Written on the 7th May 2020.
NB: this was actually the post on which the blog stalled, back three months ago (hi from August!) and hopefully the caesura becomes a little clearer from this post, written when things, e.g. blog scheduling, fell apart.
As a 31 year old poet with two English degrees, there aren’t many books that “you have to read” that i haven’t read. Until this week, Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe was one of those books and, well, it turned out to be fucking spectacular and the joke, as always, is on me is on me is on me.
For serious third person reasons (i.e. not myself (first person), my lover and dog (second persons), but some other person – actually, no, I know that doesn’t make any sense at all and is way too much of a stretch to attempt to understand-
Not “person”, “tier”-
Let’s go for “tiers” –
There’s a tier of people, I recently realised, who sit between Tier One People (my dog and my lover and my sister and up to four or five close friends (I can provide names in the DMs), i.e. people who I would travel (within a continent) to be at their wedding/deathbed regardless of expense) and Tier Three People (i.e. “all other people”, most of whom are strangers but the vast majority of my acquaintances, too), the Tier Two People being those who i don’t think about every day, but of whom I wouldn’t feel nothing if they [painlessly] died. To clarify, a painful death evokes sympathy even when it happens to the most deserving (i.e. bad) person-
For serious reasons that pertained to neither COVID-19 (if you’re reading this in the future, it was a pandemic disease) nor imminent danger of any Tier One People, I had to drive for eight hours, back and forth, out of the city last week.
I started reading Things Fall Apart while waiting to begin the drive back, a couple of mornings ago, and during that time I read roughly half the book, while necking filter coffee after filter coffee as I waited for the circumstantial changes required to mean the drive would begin.
Tensely waiting for an unspecified time after which you have a four hour, painfully monotonous drive, isn’t the best situation to read anything, I’ll acknowledge, but reading the first half of Things Fall Apart I felt a little bit… underwhelmed.
What it is, is well done, right, but what that first half is didn’t feel uh particularly fresh. This wasn’t a fault with the novel, but a fault with its legacy, much like the legacy of any deeply influential book.
A description of a tribal, patriarchal group of people who live off the land, worship and sacrifice to non-Abrahamic polytheistic gods described in 20th century English was something I’d encountered before. There is cruelty and chauvinism, frequent infanticide, treatment of women as objects to be possessed, devout belief in the supernatural, no concept of Western medicine or modern science, no literacy, no deviation from strength-based tradition and physical domination as the way to settle scores.
Yes, Achebe evokes all of this very clearly and with real emotional clout, but what he is writing is a description of a near-timeless tribal society, with a lead character who is ruthless, cruel, deeply misogynistic, aggressive and unpleasant.
In depicting a pre-Westernised tribal society in such an unflattering and unappealing manner, Achebe is very much writing how the University-educated office worker that he was would be expected to: as an African, he does not fall into the shameful European writer’s trap of eroticising and/or exoticising tribal life, bur there is a very clear and distinct othering. The reader is not treated as if what they’re reading is a description of their (the readers) “normal” life.
But when this textual “normal” is challenged [and ultimately destroyed] in the second half of the novel, Achebe’s message is fucking clear and it is distressing and deeply emotive.
When the colonisers come, change is inevitable. And what that change will be is decided by the invader.
Missionaries on bicycles enter, establishing court houses and judiciaries without any mandate.
People must change their traditions and their daily lives. It is not essential that their beliefs alter, only that their actions change as if they had.
Acquiescence is the bare minimum, and for those who won’t acquiesce, the punishment is brutal, violent and fast.
Perhaps it comes from understanding the horrors of colonialism and the British psyche in particular, but the methodical and conscious destruction of society depicted here was particularly painful to read. What hurts isn’t that this unfair, unpleasant society changes, it is that it the change occurs, by force, without choice, and is inflicted by people who want to exploit the individuals who live there: the plan is not to make better, merely to make “same” and make exploitable. You cannot steal resources without making sure there are humans able to harvest and mine the resources you desire.
Change is inevitable, but not like this, not like this.
Things Fall Apart is a powerful damnation of colonialism that works because of its precise and unpretentious depiction of the far-from-perfect society it consciously destroyed. What existed before wasn’t better, but it wasn’t worse, and that culture, that society, belonged to those people, and they had no say in its loss.
If you, like me of a few days ago, haven’t read Things Fall Apart, then I seriously recommend that you do. Then again, if you’re reading this instead of proper writing, maybe you’re too lost too lost too lost.
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