Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart is a beautiful novel – as an extended metaphor for African despoliation, life and politics it works wonderfully. Beautiful is, perhaps, a strange word to describe this essentially melancholic novel but whilst Things Fall Apart is a sorrowful affair it is never a despondent one. The scenes from the life of Nigeria’s Ibo society are painted with an assured, uplifting clarity and they resonate brightly – and long. Okonkwo is an excellent, wonderfully human, central character: strong; headstrong; wilful; proud. A traditionalist, he is acutely aware of the pitfalls of forgetting the past but he is blind to the absurdities, cruelties and sheer backwardness of certain of his tribe’s customs and of his own, sometimes outrageous, actions.
Okonkwo can fight with the best of them – indeed his place in his community stems from his physical prowess and his victory in an important wrestling contest when he was still comparatively young – but he can’t prevent ‘progress’. What he knows (and the reader acutely shares in his knowledge via Achebe’s polished, elegant writing) is that Europeans and their impudent monotheism, hubristic imperiousness, their racism and ultimately the sheer violence of their culture and its justice is not in any way ‘progress’ at all. Achebe shows us Okonkwo’s (and Africa’s) dilemma: the progress to a capitalist future is no future; the rural isolation and ignorance of his tribe is no longer even a viable present.