Sunday, March 02, 2014

When Things Fall Apart

I first heard about Chinua Achebe in Mathrubhumi Illustrated Weekly's My Book column. It is a column in the Malayalam Weekly, published by the Mathrubhumi group, about one's favorite book and it is one of the sources that has introduced me to some great books. That time somebody has written about Things Fall Apart. I didn't read much about the story in the article, but I read about the author and his area of writing. And I told myself, native Africa is something that I haven't read yet. True, I have read J M Coetzee before, but the 2 books of him I have read, never told anything about the native African and his struggle. Chinua Achebe did that. And since then his name was in my mind.

I got my first Chinua Achebe book back in 2012 Bangalore Book Festival, and it was Things Fall Apart. But the reading had to wait. In the maze of unread books I have (currently numbered at 141) I forgot about that book, even though Achebe's death in March 2013 reminded me about it. Finally it was this last month I got onto it..

Things Fall Apart was first published in 1958, and tells the story of the great warrior Okonkwo of the Igbo tribe who lives in the village of Umofia. He is a successful man who believes that manliness lies in the tribal traditions of having more wives, more land, and more titles. And he has achieved them all by himself. His father, Unoka, was lazy and didn't think anything about tomorrow. He was a debtor and owned money to lot of people in the village. Okonkwo has seen his father and had decided not to be like him. With his hard work, he has acquired 3 wives, 2 barns and a few titles. But things starts to go wrong when he takes up the guardianship of Ikemefuna, a boy who was taken by the Okonkwo's village as a peace settlement offer with the neighbouring village. Initially Okonkwo doesn't like him much, but later he realizes that the boy is hardworking and truthful. Ikemefuna also considers Okonkwo as his father and had forgotten about his home. Then disaster strikes in the form of the decision from village elders that the boy should be killed. An old person in the village warns Okonkwo that he should not be doing anything with respect to the the murder of the child as he is father-like figure to the child. But Okonkwo joins the group of men who takes Ikemefuna to the jungle to kill him and at the unfortunate decisive moment , he himself strikes the killing blow, even though the boy is crying to him for protection. After that incident he is guilt ridden. And later during the funeral of a village elder, when his gun accidentally fires and kills a fellow tribesman, he is forced to go into exile for seven years. By the time he is back, he sees his village being partially controlled by the church and white people. He is deeply disturbed that this village men are doing nothing about it. To add insult to the injury, his own son joins the church and follows the new religion. The rest of the story tells us about how he takes on the white men and how it affects him.

The novel's beauty lies in the fact that Achebe has taken a situation, which may be unknown to the readers, and yet he has made an universal impact with it. The village ceremonies, culture, rituals, myths and customs are all existing within the African community that Achebe also is part of. Yet it is so appealing to everyone. Change the character names and some of the rituals, Things Fall Apart could be a novel set in pre-independence India.

Biyi Bandele writes in the novel's introduction that Chinua Achebe's great uncle who brought up his father was a person who had taken 'highest-but-one-title' in the clan, and was considered to be an important figure in his tribe. He gave space for the missionaries to operate, but later he sent them packing. Achebe's father on the other hand joined the missionaries and received education from them. Achebe grew up in a house where they sang hymns and read Bible every night, but he was also interested in his great uncle's compound and would often take part in pagan festivals of rice and stew. Achebe lived at the crossroads of culture, and it is from this he has setup this beautiful novel, which is largely the story about his own tribe.

Things Fall Apart is a novel, that can tear you apart, if you put yourselves in Okonkwo's shoes. It tells you the story of a proud but powerless man who is forced to clash with his own society and foreigners. At the same time it also depicts the clash of two opposite cultures. That makes this novel truly a great one. I am sure about adorning my library with more Achebe novels. You should too.