The Literature Book (Big Ideas Simply Explained) (2016)

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IN CONTEXT

FOCUS

Nigerian voices

BEFORE

1952 Amos Tutuola tells a Yoruba folklore story in English in The Palm-Wine Drinkard.

1954 Cyprian Ekwensi gains international attention with People of the City.

AFTER

1960 Wole Soyinka’s play A Dance of the Forests critiques present-day corruption through the nation’s mythological past.

2002 Helon Habila depicts a new generation living in Lagos under a military regime in Waiting for an Angel.

2006 Half of a Yellow Sun, set during the Biafran War, confirms Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie as an exceptional new voice and wins the 2007 Orange Prize for Fiction.

Published in 1958, Chinua Achebe’s slim volume of less than 150 pages, Things Fall Apart, is one of the earliest novels to offer a mode of expression to indigenous writers in Nigeria, and was an instrument in the formation of a dazzling canon of literature. This multi-layered story of a fictionalized tribal village and its cataclysmic contact with British colonizers in the late 19th century has since become the world’s most widely read African novel, selling more than 12 million copies in over 50 languages. The story told in Things Fall Apart has a resonance for all of the world’s traditional cultures torn apart by invasion.

The novel’s title is taken from W B Yeats’s poem “The Second Coming”, which was written in the aftermath of World War I. Yeats’s apocalyptic imagery of the world caught up in anarchy, and the arrival of an ambiguous messiah – some unformed, slouching beast – presages the novel’s “first coming” of white Christian colonizers who invade and break apart tribal cultures.

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The Igbo people celebrate different festivals throughout the year. In Things Fall Apart, the Feast of the New Yam is held just before the yam harvest to give thanks to the Earth goddess, Ani.

Nigerian reality

Early in Things Fall Apart, we learn that “Among the Igbo the art of conversation is regarded very highly, and proverbs are the palm-oil with which words are eaten”; perhaps it is unsurprising that some of the villagers of Umuofia are won over by the colonizers’ hymns and Bible stories. Achebe wins over his audience in much the same way, drawing readers into a classic novel with a three-part structure, compelling plot, and tragic hero, but infused with the myths and oral tradition of Nigerian culture.

When Achebe published his pivotal work, Nigeria was in a state of political flux in the lead-up to independence in 1960. He wrote the novel partly as a response to the representation of Africa in the books he studied at college. In 2000 he described how Anglo-Irish writer Joyce Cary’s novel Mister Johnson (1939), set in Nigeria, was held up as a fine example of writing about Africa, although native Nigerians saw in it an undercurrent of distaste and mockery. He also maintained that Joseph Conrad’s lurid description of natives in Heart of Darkness (1899) typified the racism endemic in literature about Africa shown by European writers.

Achebe’s reply was to write a textured, immersive story of the downfall of a traditional society – a rich, close community of Igbo people (formerly Ibo, as the novel refers to them). In place of Conrad’s indistinguishable hordes of black “savages”, Achebe peoples his village of Umuofia with vibrant characters that leap from the page.

Set in pre-colonial southern Nigeria in the 1890s, Things Fall Apart portrays a civilized society that has rich traditions of culture, commerce, religion, and justice. The people’s social courtesies and greetings – such as the breaking and sharing of kola nuts – the bargaining of terms of betrothal, and the importance of women’s chastity and obedience in this patriarchal society would not seem out of place in a Jane Austen novel. In Umuofia, life revolves around the seasons as villagers plant, tend, and harvest the crop of yams, observe the “Week of Peace”, and enjoy celebrations marked with palm-wine feasts, wrestling matches, storytelling, and songs.

A self-made man

The protagonist, Okonkwo, is a famous wrestler and warrior, a quick-to-anger husband of three wives, and the proud owner of a large compound. Having inherited nothing from his idle, cowardly, and indebted father – whom he strives to resemble as little as possible – Okonkwo works the fields as a sharecropper to become wealthy, building up the storehouses of yams and coffers of cowries that signify prosperity. His second wife, Ekwefi, is a tribal beauty who leaves her first husband because of her passion for Okonkwo; their only child, Ezinma, is a spirited tomboy with such an understanding of her father and the subtleties of village life that Okonkwo concludes more than once that she should have been born a boy.

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European colonizers saw Africans as primitive, making little attempt to understand their customs and cultures. The imposition of alien values and institutions led to profound transformations in traditional African communities at all levels.

"The white man is very clever … He has put a knife on things that held us together and we have fallen apart."


