Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Things Fall Apart: 1958-2008

I wanted very much to write a tribute to Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart, given that this year marks the fiftieth anniversary of its publication. Rightly, people around the world have celebrated the event.

Things Fall Apart is the most famous African novel, whose appeal, after fifty years, shows no sign of diminishing. In fact, its reputation continues to grow, with more translations coming out, symposia, critical works, and a never ending desire on the part of instructors to include it in their course offerings. Actually, only two days ago, on December 29, I received in the mail a parcel from Norton Publishers, which came as a complete surprise. It was a complimentary copy of a critical edition of Things Fall Apart, edited by Francis Abiola Irele. I was delighted and quite amazed that this gift should come just as I was getting ready to write my tribute to Things Fall Apart before the year ended.

Like all readers of this novel, I never get tired of reading it and never cease to discover new insights and meanings in it. I have been priviledged to teach this novel since the early seventies, with students from around the world. I am happy to have had the opportunity to write about it as well. One of the highlights of my work with this novel was participating in a reading series organized by the South Dakota Humanities Council, click here. The Council invited me in 1997 to write a study guide on this novel, which I later expanded and published, click here.

For me, one of the most intriguing and fascinating aspects of this novel is that though dealing with a particular period in the history of Igbo culture, it strikes a chord with African cultures across the continent, telling what can only be described as timeless truths. In terms of artistry, it is unmatched on the landscape of African writing. No wonder its appeal continues unabated, fifty years on.

When it first came out, Africa was mostly under colonial rule and in the throes of the struggle for independence. No wonder that Africans saw Okonkwo, the hero of the novel, as their hero. His struggle against European intervention in his community resonated with their own struggle.

With the passing of years, however, Africans are able to look more critically at Okonkwo and discover his weaknesses and negative traits. Feminist consciousness, for example, has helped sharpen our focus on those weaknesses. Most importantly, we feel secure enough to challenge Okonkwo without feeling we are undermining the nationalist sensibilities of the fifties.

In my own way, I have been fascinated by the marginal characters in Things Fall Apart, such as Unoka, trying to elevate them to a position of respectability I feel they have been unjustly denied. This may sound like an uphill task, but I am excited about it and I enjoy sharing with students this unconventional approach to the novel.

We are all grateful to Achebe for having produced this classic, which has established itself as the quintessential African novel, artistically wrought, foundational, and satisfying in all kinds of ways.

3 comments:

Mzee wa Changamoto said...

We used it in literature back home and as you said, fifty years later it still represent the falling apart of out societies. I don't know how he visioned all these but it's more than "based-in-a-true-stories" book.
I love this book

B.Tax Savvy said...

Among the many books that I read and studied back home in Kenya, Thing Fall Apart, was by far, the most interesting and informative. I can still visualize Okonkwo - the tough African man who clings to his outdated (albeit unknown to him) status of the male species as protectors, providers and sovereigns in their families and beyond. His tragic death signifies the inevitable clash between the Africans and colonial imperialists.

Perhaps at an opportune time, you can lead a discussion on the themes of the book and their relevance to modern African nation-states. I'd love to attend and participate. It would not surprise me that Achebe has a number of fans around.

Mbele said...

Hello Mzee wa Changamoto and B.Tax Savvy, thanks for reading my message about "Things Fall Apart" and for your comments. Indeed this novel is as relevant now as it was when it was first published. Despite the economic, political, social, and cultural changes that we undergo, this novel continues to speak to us in truly meaningful ways, and it continues to dazzle us with its artistic magnificence. Such is the hallmark of true classics.

Apart from teaching it in my classes, I have spoken in various places about this novel, and I definitely will continue to do so. It would be possible to plan a gathering and talk about it along the lines suggested by B. Tax Savvy, and I like the idea. Again, thanks.