much of the novel, Achebe gives us what amount to neutral anthropological observations of the customs of this society, such as the dramatisation of hagglings over a “bride price” or dowry (Chapter 8); or the full account of the ceremonial acceptance of a bride into a family (Chapter 12); or the detailed description of an Igbo funeral (Chapter 13). Yet customs include the right of elders to condemn to death those who do not fit in. Okinkwo obeys the edict of elders and particpates in the killing of his adoptive son Ikemefuna. When one wife keeps giving birth to children who die in infancy, the medicine man who investigates says, as according to tribal beliefs, that they are evil spirits who will keep getting reborn in human form. So he mutilates the corpse of the newly-dead child and drags it into the “evil forest” to prevent it from rising again. It is taken for granted that twins are evil, so newborn twins are taken to the forest and killed. This is a complex and cohesive society. It is not a Utopian daydream of harmony with nature or a vision of pre-industrial Arcadian bliss.

Despite the power of a strong religious code, it is also plain that there are sceptics in this society, even before the colonising whites arrive. Not all Igbo accept credulously what the elders and the medicine man prescribe. They are grown-up human beings. In one interesting chapter (Chapter 11) a mother, Ekwefi,  defies the orders of the formidable female prophet Chiela and follows her to the secret place where she is taking her baby. Fear of magic has only so much of a hold over parental feelings. When Okwonko is banished from the village because of accidentally killing a member of the clan, the wise elder Obierika reflects:

Obierika was a man who thought about things. When the will of the goddess had been done, he sat down in his obi and mourned his friend’s calamity. Why should a man suffer so grievously for an offence he had committed inadvertently? But although he thought for a long time he found no answer. He was merely led into greater complexities. He remembered his wife’s twin children, whom he had thrown away. What crime had they committed? The Earth had decreed that they were an offence on the land and must be destroyed. And if the clan did not exact punishment for an offence against the great goddess, her wrath was loosed on all the land and not just on the offender. As the elders said, if one finger brought oil it soiled the others.” (end of Chapter 13)

None of this is designed to herald British colonisers as a “civilising” force. It is simply to show us that pre-colonial Igbo society had its tensions and dissenters as all societies do – and yet I do wonder if Achebe inserted these passages in part to “modernise” his characters and their sensibilities, and therefore to make them more sympathetic to the modern reader.

Even so, following Achebe’s own account, we can see why Christianity would have a great appeal for the less powerful and more mistreated members of Igbo society. When the first Igbo convert to Christianity, we are told: “none of the converts was a man whose word was heeded in the assembly of the people. None of them was a man of title. They were mostly the kind of people who were called efuefu, worthless, empty men. The imagery of an efuefu  in the language of the clan was a man who sold his matchet and wore the sheath to battle.”  (Chapter 16) In other words, as in the Roman Empire, those most attracted to the new religion were the more marginalised and powerless people. One early convert is Nwoye, the son whom Okonkwo despises for being weak, cowardly and womanly. Another is a pregnant woman who has been through the experience of having her twins killed according to tribal custom.

Achebe is aware that not all Christian missionaries are equally destructive. (As the son of Christian parents who acted as evangelists for the Anglican church, Achebe understood the attractions and complexities of the new faith system.) Brown, the first white missionary to attempt to evangelise Umuofia, is a temperate man who discusses the local religion with the “big men” of the clan, and they get to ask awkward questions comparing their theology with his theology. Brown is genuinely interested in the local culture and does not encourage any frontal attack on the unconverted by his more zealous converts. Brown’s ideal form of evangelisation is what would later be called “inculturation”. But the parson who replaces him, Smith, is more intransigent, preaching hellfire, damning all heathenism and encouraging confrontations which end in tragedy and bloodshed. And the missionaries are backed up by colonial courts which use force, and judge by European laws and customs rather than local ones.

Achebe’s case is not that colonialism and the new religion destroyed an ideal society. Far from it. His case is that it that they destroyed a complex and functioning society with its own faith, justice system and coherence. It is this destruction of coherence, where “things fall apart”, that is his main critique of Christianity. Late in the novel, an elder says of the new religion: “I fear for you young people because you do not understand how strong is the bond of kinship. You do not know what it is to speak with one voice. And what is the result? An abominable religion has settled among you. A man can now leave his father and his brothers. He can curse the gods of his father and his ancestors, like a hunter’s dog that suddenly goes mad and turns on his master. I fear for you; I fear for the clan.” (Chapter 19)

If I were to pick out one scene in this novel that epitomises the whole, it would be in Chapter 10, where there is an account of how the “spirits” of the tribe appear before the assembled population of the village in order to solve a dispute. Both the author and some observant members of the tribe are aware that these are simply elders dressed up in masks and paint; and yet these elders do mete out a pefectly reasonable form of justice. This potent scene reveals Achebe’s method and purpose. The “spirits” may be mummery, but they are still a force for tribal coherence – and that is what is destroyed by the colonisers.

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