Continuing the shelf-clearing efforts, I came upon Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe (1930 – 2013). It was first published in 1958. I think a lot of people in this generation now read this in their school years. I had never even heard of this novel until, maybe the 2010s. This particular novel can be read in many ways – with different purposes in mind. The most important and obvious way would be as novel qua novel. Before it is anything else, this is a fiction novel of 209 pages that has a main character and a setting. I am sure there are other ways of reading this book wherein the focus might be anti-colonialism, pro-tribalism, anthropological, human geographical, comparative religion, historical, or modernization.
I think most readers read this novel and probably feel upsettedness at either colonialization or westernization. As if this novel is a protest novel clamoring about injustice. I can see readers wanting this to be the case, but I do not draw that from this novel. In other words, I do not think this is a “blame” novel. Readers should not, I think, be finishing it and then pointing at things and asserting its this or that’s fault. I do not think this is an apology for any specific culture.
Anyway, I really like the main character. Okonkwo is a fantastic character to write a story about. Achebe manages to bring this character vibrantly to life through tight, spare vignettes that give us good highlight reels of Okonkwo’s personhood. There is a lot of commentary in the world about Okonkwo’s rôle in his clan, his relationship with his ancestors (particularly his father and his mother), and also his relationships with his wives and offspring. Repeatedly, the term/concept “masculine” or “patriarchal” came up in reference to Okonkwo when I looked around the internet. I know its awfully subversive and non-conformist of me, but I think the application of those terms to the character tells us far more about those who apply it than the character himself. It is a projection of their psychological categorization that seems to be foisted upon a fictional character in a short novel. I mention this because I would caution the best readers to be wary of all of these assignations that seem to have been heaped upon Okonkwo. The super ironic thing about it is that is that if he were a real person he would not find this burden surprising, but he would definitely be angry about it happening.
As far as the novel plotline goes, Achebe does seem to write closer to what would be folk tales – or just community storytelling. This means that there is not some hugely convoluted and yet intricately strung-together plot akin to something George R. R. Martin would write. The little moments we are shown about Okonkwo’s comings and goings, his meetings with friends, his interactions with his family, are not enough to round out an entire picture of the character. I say this because it seems like, well, I, too, can tell you stories of a person that only highlight one or two of their attributes and not tell you any stories that would paint them in a different light. So, and this is as novel qua novel reading, it can feel suspect – like the author is purposefully only presenting one dimension of a character.
The end of the book, of the character, really surprised me. To this very moment I am still thinking about it – trying to decide if this is a legitimate scenario. I keep trying to reconcile events with the character and his personality. I keep flipping through scenes of context and so forth trying out different lighting, backgrounds, and soundscapes, if you will pardon this way of speaking. So, I do not know if I think the ending is in line with Okonkwo’s personality and history. Is this legit? or did the author just throw something sensational at his readers? And, there is a major feeling that it was all a sham. I mean, I have to share that as I read the event that ends the novel, I strongly felt that things happening off-screen, as it were, made it very much feel like something is being hidden. Some cover-up has occurred, maybe “for the sake of” the clan. Or “for the sake of” peace. Or any other “for the sake of” that people use… So, maybe Achebe wrote this enigmatic ending and stayed silent about all the possible readings. Maybe it is as straightforward as the rest of the novel and there is no hidden nuance – it is exactly as it is presented. Yet, as a reader, I am still uncomfortable meeting Okonkwo, empathizing with him, admiring him, worrying about him, and then having to come upon this ending.
One of the things in the book that perplexed me were the guns. Okonkwo has one early on in the novel – he brandishes it at one of his wives. Yet, it feels like guns are somewhat common in the clan – Okonkwo is not the only one with one. And, of course, it leads to a major life upheaval for him for not being totally safe with it, let us say. However, where did the guns come from?
I know a lot of the world believes that it is ideologies that cause the clashes of cultures and violence in humanity. Ideologies definitely participate in the cause. However, to my mind, the “thing” that is the ultimate cause and force is technology. Industry, science, technology… whatever you want to call it that provides the tools and weapons and machinery to the ideologies. The advancements in science and tools that allow all of the techne to be ever-stronger, ever-faster, ever-more-dominant. No, I do not support any anti-technological views or some sort of pseudo-Luddite counter-culture. Technology, and its effect on humans driven by their instinctual curiosity, is something like a gigantic voracious monster, gobbling ever-onward. The Leviathan, the Charybdis, the swallower and gobbler: unstoppable.