(image taken from here)
Things Fall Apart is probably one of the most important books you will ever read in your lifetime. It’s pretty much the go-to novel these days for most beginner courses introducing African literature, but for good reason. One of the most striking things about it is how, compared to most previously celebrated works about Africa, it is told from the POV of an African as he witnesses the destruction and downfall of his civilisation and culture by white colonisers; the Africans (more specifically, the Nigerians of the Igbo tribe) are humanised and portrayed as real people, and the protagonist Okonkwo is highly fleshed out with a very complex personality. So many African characters in British novels during the 18th, 19th and 20th century were presented as gibbering, simple savages; Achebe set out to subvert this when he wrote this novel. He didn’t paint Okonkwo or his society as particularly perfect or flawless, but at the same time, he does depict the Igbo tribe as perfectly competent, capable and intelligent, with their own belief system and superstitions.
I don’t really know how to list down a number of qualities that make Okonkwo such a special character. He’s not a traditionally ‘good’ or heroic character, for one thing, and yet I don’t know whether I would call him an anti-hero. I think to me he symbolises what was once a strident, if very flawed, system that could have found its way and improved had fate not intervened and destroyed everything. He was immensely proud, sometimes very cruel and could be very misogynistic; yet at the same time held an immense softness as a father, loved his daughter, and believed deeply in his culture and was very protective over his tribe. His inability to accept feminine or qualities that he perceived as ‘womanly’ turn out to be his undoing in an immensely tragic way. The fact that he never once bows or succumbs to the white colonisers during the novel, however, does make the reader strangely admire and commend his strength of belief. They say that the strongest kind of people are those who are able to adapt according to their changing surroundings; yet there was a thin line between adapting, being brainwashed or simply submitting to white masters, which is what Okonkwo sensed was swiftly happening in his community. For a man who prided himself so much on his masculinity and sense of power within the tribe, to exchange his beliefs for someone else’s and to submit to what he saw as a less masculine religion with less masculine ideals, the conflict created within his own soul was eventually too much to bear.
Although Okonkwo makes a huge number of mistakes throughout the book, he is deeply mourned by his friend and the reader when he finally meets his fate, and the very last part of the book is one of the most deeply chilling passages I have ever read:
[Spoiler (click to open)]Obierika, who had been gazing steadily at his friend's dangling body, turned suddenly to the District Commissioner and said ferociously: "That man was one of the greatest men in Umuofia. You drove him to kill himself and now he will be buried like a dog..." He could not say any more. His voice trembled and choked his words.
"Shut up!" shouted one of the messengers, quite unnecessarily.
"Take down the body," the Commissioner ordered his chief messenger, "and bring it and all these people to the court."
"Yes, sah," the messenger said, saluting.
The Commissioner went away, taking three or four of the soldiers with him. In the many years in which he had toiled to bring civilization to different parts of Africa he had learned a number of things. One of them was that a District Commissioner must never attend to such undignified details as cutting a hanged man from the tree. Such attention would give the natives a poor opinion of him. In the book which he planned to write he would stress that point. As he walked back to the court he thought about that book. Every day brought him some new material. The story of this man who had killed a messenger and hanged himself would make interesting reading. One could almost write a whole chapter on him. Perhaps not a whole chapter but a reasonable paragraph, at any rate. There was so much else to include, and one must be firm in cutting out details. He had already chosen the title of the book, after much thought:
The Pacification of the Primitive Tribes of the Lower Niger.
I think another reason why I find this book and character deeply affecting is because I know what it’s like to live in a post-colonial setting and how colonialism is capable of tearing apart a nation’s identity. My country’s problems in the past and present in no way compare to how terribly most parts of Africa was and is still torn apart and ravaged, but in a post-colonial society you always have those who are pro-colonialist and those who are anti-, and perhaps those who have just settled into the way things are and couldn’t care less. I still remember my mother telling me stories about how the British nuns would beat her and her friends for speaking in their language instead of English when she was at school (the same exact school I would later attend in post-colonial times). I kind of see Okonkwo as the one last, extreme bastion of a nation trying to desperately hold into things while they are clearly and quickly ‘falling apart’.