I hadn’t heard of Chinua Achebe until his death in March. I’d seen Things Fall Apart in the bookstore but didn’t realize its significance until I read his obituary. Not only is it one of the most widely read books in African literature, it is considered “the archetypal modern African novel” and is a staple around the world.
The novel follows the life of Okonkwo, an Ibo leader in pre-Colonial Nigeria. Okonkwo is respected because of his strength and his reputation as a wrestler, but his life has been marred by anger. Okonkwo has “no patience with unsuccessful men.” He seems to be a strict follower of his village’s customs, but his extreme intolerance of inaction and what he sees as cowardice ultimately leads to his downfall.
The title of the book comes from a Yeats’ poem that says “Things fall apart, the center cannot hold, Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.” In the novel several things fall apart – Okonkwo’s family, his village, Nigeria – due to fear, anger, tradition, British colonialism and Christian missionaries.
Toward the end of the book one of the white authorities says, “one of the most infuriating habits of these people was their love of superfluous words.” I found this interesting because there is nothing superfluous about the book. It’s a beautiful, sad, evocative story – part Greek tragedy, part cautionary tale, part historical fiction. I read the book, but I think it would be even more affecting to listen to the audio book, where you hear the correct pronunciations and intonations, but also because so much of this book relies on oral traditions of the Igbo people on whom this was based.
I bought my copy of Things Fall Apart at my local used bookstore. Inside was an inscription from Mrs. Bernstein to Marc. “This is a book I read in college, and I still consider it one of the greatest books I have ever read. That is why I wanted you to have a copy. You may be a little too young for it now but one day, when you have nothing to do in Texas, maybe you’ll pick it up.”
I hope Marc took Mrs. Bernstein’s advice and read the book.