Friday, April 25, 2008

A Tragic Fall and Culture Clash

Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe

I last read this novel when I was in high school, and I have to say, that while I was intelligent and all in high school, and loved books, I didn't seem to appreciate a lot of novels (okay, so I still haven't taken a second look at Bronte but I swear, it's on my shelf, and I'll get around to it). On the one hand, I'm sure some high school students will enjoy this type of stuff and learn from it, but I personally feel like I made several decisions about books based on my high school readings that were too harsh or ill-based. For example, I wasn't into Beloved in high school, but since I've read every one of Morrison's novels. I don't remember feeling all to passionately about this book one way or the other, but it didn't inspire any interest to read anything else by Achebe.

The reason I decided to read it now is because I've read two novels by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie so far this deployment, and I was very impressed by her work. Since she has been compared to Achebe, I wanted to see if the comparison was fair, and I figured if I liked her, then chances were I'd like his novels (not that the "a modern day insert-famous-author-here" recommendation is always a guarantee - in high school, I used to read John Irving, but couldn't even get through a chapter of Dickens).

I enjoyed it a lot - since high school, I've learned a lot more about Western culture and Christianity trying to impose itself on other cultures and judging their customs and traditions without thinking to reexamine theirs, so I appreciated that aspect a lot more.

Okonkwo, the protagonist, is not a very sympathetic character, by any means, but Achebe makes him seem very human. His father's poverty and drunkenness have made Okonkwo a very strict authoritarian who feels like he has something to prove to the world. He has had to work his way up in the world despite his father's failures, and as a result, he is always worried about others perceptions of him, and guards his emotions so he'll seem strong and brave. He beats his wives, kills a boy as part of a sacrifice to the gods, but through it all, while the reader might not approve, Achebe explains his motivations, and even shows his humanity in his relationship with his daughter Ezinma. He loves his children, and, at one point, there was passion in his relationship with at least his second wife (she is the one Achebe focuses on the most).

Given his focus on what is proper, it is of course inevitable that when he falls from power, it would be by tragic accident completely out of his control. No one blamed him for his actions, but tradition is tradition, and as a result Okonkwo and his family are banned from the village for seven years. In these seven years, Christian missionaries begin to have a strong influence over the area, and Okonkwo doesn't want to let go of the old ways. Finally, when a new, more radical missionary takes over, things come to ahead in the village.

Achebe never argues that everything about the old faith or old ways was perfect - after all, Okonkwo gets exiled for an accident, twins are seen as an abomination to be set out to die but there are many traditions that are worth keeping, and given time, who knows what would have happened. The whites, however, just come in, claim the land for their queen, introduce their laws (and their system is often more corrupt), and their religion on the villagers without regard for their traditions and beliefs. The white never actually wonder if maybe it is their ideas that are flawed or could use improvement - imperialism at its best.

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