"There is no story that is not true." This is one of the many statements in Things Fall Apart that unfortunately is too true. There's a piercing quality to this novel. More than fifty years after it was written, it retains a power and piquancy that penetrates in all directions.
In sum, this is the story of a rising Igbo, Okongwo, who ultimately falls afoul of his own people's traditions and the disruptive force of Christianizing British colonialism. The richness--and brutality--of his people's beliefs proves inadequate to fend off the guns and Bibles sent to Southeastern Nigeria by London. When Okongwo lashes out, he realizes he's been abandoned by the men who were his closest friends and neighbors...and so he commits suicide, a great disgrace, but he has no choice. The story that he has told himself all his life--a story predicated on an abundance of gods, goddesses and spirits--is true; anyone reading this novel would agree on that point through three-quarters of the text. This is narrative ethnography wherein "the native" is the narrator (meaning China Achebe himself), but in the last quarter of the book, when the whites arrive, something else becomes true, diminishing and degrading the first truth and supplanting it. This is not only the truth of Christianity but the encroachment, as it were, of a concept superfluous to Igbo life: government.
The Igbo of the times knew perfectly well how to rule themselves. They understood their needs, their values, their obligations, and their subjugation to the clan. They did not require instruction on these matters from a distant queen, but they got it, and the glory of this novel is that it ultimately tells the truth of the horrible fact: British colonialism wrecked everything. It's so appropriate, then, that the London-educated Achebe reached across to Ireland and William Butler Yeats for the title of the novel: When Yeats wrote the words, "things fall apart, the center cannot hold," he too was confronting the realities of British power imposed on another people.
Things Fall Apart is full of splendid Igbo stories and proverbs, but one of its most curious characteristics is that it relates Igbo life in a novelistic form that was born in 18th century Europe. The realities of Okongwo's life are foreign to us, and yet they can be represented with perfect accuracy in our own genre. What is this telling us? I suspect it's telling us that aesthetic forms--at least in the hands of a master-- possess the suppleness necessary to investigate one another without damaging themselves. Politics, government, and proselytizing religion don't work that way. They smash into foreign cultural realities, they make things fall apart.
In another context, Achebe said that literature was his weapon. What he meant, I think, is that literature helped him disarm and defeat his enemies. I like this book a great deal because it dares to count, to acknowledge worldly struggles. In effect, Okongwo's death led to Things Fall Apart; but Things Fall Apart is still leading to the death of British and other forms of colonialism.
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