Wednesday, January 29, 2020

9. Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe

I've been vaguely aware of the existence of this book for a long time.  I was first introduced to it actually from the Roots album of the same name.  I got quite into that album and did a bit of research into the name.  I found this paperback in a box of books on the street and was pleased with how thin it looked (and also the nice paperback, despite the very dated cover illustration which reflects more a liberal cliche of African colonialism than the tone or content of the book itself).

I am actually a bit surprised and dismayed that I haven't already read this book. I did two long Humanities courses at Reed College, which were supposed to give you a broad overview of said subject.  We did a lot on colonialism.  After having read this, and knowing it is basically considered the grandfather of African literature (and seeing how short it is), it seems like it should be one of the ur-texts of colonialism in any course.

It's so fundamental that I sort of knew what was to come as I read it.  So many colonial narratives must have borrowed from this book, that they have basically permeated our popular culture at this point.  It's the native village minding their own business when the white man comes and fucks all their shit up.  What I did not know was the subtle combination of simple and straightforward language (almost anthropological) describing very rich and complex social behaviours that make up most of the book.  Two-thirds is just the life of Okonkwe, a well-respected man of his village, and also kind of an ass-kicker.  Only near the end do we get the very subtle arrival of the missionaries.  That is the other thing that I did not expect from the narrative.  The white man comes in very sneakily.  After an initial massacre at the market of another tribe (and one that was perceivded to be weaker), they behave relatively decently, building a little church in the evil forest the villagers direct them to.  The disaster is already happening and you know it, but it is done in such a way, like the proverbial pot of boiling water, that most of the villagers don't even see it.  When the "government" arrives to support the church's law, it is already too late.

Because of this quietness, the devastation of colonialism hits even harder.  I finished this on a train to Toronto and as I put the book down I looked upon a pleasant little town built around a river market by 3 church steeples.  I have never been a fan of the Christian religion but those steeples at that moment emanated evil in my eyes.

From a nerdy perspective, I also wonder how much influence Things Fall Apart has on the recent renaissance of African sci-fi, of which I have only read Nnedi Okorafor?

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