lunes, 20 de diciembre de 2010

Things Fall Apart


Things Fall Apart (Anchor Books, 2008)
by Chinua Achebe
Nigeria, 1958

Ever the cynic, I read most of Things Fall Apart constantly dreading the moment when the novel's rep as a crowd-pleaser would see it transform itself into the book equivalent of the mawkish Titanic.  To my delight and surprise, that moment never came.  A vivid sketch of village life in Nigeria at the historical turning point when the old tribal ways were just beginning to yield to the changes wrought by the late 19th century envoys of European colonialism, the first two-thirds of the work follows the old school, wife-beating Umuofia native Okonkwo as he attempts to better his station in life through personal merit and the manly pursuits esteemed by the clan.  My usual disdain for historical fiction notwithstanding, I freely admit that I enjoyed the proverb-ridden narration, which gave the story a mythic feel lacking in many other 20th century narratives, and the omniscient narrator's focus on the good and bad aspects of tribal life, which cast a spotlight on the problematic nature of Okonkwo's status as an exemplar of the good old days before Christianity replaced animism on the Lower Niger.  In the last third of the work, twin storylines devoted to the protagonist's personal journey and the Umuofia villagers' reaction to white encroachment swiftly and dramatically merge--concluding with a devastating final chapter that reads like a Flaubertian tightening of the noose for an entire society (top that, Madame Bovary).  Arresting, convincing, and not at all the pro forma "world literature classic" I'd half-expected.  (http://www.anchorbooks.com/)

Chinua Achebe

Another Take

14 comentarios:

  1. Interesting! I read this several years ago and failed to connect with it as you seem to have done - the narration seemed a bit "thin" to me, probably partly due to its episodic structure, and I reached the end without caring much about any of the characters or situations.

    There were a few scenes I remember as striking, though - particularly the one in which the schizophrenic-seeming shaman woman (I know it's problematic to diagnose cross-era and cross-culture, but I'm doing it anyway) has taken the couple's child away and they're sitting up late at night wondering if they should go after her. Also thought it was interesting how the villagers simultaneously believe in the masked "ancestors" in the village ritual, even as they also know them to be their own husbands and fathers. Anyway, thanks for the reminder of a book I haven't thought about in quite some time.

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  2. I've been wavering on this one because I too generally avoid "crowd-pleasers." But your description of the final chapter intrigues me enough to consider the rest of the book.

    (BTW, I just learned that Miramar is NOT part of The Cairo Trilogy. Which should've been obvious since it takes place in Alexandria. . .)

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  3. I'd tentatively placed this on my mental "re-read" list, as I only vaguely remember it from the first reading (this despite reading it for a college course). I can't even remember my reaction to it, but there's something lingering in my memory that says it's worth the re-read. I had no idea until recently that there are two 'sequels' to Things Fall Apart as well, but I don't know if they are as well regarded as the first novel.

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  4. Although I read African literature extensively, I never read Achebe. I focused on French speaking Africa. The proverb-ridden narration seems typical for the whole of Africa (just recently read Adichie's short story Half Of a Yellow Sun that later became a novel and every paragraph is initiated by a proverb). I am a trained cultural anthropologist, specialized in African religions which was always the biggest problem for me when reading novels of the region. I read them too much with the eyes of an anthropologist... When reading Emily's comment I was immediately tempted to jump on it and see how religion is described. I think I might like to read this... I would never have suspected it to be a crowd-pleaser... Why did you think that, I didn't get it.

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  5. I think I can relate to that initial apprehension of starting a well-received book, being suspicious of mass marketing and bestsellers. Especially with this book because there are, I think, a lot of ways that can go wrong in it. For me, Achebe skirts away from trivializing the story by sticking to his own unique and uncompromised way of telling it.

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  6. I ve this in mind for some point next year ,my classic african book reading is very thin need to read some more all the best stu

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  7. Haven't read this, and still not especially motivated to despite your well chosen words here. It just does not grab me. Like perhaps your Flaubert taunting grabs me. You know you loved it. Even when you didn't want to.

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  8. *Emily: I can understand someone who doesn't connect with the novel thinking the story's kind of "thin." Achebe's approach/prose style seems as simple as a three-minute pop song, but that's what makes all the heavy-duty stuff that goes on toward the end sneak up on you (well, it did for me anyway). Lots of striking scenes here, though, you're right--I partic. enjoyed the moment where the new convert to Christianity was accused of killing and eating the sacred python, a perfect symbol of the culture clash at play and oh so redolent of Greek tragedy in terms of the moral anarchy and blood pollution that had been unleashed. P.S. Rise's mini-review of the novel, which I added as a link after I originally posted, has an eloquent championing of Achebe's style which you might find interesting as a dissenting view to your own.

