Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Things Fall Apart

I always use Yeats' Poem "The Second Coming" to introduce the 20th century in my humanities class. It is haunting, and the students get it. For quite a while I have wanted to read Chinua Achebe's which uses the key phrase from that poem, "Things fall apart, the centre does not hold" in its title. I finally checked it out and read it over the weekend.

It's an amazing book. My comments can't do it justice, and I appreciate that it was short enough to read in one sitting yet I will come back to it time and again. Somehow he has combined a Western art form, the novel, with African literary forms. Somehow he makes us understand the Africans in a new way, to see that they had a true culture and were not primitive, even if they did practice what we would consider some pretty "uncivilized" and disturbing customs, such as abandoning twins to the elements and drinking out of the skulls of enemies. (the sad irony of the infanticide is that the staple food of many African tribes is yams, which are very high in Vitamin A and make women more fertile; twins are more common. I had this discussion with a Nigerian student last year and had read it years ago in Time, and he affirmed it.) No, their culture was not what Westerners would consider the best, but it was not primitive, as the abrupt and last sentence implies. What a way to end a novel; a literal slap in the face.

I especially liked the inclusion of African tales, and my favorite line in the novel was "Every story is true." Only a fiction writer would understand that line. Every story is not fact, but every story is true; every good story at least. We create a true universe, an internally true and consistent one, when we write fiction.

I also like that it shows, and I think legitimately, how some nationals respond to missionaries. I'm a huge fan of missionaries but I also know there have been some ineffective ones and ones who hurt the cause of missions more than helping it. And I like that it allows multiple perspectives. I am not a huge fan of first person narration because of the limited perspective; I tend to think many writers who use it are being lazy. We get to see inside the heads of characters I liked a lot better than Okwondo, the main character, who is acted upon by uncontrollable external forces but acts or reacts in a way that is true to his nature.

I am sorry it took me so long to read Things Fall Apart, and I look forward to a second read.

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