Oct 31, 2009

Book review: Things Fall Apart

This is the classic work from Chinua Achebe, often called the greatest African novelist. It concerns the fate of a man called Okonkwo, who is an important man in a Nigerian village of the Igbo people when the white missionaries/colonizers (from England) first arrive. It's a short book, but streamlined and poignant.

Achebe does not romanticize the Igbo. They are depicted (like Europe of that time) as being deeply patriarchal. They have a great fear of twins, which are abandoned at birth. They are also somewhat violent--though their highly ritualized wars usually only have a few casualties.

The book mostly concerns the idea of civilization and the clashing of cultures. One aspect of civilization as a system that allows a human society to escape the kill-or-be-killed logic of remorseless game theory--a way of allowing the culture as a collective to achieve a higher level of satisfaction than they would all alone. In this respect the Igbo are highly civilized. They have a form of democracy, in which every man in the tribe takes part in meetings where village issues are decided by consensus.

Yet when the missionaries come, there is inevitably a clash. Though the missionaries are not wholly bad, and the first reverend is respectful of the village culture, the Igbo are not prepared for what the majority of whites have in mind, and fall victim to the same combination of religion and guns that has worked throughout history.

It's an excellent portrayal of a way of life wholly different from the Western civilization of America and Europe, and a reminder that that way had many elements that we seem to lack, especially in America--community, kinship, and family. It's also a reminder to other Africans that the way of life they once had was not without value; a message that still resonates today. I heard the other day a black woman say that Africa had so many problems because "blacks are stupid and love to fight."

Overall, great and highly recommended. It's so short that one can read it in a couple hours, yet powerful enough that the story will stick for days.

PS: I utterly loathe the practice of giving away plot points on the back of a book. Sure, some setting is fine, but giving away a major development at the end is extremely irritating--as if the editor thinks that every single person in the world has already read the book and knows it well. My edition of this book had such a spoiler, I remember an edition of Abbey's The Brave Cowboy that had the same problem.

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