By Dr Sarala Krishnamurthy
“Art is, and always was, at the service of man. Our ancestors created their myths and told their stories for a human purpose”.
1958 marks the beginning of a new era in world literature. This was the year Chinua Achebe, aka Albert Chinualumogu Achebe, a Nigerian, published his first novel, Things Fall Apart.
This is not just an African novel, but also a modezrn classic, which teaches generations of colonised people to take pride in their cultural heritage and in the traditions of their ancestors. Achebe burst into the literary scene with his rather slim and supposedly innocuous novel.
The title of the novel is taken from WB Yeats poem The Second Coming where history is said to be depicted in a spiral fashion: “Turning and turning upon the gyre” and where “Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold. Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world”, and where “The best lack conviction and the worst are full of passionate intensity”. Prophetic words indeed and a synoptic view of what is happening all over the world today.
Achebe dramatised indigenous culture in new ways giving it new meaning. In his book Morning Yet on Creation Day, a collection of critical essays, he clearly states that novelists had it in their power to demonstrate that the African past was no “long night of slavery” but, like everywhere else, was filled with significant human interaction – conflict, tragedy, friendship and ceremony.
He explicates that he decided to write a novel about Africa and Africans to give the world an insider’s point of view, as an answer to the mindless and simplistic characterisation of Mr Johnson, in Joyce Carey’s novel by the same name and the depiction of Africans in King Solomon’s Mines by Rider Haggard.
Things Fall Apart delineates the fragmentation of the Ibo society as a result of the European incursion into Africa. The complete devastation of a way of life and culture is described with an objective eye and Achebe does not balk from presenting the lacunae in his own culture.
Things Fall Apart is the story of Okonkwo who is the true embodiment of a successful man in Ibo society. He is one of the Egwuguwu, he has three wives, plenty of children, a barn full of yam and, most important of all, he is a wrestler (having thrown Amanlinze, the cat) and an able warrior, having won a scalp in a inter-tribal war.
He is admired and respected by his peers, revered by the people of his village, feared and loved by his wives and children. His success has been achieved through grit and determination because he did not inherit anything from his father, Unoka, who was a musician. In the Ibo society Okonkwo is the epitome of masculinity, where “age is respected, but action revered”.
Achebe creates the Ibo society for us through a lyrical description of the village, Umuofia where life moves along at its own pace and in consonance with the seasons. It is a life that is harmonious with nature consisting of activities carried out in seasonal variation.
Harmattan brings locusts which have to be trapped and pickled; huts have to be constructed at a certain time of the year; the Week of Peace allows women and children an opportunity to relax and have fun; the Egwugwu ensure that justice is meted out to all and it represents the collective will of the people.
The society is a coherent unit with its tribal laws, its rules and regulations, and its own forms of punishment to recalcitrant members who do not follow the norms of society.
Okonkwo upholds the laws of his village. When he is called upon to sacrifice Ikemefuna, his foster son, he does not hesitate to behead him because he is “afraid of being thought weak”. Ikemefuna’s death brings about an estrangement with his son, Nwoye, who later on in the novel turns to Christianity in defiance and much to the chagrin of his conservative father.
The incursion of the European into Umuofia transpires when Okonkwo has been banished from his village for accidentally killing a boy. Seven years later when Okonkwo returns from exile, he finds that the European is firmly entrenched in Umuofia and quite a number of his people have started going to church.
He tries to rally his people to go to war with the European, but when he finds, to his consternation, that he lacks support, he hangs himself. Obierika, his dear friend, heartbroken by the act, pleads with the foreigners to bring down the body to be buried in Evil Forest because Okonkwo has committed a great sin against the earth by taking his own life.
The commissioner decides to write about this incident in his book “Pacification of the tribes of Lower Niger”. After some rumination he changes his mind about devoting a whole chapter to the man, he decides to write a paragraph. In one brilliant master stroke Achebe deconstructs the substance and value of a culture and reduces it to nothingness in the eyes of the European.
He deconstructs African hoary tradition and rich heritage and it is this being and nothingness (Kundera) that becomes the poignant swansong of all colonised people. Achebe bemoans the loss of people, of indigenous culture and the erasure of oral traditional and folklore.
Achebe has written four more novels: No Longer at Ease, Arrow of God, A Man of the People and Anthills of the Savannah, a collection of short stories, two anthologies of poetry and a collection of essays which have brought him critical acclaim. He is one of the foremost novelists of the African continent.
2008 is being celebrated all over the world as the year when Things Fall Apart turns 50 years old. Truly, it is a time when we remember one of the greatest intellectuals Africa has produced and draw inspiration from his achievements.
It is time we acknowledge, as was said of Gandhi (with due apologies to Albert Einstein), “Generations to come, it may be, will scarcely believe that such a one, as this, ever in flesh and blood walked upon this earth.”