This was recommended to me by our good friend Nina, and although it’s taken a while for me to get to it, I”m really glad she did, and mea culpa on my part for having not got to a novel that has sold over 20 million copies and regularly crops up in the best ever novels in the English language. It is also often heralded as one of the archetypal African novels, and one that was followed (by Achebe and others) with a flowering of African-written literature.
It’s a concise novel, but felt to me wide-sweeping and wide-ranging. Achebe takes time to detail the culture, society and politics of the Umuofia tribe, primarily through the character of Okonkwo whose life provides the narrative thread to the tale. What becomes clear is that the community have relatively sophisticated practices and customs in relation to a whole range of areas: crime and justice, marriage and relationships, worship and prayer and so forth. For example, Okonkwo is banished to another village for 7 years after a particular incident, judged by a group of his peers. There is also, crucially, no one chief or ‘king’ but a system of gaining respect and becoming an elder.
This is all evocatively and beautifully established – and done so because in the final third of the book, the white missionaries arrive with their own religion, ‘one god’, practices and, soon, government and administration. Things fall apart not only for Okonkwo personally, but for the village generally and for the country they live in overall – as their own ways of living and doing things are summarily ignored, superseded and looked down on. In this sense, Achebe’s tale is a powerful rebuttal to colonisation and the arrogance of the European arrival across African at the end of the 19th and start of the 20th century. If anything, it is the white missionaries’ approach that appears simplistic and brutal (even savage) rather than those they are seeking to convert.
Reading this was a stark reminder of the dangers of the arrogant, colonial mindset which is far from extinguished today; and I went away with a richer understanding and slightly less ignorant than I went in to reading it. I don’t know whether one should be happy that this still feels pertinent and relevant 60 years or so after it was written, but it’s a testimony to Achebe’s writing that this is a fundamental and essential text on the nature of identity, cultural assimilation and colonisation still.
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