After teaching (and reading) Cry, the Beloved Country for the first time this semester, I became even more determined to read Things Fall Apart: A Novel. Attending a rural high school and majoring in American studies means world literature has not always been my focus, so this seemed like a perfect title for my Books I Should Have Read in High School challenge as well.
In Achebe’s masterpiece, we follow Okonkwo, a well-respected man in his clan determined to surpass the legacy of a shiftless father. The novel therefore is split in three sections: his life growing up in Umuofia, seven years spent in exile in the land of his mother, and his return to Umuofia after the advent of Christianity and colonialism. Okonkwo’s plans to become a great warrior, in the tradition of his people, are foiled by the betrayal he feels when he sees clansmen, including his oldest son, surrendering to the new order. One night “it seemed as if the very soul of the tribe wept for a great evil that was coming–its own death,” and after this, Okonkwo knows he will not survive this seismic shift.
An interesting aspect for me was how the novel displays Christianity as a weapon that forcibly separates the African characters from their native and ancestral customs and traditions, but one that also becomes a comfort, a source of strength and inspiration. We see it here, we saw it with the slave populations in America, we see it in Cry, the Beloved Country. When the outcasts are welcomed into God’s house as equals, when mothers are told they no longer need to abandon any twins they bear, it is clear to see the footholds exploited by subtle and cunning missionaries. Here also, “from the very beginning, religion and education went hand in hand.” The clansmen see that those with power in the new government are those who can speak and write and read in the new language, which just so happens to be taught in schools affiliated with the new churches. In Cry, the Beloved Country, sadly, we see that power and comfort warped to serve immoral purposes, leaving the people of South Africa adrift between the loss of their old traditions and the cruelties of the new as apartheid approaches.
I found the first section of the book to be a bit slow-going, as we are mainly focused on Okonkwo’s life and the life of his clan, one attuned to the rhythms of the yam harvest, where family and kinship are the guiding principles and ideas of masculinity and leadership are clear. There are some heart-breaking scenes, when Okonkwo participates in the murder of his adopted son, but Okonkwo becomes most rounded and tragic in the second and third sections of the book, where it becomes clear that he will never make the triumphant return he envisions, because the culture he left has already been irrevocably altered. In the second section, we meet Uchendu, my favorite character, who speaks beautifully about their culture and its meaning, and in the third, the action accelerates with the arrival of the white man.
Growing up in the age of AIDS and television campaigns to save the victims of famine and hunger in Africa, reading these great novels has helped me better understand the history and context behind what I know of Africa today. However, they stand on their own as moving documents of a disappeared world that still touches, both visibly and invisibly, the one we inhabit today. While I prefer the lyrical voice of Paton’s Cry, the Beloved Country, I would recommend reading the two together whenever possible.
- Chinua Achebe: A life in writing (guardian.co.uk)