Books on GIF #39 — 'Things Fall Apart' by Chinua Achebe
Books on GIF is a weekly review and discussion of random books — from bestsellers to classics to unearthed gems — told with the help of GIFs. We'll cover fiction, nonfiction and the occasional graphic novel.
This Sunday's book is 'Things Fall Apart' by Chinua Achebe.
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I had wanted to read this book for a long time, and I'm very glad I finally did. It's excellent. It follows the life and downfall of Okonkwo, a man who's worked his way up from nothing to prominent standing in his Nigerian village thanks to backbreaking work and being a fierce warrior and an unbeatable wrestler.
Okonkwo is a stern man who is constantly concerned about showing weakness. He lives in a compound with his several wives and children, and though he feels love and tenderness toward them, he never shows it. That would be weak. Womanly, he would say. Instead, he gives voice only to his displeasure and rage with rebukes, threats and beatings to keep his family and others around him in line. The first of the book's three sections contains vignettes about Okonkwo's early life and the day-to-day goings-on in the village, from the cultivation of yams (the king crop), to marriage planning, to the activities of the local god, to wrestling matches, and to religious and legal matters. Things start to go wrong for Okonkwo when he receives a:
An old man visits him to tell him that a teenager from a neighboring village who was given to Okonkwo as a ward years ago to settle a dispute must be killed. Okonkwo is told that he cannot participate in the killing, but when the time comes, he does kill the teen out of fear of being perceived as weak. Then, disaster strikes. Okonkwo commits a fatal accident during a funeral ceremony, and he and his family are banished from the village for seven years. So they pack up all their things and move away.
When they return, much has changed in the village. A white missionary has arrived.
At first, the villagers don't think much of the missionary, who lives among them and has converted several villagers to Christianity, including one of Okonkwo's sons (although this makes Okonkwo very upset). They think the missionary and the other white people who run a local government nearby are just odd and pose no real threat. But the villagers find out the hard way that all their traditions and village ways have been usurped and replaced by a system that's rigged against them.
Things come to a head when the village decides the mission must be destroyed. They take care to alert the missionary and the other Christians that they will not be harmed, but that the mission will no longer be allowed on the village's land. Afterward, Okonkwo and the other village elders visit the white authorities to discuss the destruction of the mission. They soon find themselves in handcuffs and forced to pay a fine. They are bewildered. It's their land, their country. Why are they in chains? Who are these strangers to impose this punishment on them? Life came at the elders fast, and the ending of the book comes at the reader even faster. Like:
It's devastating. Reading 'Things Fall Apart' immediately afterZadie Smith's 'White Teeth'was a powerful juxtaposition. Smith's book, among many other things, tackles the lingering affects of colonialism and racism on people of color today, while Achebe's book delves into its origins. One of the things that struck me most about the book is the matter-of-fact tone used to describe death, murder, injustice and other horrific things. The story didn't cast blame or show moral outrage on the characters directly, but showed calmly and clearly that terrible or morally questionable things are done by all people amid all traditions. And that served as a more effective and powerful indictment. Blame and outrage are important for fighting injustice, but they can also lead to a whirlpool going round and round pointing fingers and getting nowhere. We must do the hard work of pulling ourselves out of that whirlpool for society to progress. Anyone interested in that effort should have this book on their reading list.
'Things Fall Apart' by Chinua Achebe was originally published in 1959. It was also published in 1994 by Anchor Books. 209 pages.
What's next?In the coming weeks I'll review 'Crossing to Safety' by Wallace Stegner, 'Fates and Furies' by Lauren Groff and 'American Gods' by Neil Gaiman, among others.
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Thanks for reading!*
* Thanks especially to Donna for copy editing this review!