Things Fall Apart

Questions and answers

In Igbo culture, the wishes of the gods are passed on by egwugwu – masked village elders representing the clan’s ancestral spirits – and include brutal acts of sacrifice: these will become the crack in their culture that allows ingress and collapse. This may be a “land of the living […] not far removed from the domain of the ancestors”, but there are few who adhere as slavishly to the murderous will of the gods as Okonkwo. His warrior ideology begins to set him apart from others who are starting to ask questions even before the white men arrive. Ekwefi resolves to defend her daughter from the gods; Obierika, Okonkwo’s friend, questions the practice of abandoning twins at birth – “but although he thought for a long time he found no answer”.

The first white man to arrive in the neighbouring village of Mbanta supplies an answer. He tells the tribe that they worship “gods of deceit who tell you to kill your fellows and destroy innocent children. There is only one true God …” As the missionary’s converted interpreter struggles to explain to the crowd about Jesu Kristi, the son of God, Okonkwo asks if God also has a wife. The missionary ploughs on with an incomprehensible account of the Holy Trinity, which seems to be little different from the multiple gods of the Igbo tribes, and just as reliant on blind faith.

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Masks were worn by Igbo men for magical purposes during certain rituals, especially at funerals and festivals, or, as in Things Fall Apart, by the egwugwu to administer justice.

Two sides of the story

Achebe exposes the brutality of colonization, including massacres and imprisonments, but also describes the work of Mr Brown, a gentle missionary, who listens as well as preaches, winning hearts and minds by combining religion with education, gifts, and medicine. Okonkwo’s eldest son, Nwoye, is among those of the tribe who are drawn to the poetry of the new religion and moved by the “gay and rollicking tunes of evangelism”. For Nwoye, Christian hymns not only have the “power to pluck at the silent and dusty chords in the heart of an Ibo man”, but seem to answer “a vague and persistent question that haunted his young soul”.

The power of language

Asked why he chose to write in English rather than his native Igbo, Achebe replied that it would be foolish not to use a language he had spent a lifetime acquiring and one that could be put to active use as “a counterargument to colonization”. Achebe maintained that written Igbo, devised by the missionaries at the turn of the century, was a mix of dialects that had lost all the rhythm and music of the spoken language. The point is illustrated in his novel when the white man’s Igbo interpreter is mocked by the local villagers for his different dialect – his way of saying “myself” translates as “my buttocks”.

Achebe followed Things Fall Apart with two novels that form a trilogy built around the country’s turbulent half-century under British rule. No Longer at Ease, set in the period just before Nigeria gained independence, tells the story of Okonkwo’s grandson Obi, who returns from university abroad and struggles with ideals in a society built on bribery and corruption. Achebe then turns back the clock in Arrow of God, to continue the story of the destruction of Igbo culture in the colonial years.

Described as the “father of modern African literature”, Achebe opened the door to African writing in English. In an article in The New Gong Magazine, columnist Henry Chukwuemeka Onyema suggests that Things Fall Apart’s “singular achievement … was that it told us about ourselves through our own eyes”. Onyema describes the 1960s in Nigeria as a “literary ferment”, as writers sought to define the newly independent nation and to make sense of its contradictions. Among them was playwright and novelist Wole Soyinka, who was awarded the 1986 Nobel Prize in Literature.

"An abominable religion has settled among you. A man can now leave his father and his brothers. … I fear for you; I fear for the clan."


Things Fall Apart

Confronting oppression

Later generations of Nigerian writers continued to grapple with the aftermath of colonialism, civil war, and cultural conflict. In 1991, Ben Okri was awarded the Booker Prize for The Famished Road, in which a spirit-child faces down death to become part of the lives of real people. Women writers such as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie have also found a voice engaging with Nigeria’s turbulent political history and exploring the place of women in a male-dominated culture. In Adichie’s debut novel, Purple Hibiscus (2003), the narrator is a 15-year-old girl struggling to emerge from the repression of a patriarchal Catholic upbringing. Other writers have explored a wide range of modern-day issues – such as homosexuality, prostitution, and environmental degradation – from a Nigerian perspective.

CHINUA ACHEBE

Born in 1930 in the small town of Ogidi, southeast Nigeria, to Protestant parents, Chinua Achebe spoke Igbo at home and English at school. He graduated from University College, Ibadan, in 1952, and within 12 years had written the three novels that were to become the foundation of his oeuvre. Achebe married Christie Chinwe Okoli in 1961, and they had four children.

An early career in radio ended with the outbreak of the Biafran War. Achebe went on to teach in the USA and Nigeria, and wrote stories, poetry, essays, and children’s books. In 1990 a car crash left him confined to a wheelchair for the remainder of his life. In 1992 he became Professor of Languages and Literature at Bard College, New York, and in 2009 he moved to Brown University, Rhode Island. In 2007 Achebe was awarded the Man Booker International Prize for fiction. He died in March 2013, aged 82.

Other key works

1960 No Longer at Ease

1964 Arrow of God

1966 A Man of the People

1987 Anthills of the Savannah

See also: Heart of Darkness • Disgrace • Half of a Yellow Sun