    *E.L. Fay: The final chapter was one of my favorites of the year, but I can't explain how it interacts with the rest of the story without giving away too many details. It's a short book, though, much like your beloved Miramar, ha ha, and definitely worth reading at some point just for how often it comes up as a touchstone work in discussions about African literature.

    *Amanda: I think I'd read part of Things Fall Apart ages ago, but I can't remember the context other than that it was probably for a college course as well. I liked the novel enough to want to continue with the two other volumes in the trilogy, but I want to check out one of Achebe's nonfiction collections first. Cheers!

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  9. *Caroline: The "crowd-pleaser" thing has to do with the fact that it's a multi-million seller and, in the U.S. at least, it was at one time seemingly the only African novel ever mentioned by bloggers and mainstream book reviewers alike (I'm being a little sarcastic but not much). The irony is that the novel's also a downer in some major ways! Given your background as a cultural anthropologist with a specialty in African religions, I'd love to hear what you thought of the work...and while I can't assure you that you'd like it (Emily's not alone in her appraisal of the work), I do think you'd find lots to interest you in terms of your anthropological training. I plan on reading about a dozen African-related titles next year (inc. Adichie and at least two Francophone writers) if all goes well, so I'll be super interested in your continuing comments if you care to share (what you say about proverbs being typical of literature from the continent, for example, was news to me). Cheers!

    *Rise: I have that apprehension in almost all walks of my entertainment life, so I'm usually pleased but a little surprised when I can wade into the mainstream and walk away...not totally pissed off! I loved your review of Things Fall Apart as I think I've mentioned, and I'm also tickled by your description of Achebe's storytelling as "uncomprised." I didn't really think of it that way when I was reading him, but I know what you mean. Interesting.

    *Stu: My reason for reading this was much the same as yours--now I want to read Heart of Darkness again, though, so I can see how much I side with Achebe in the case of Achebe vs. Conrad!

    *Frances: I wasn't all that motivated to read this for a number of years, so I can def. understand where you're coming from (please pardon the unfortunate hippie parlance). And apparently my so-called well chosen words weren't all that well chosen: the "Flaubert-taunting" was directed more at the two authors' chosen ends for their protagonists more than anything else. Can I make it up to you by writing I LOVE MADAME BOVARY MORE THAN THINGS FALL APART 100 times on a school blackboard? Ha ha, you know I will!

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  10. I am sure the proverbs are linked to their having been exclusively oral cultures until very recently. (Not speaking about the Maghreb and other Arabic speaking regions of course. Their written traditins are very old, just like ours or older. Just thinking of the famous library in Alexandria... ) African writing is strongly influenced by the countries that colonized them. One aspect of their striving towards their own voice/literature is to incorporate elements from the oral tradition. Isn't Soyinka relying heavily on that as well? Adichie does. Just imagine, you have to write in another than your native tongue, a European language at that. Where will you get your images from? It is very interesting to read African literature but spoils the reading fun for me... I am always hunting the cultural/religious influences. My real specialization however is Haitian literature...(namely the use of vodùn in literature...)Sorry.... I'm lecturing...

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  11. Oooh I think you have given me the final push I needed to actually read this. I have been wanting too for quite some time and have always been unsure about it. I think I might pick it up from the library tomorrow now!

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  12. Merry Christmas, Richard, and thank you for expanding my world in 2010. I'd never read Perec or Dante before, nor even Bolano. I attribute these eye-openng works to your credit. Blessings on 2011, and I look forward to much more blogging with you.

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  13. *Caroline: Sorry to you, Simon, and Bellezza for the delay in getting back to you (holidays, work...), but I didn't take that as lecturing at all. Interesting thoughts on orality + lit. I assume you've already read Carpentier's The Kingdom of This World, but if not, there's another great Caribbean work on the clash of African & Western cultures for you (voodoo + magical realism, too). Cheers!

    *Simon: It's a quick and a light read reading-wise, so you can try it out with little strain on your time management skills. However, I realize that's sometimes easier said than done--I'm still trying to work your Colm Toibin Brooklyn recommendation into the mix a year later, and I have no excuses at this point!

    *Bellezza: Aw, thanks--how very sweet of you! I look forward to continued blogging fun with you next year, too, and I haven't forgotten that we have to arrange a EG Balzac get together at some point. Until then, belated Merry Christmas and continued happy reading!

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  14. The "proverb-ridden narration" suited it. No tricks, just an honest-to-goodness village story that communicates its intent. Nothing in it that blew me away but it stuck.

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