Saturday, 30 March 2013

Book Review: Things Fall Apart

In 1957, Ghana became the first African country to gain independence, thus the beginning of the end of the imperialist project. As African nations found their independence through the 1960s and 1970s, it has been a disturbing time and Africa still struggles to come to terms with the scars left behind by colonial rule. Hence, in its stark simplicity and grand complexity, African writer Chinua Achebe presents his masterpiece "Things Fall Apart" that centres around the events surrounding the most disastrous chapter in African history. 

The book follows the story of Okonkwo, a village leader who becomes one of the most powerful men in Umuofia, his ancestral village. As Okonkwo attempts to rise from anonymity to recognition, he carries along with him the traditions that the village expects of him. Even though he faces hardship throughout the novel, Chinua Achebe demonstrates the cultural expectations and beliefs of this region that are complex and difficult to comprehend, but certainly more powerful than the Western world portrays it.

Okonkwo's rise to a powerful position in Umuofia also reveals the struggles of a man torn apart by a bundle of emotions and he faces these problems throughout the novel. At one point, Okonkwo breaks the customs of Umuofia, he and his family are exiled from the village for seven years. He is forced to start from scratch and he does so trying to rebuild his power and manhood back. Here, Achebe's novel takes an interesting turn as Okonkwo returns to Umuofia and he finds a village altered by outside forces. British missionaries have set up a church in the village and are trying to convert the villagers to Christianity. While many of the villagers convert to the new religion, colonial forces take over the political and cultural beliefs and customs of the region, and Okonkwo, a man rooted in the traditions of the past, feels lost. 

Instead of portraying the British empire as the enemy and the villagers as the heroes, writer Chinua Achebe puts these political changes within their historical context; it becomes clear that the events take place at the height of Victorian Britain, and the fervor surrounding the Colonial government becomes a fact that Okonkwo must face. By showing the nuances and multiple customs and traditions that he knew as a young man, the writer shows how difficult it is for Okonkwo to face these outside forces.

In the end, Okonkwo won't face them with honor. Achebe then shows how complicated Colonial Africa has become, that it is a region full of turmoil that will last for years to come. In 1958, a time of change for post-colonial Africa, Things Fall Apart became a way for Africans to respond to their colonists, and in the decades after its publication, the novel would represent why change in the region was so necessary.

Things Fall Apart is still an important novel because of its complex portrayal of colonialism. Although the novel seems simple at face value, it shows how difficult it is to overcome centuries of colonial rule that uprooted so many people and customs, and left them at the mercy of corporate and political greed. Achebe doesn't paint a black and white world when he describes Okonkwo's struggles; instead, he shows that things are difficult to fix once they have been broken.
Africa may one day become the prosperous world power that seemed possible fifty years ago, as nation after nation found their independence from colonial rule. Achebe's novel shows that it's too difficult to view Africa from one perspective, and the story will remain a powerful force in African literature. 

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