Friday, August 28, 2009

"Things Fall Apart" by Chinua Achebe

Summary: The novel follows Okonkwo, a strong and respected warrior, in his African village of Umuofia and details the cultural customs that shape his and his family’s lives. Okonkwo’s aspirations are checked when white missionaries arrive in the area.

Musings: I typically am not following any set path when I chose to read book A, then book B, then book C. When deciding on what book to read next, I’m more often guided by the length or apparent genre of the novel than any concept of the book’s place within other books I’ve read recently. However, I’m frequently surprised to find obvious connections between the books I've recently read, even if I did not consciously attempt to put those books in comparison. This happened with my most recent novel, Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, when I started to pick up on connections to The Ear, the Eye, and the Arm (only after completing Achebe’s work).

As I mentioned in my review of The Ear, The Eye, and the Arm, one of my complaints of that novel was Farmer's lack of exploration of the conflict between cultural traditions and "modern" understandings. In particular, I was upset at how the issue of twins was treated in the book. In Farmer's novel, the kids visit Resthaven, an isolated community that operates outside the modern world and lives according to traditional African customs. When one of the women gives birth to twins, the community attempts to kill one of the twins, believing it to be evil. The twin is saved by the detectives, so serious issues are never really addressed. Resthaven has "authenticity" (recognized by the children and detectives) that the outer world does not, but Resthaven also murders and abuses (by our standards) children. Resthaven's practices are defended as being part of the culture, but can culture be used to defend any practice? If we assign modern judgments to Resthaven, are we simply imposing our own societal standard on theirs? Is there a human moral standard that supersedes individual societies' standards? These are serious issues that are still being considered today (for example, with female genital mutilation).

This issue was addressed, but from a different point of view, in Achebe's novel. Okonkwo's society practices traditions similar to Resthaven, including killing twins (in Achebe's novel, both twins are killed). However, unlike with Farmer's novel, I did not have as strong of a reaction to the murders. In Achebe's work, the reader approaches the world from Okonkwo's point of view, and thus the practices in his community are normalized, unlike in Farmer's book, where the reader approaches Resthaven with the outside view of the children and detectives. I was astonished by how much the perspective had affected my judgment of the act.

White missionaries enter Okonkwo's world and rescue twins left to die, just like the children/detectives did. However, the white missionaries' rescue of twins comes along with the white domination and ultimate subjugation of Okonkwo's society.

What's right?

There is no easy answer. Traditions are strong, and like with most things in the world, the novels seem to say that it is not possible to simply remove those things you dislike without destroying the whole.

Things Fall Apart is told sparingly, and Achebe allows the flat and simple recounting of events to affect the reader without additional commentary. Because of this, the book lacks some suspense or traditional build up of events, but the end result is a more compelling view of one man's life and one village's transformation.

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