I read this marvellous book long before I visited anywhere in West Africa but I was fascinated by the inside view of a completely different society. Achebe takes his title from W.B. Yeats’ speculations on the demise of European civilisation after World War 1, The Second Coming (1921) –
‘Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold, Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.’
In Achebe’s novel it is the traditional African civilisation of the forest people in Umuofia which is threatened by European culture in the form of Christian missionaries and colonial exploitation, and other Ibos who emulate the whites and profit from development. I love the way that one young man acquiring a bicycle, and the controversy it inspires, embodies the duality of Progress, and the range of attitudes towards it.
Achebe writes in English but his prose is peppered with Ibo phrases and proverbs; he says that he felt he had to create a new language, not the English of Dickens and the other classics he read as boy. His portrayal of Africans as diverse, complicated people is also something new (Jean Rhys’ depictions of black Caribbean people in Wide Sargasso Sea are similarly complex). He indicates Ibo speakers by measured, dignified language, a far cry from Conrad whom, Achebe says, gives only six words to his African characters in the whole of the ‘thoroughgoingly racist’ Heart of Darkness; the rest of the time they just grunt and shriek. The novel is perhaps even more resonant today than when it was written. The man, whom South African Nadime Gordimer described as ‘the father of modern African Literature’, has left us but his words and the inspiration they give survives him.
Chinua Achebe (1930 – 2013) was born in Ogidi, Onitsha, when Nigeria was still a British colony. His family had converted to Christianity in the previous generation and he was educated in a government-run school. After the civil war with Biafra, in 1972 he accepted a post at the University of Massachusetts. He went back to Nigeria as a lecturer but, after a car crash in 1990 left him partially disabled, he returned to the USA and lived in New York until his death. In 2007, he was awarded the Man Booker Prize for his services to literature. Last year, Achebe published a long-awaited memoir about the brutal three-year Biafran war – when the south-eastern Ibo region tried to split from Nigeria in 1967.
Full details of his death are yet to be confirmed.
Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe (1958) is one of Chalk the Sun’s twenty-one favourite books – there’s a downloadable list on our home page