On discovering Chinua Achebe after his death

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

[W. B. Yeats, The Second Coming]

Six and half years ago, I wrote a post about reading Joseph Conrad’s The Heart of Darkness. I had just finished the book, and had discovered that someone named Chinua Achebe had called Conrad a racist. My view – then, as now – remains that the Marlow, the narrator of The Heart of Darkness did come across as a laconic white traveler who regarded the natives as pathetic and subhuman animals. Thus, while it was quite clear that Marlow was a racist, I wasn’t sure whether the accusation is transferable to Conrad. One of the blog’s readers, Max,  explained in a comment that Achebe’s view was not based just on the isolated example of The Heart of Darkness, and recommended that I read some of Achebe’s works, particularly Home and Exile and Things Fall Apart.

From then on until the month of March 2013, I thought of The Heart of Darkness very rarely, once I think, while reading The Lord of the Flies. In March, however, as I drove into my apartment’s parking lot, news came over the radio that Chinua Achebe had died. I hadn’t heard the name in a long time, but fortunately remembered the context in which it had first come to my attention. In the ensuing interview, the radio host spoke with an African theater director about Achebe and, in particular, about Things Fall Apart. That was how, I came to know that  “someone named Chinua Achebe” was a rather important figure in African literature, and that was how I came to pick up this remarkable and beautiful book.

Among the Ibo, the art of conversation is regarded very highly, and proverbs are the palm oil with which words are eaten.

[Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart]

Set mostly in the tribal African village of Umofia, Things Fall Apart is the tragic story of Okonkwo – a mighty wrestler who has worked hard to build a life of prosperity and esteem. The story is set in motion when, in response to the judgment of the tribal Oracle (arbitrary as such human-endowed pseudo-dieties tend to be), Okonkwo joins some male villagers and kills a teenaged boy who had long considered him a father figure. Okonkwo’s life is riddled by guilt and frustration and begins to slowly unravel. In the commotion, ardor and music of a funeral ceremony, his gun fires by accident claiming the life of a young boy; he loses his place of prestige within his clan and is forced to go into exile in his mother’s village of Mbanta for seven years. These seven years coincide with the arrival in the two villages of British colonizers and evangelical Christian missionaries. One by one, either by the explicit design of the armed and modern colonizers, or by the clan’s suspicion of the religion of the white man, the society of Okonkwo and his forefathers is rent apart.

It was the poetry of the new religion, something felt in the marrow. The hymn about brothers who sat in darkness and in fear seemed to answer a vague and persistent question that haunted his young soul – the question of the twins crying in the bush and the question of Ikemefuna who was killed.  He felt a relief within as the hymn poured into his parched soul. The words of the hymn were like drops of frozen rain melting on the dry palate of the panting earth. Nwoye’s callow mind was greatly puzzled.

[Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart].

It is unfortunate that Things Fall Apart is not more well-known, for Achebe is a writer of surpassing brilliance. In a short span of two hundred pages, the reader lingers briefly but vividly on patriarchy, feminism, religion, culture, and race – never passing judgement but staring each one full in the face, before walking slowly back from the scene alone, eyes unblinking and bloodshot from a small  oasis of clarity in the vast desert of unknowing. Okonkwo is the novel’s African conscience, and we watch his life unfold while simultaneously experiencing the changing epoch through his eyes and his fierce, stubborn, chauvinistic heart. In so doing, we become aware that — underneath our differently colored skins, and behind our differently veneered civilizations, and below our variously fantastical gods — underneath all the variegated baggage that we have accumulated since we left our ancestral homes in Africa all those tens of thousands of years ago, we haven’t really changed very much at all.