Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Things Fall Apart (1959)

It's almost Banned Book Week so I picked up this book by Chinua Achebe which was on the ALA list of classics that have been challenged and/or banned. I admit I knew nothing about the book or the author when I chose it. It's a story about a man named Okonkwo in a village somewhere in Africa (Nigeria?) called Umuofia. A simple life, we are shown how they observe celebrations such as marriage, grieve for the dead, and respect the gods that provide them with food. Many events over generations have given rise to their system of justice which is strictly observed by all members of the village. For instance Okonkwo is banished from his village for a period of seven years because his rifle exploded and accidentally killed the son of his friend, Obierika.

Obierika was a man who thought about things. When the will of the goddess had been done, he sat down in his obi and mourned his friend's calamity. Why should a man suffer so grievously for an offense he had committed inadvertently? But although he thought for a long time he found no answer. He was merely led into greater complexities. He remembered his wife's twin children, who he had thrown away. What crime had they committed? The Earth had decreed that they were an offense on the land and must be destroyed. And if the clan did not exact punishment for an offense against the great goddess, her wrath was loosed on all the land and not just on the offender. As the elders said, if one finger brought oil it soiled the others.

Unfortunately, as it has often happened in the history of our world, someone (white Christians in this case) comes along to civilize an already civilized people because they know better and in the process pride and self-respect is destroyed.

Why, he cried in his heart, should he, Okonkwo, of all people, be cursed with such a son? He saw clearly in it the finger of his personal god or chi. For how else could he explain his great misfortune and exile and now his despicable son's behavior? Now that he had time to think of it, his son's crime stood out in its stark enormity. To abandon the gods of one's father and go about with a lot of effeminate men clucking like old hens was the very depth of abomination. Suppose when he died all his male children decided to follow Nwoye's steps and abandon their ancestors? Okonkwo felt a cold shudder run through him at the terrible prospect, like the prospect of annihilation. He saw himself and his fathers crowding round their ancestral shrine waiting in vain for worship and sacrifice and finding nothing but ashes of bygone days, and his children the while praying to the white man's god. If such a thing were ever to happen, he, okonkwo, would wipe them off the face of the earth.

The end of the story is no surprise, it is just another tragic ending of imperial interference. I can well imagine that some Christians would be offended by the depiction of the missionaries and might challenge this book in some libraries.

This book begs to be read slowly. There is very little description, just bare action, so things can easily be missed if read too fast. It is a short book and well worth the time to read it.

My rating for this book: +++++

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