Skip to main content

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.


Popular posts from this blog

Why Did Reality Winner Leak to the Intercept?

So Reality Winner, former NSA contractor, is in federal prison for leaking classified information — for five years and three months, the longest sentence of any whistleblower in history. She gave documents on how Russia had attempted to hack vendors of election machinery and software to The Intercept , which completely bungled basic security procedures (according to a recent New York Times piece from Ben Smith, the main fault lay with Matthew Cole and Richard Esposito ), leading to her capture within hours. Winner recently contracted COVID-19 in prison, and is reportedly suffering some lingering aftereffects. Glenn Greenwald has been furiously denying that he had anything at all to do with the Winner clusterfuck, and I recently got in an argument with him about it on Twitter. I read a New York story about Winner, which clearly implies that she was listening to the Intercepted podcast of March 22, 2017 , where Greenwald and Jeremy Scahill expressed skepticism about Russia actually b

The Basic Instinct of Socialism

This year I finally decided to stop beating around the bush and start calling myself a democratic socialist. I think the reason for the long hesitation is the very long record of horrifying atrocities carried out by self-described socialist countries. Of course, there is no social system that doesn't have a long, bloody rap sheet, capitalism very much included . But I've never described myself as a capitalist either, and the whole point of socialism is that it's supposed to be better than that. So of course I cannot be a tankie — Stalin and Mao were evil, terrible butchers, some of the worst people who ever lived. There are two basic lessons to be learned from the failures of Soviet and Chinese Communism, I think. One is that Marxism-Leninism is not a just or workable system. One cannot simply skip over capitalist development, and any socialist project must be democratic and preserve basic liberal freedoms. The second, perhaps more profound lesson, is that there is no s

Varanus albigularis albigularis

That is the Latin name for the white-throated monitor lizard , a large reptile native to southern Africa that can grow up to two meters long (see pictures of one at the Oakland Zoo here ). In Setswana, it's called a "gopane." I saw one of these in my village yesterday on the way back from my run. Some kids from school found it in the riverbed and tortured it to death, stabbing out its eyes, cutting off its tail, and gutting it which finally killed it. It seemed to be a female as there were a bunch of round white things I can only imagine were eggs amongst the guts. I only arrived after it was already dead, but they described what had happened with much hilarity and re-enactment. When I asked why they killed it, they said it was because it would eat their chickens and eggs, which is probably true, and because it sucks blood from people, which is completely ridiculous. It might bite a person, but not unless threatened. It seems roughly the same as killing wolves that