Considered a landmark piece of postcolonial literature (mentioned in the same breath as icons like Hemingway and Conrad as well as lesser-known authors like Nadine Gordimer), Things Fall Apart struck me as important, but somewhat shoddily done.
In brief, Things Fall Apart tells the story (in English, which is important) of Okonkwo, an alpha male of sorts in the Ibo tribe in what is now Nigeria. The first part of the novel narrates the various events of Okonkwo’s life, illustrating his good and bad points as well as the tribe’s good and bad points. Okonkwo, for instance, is very aggressive, but the tribe itself isn’t particularly warlike in most situations.
The second part of the novel deals with the sudden intrusion of European colonists into the area, and how the tribe (and Okonkwo, notably two separate but closely tied entities) deal with it. For people like my English professor whose hobby horse is this sort of postcolonial sociological study, the book is a treasure trove of ideas. I can’t talk at length without giving away the bulk of the plot, but needless to say you can probably guess what happens to the Ibo tribe.
For those of you who might think the book is a bleeding-heart tome of apologetics for European imperialism, I must point out that the book is not polemic at all, despite Achebe’s extremist views on the rather soft-spoken Joseph Conrad. The unseen narrator implicitly takes issue with many of the more barbaric aspects of Ibo culture (i.e., drinking from the severed head of an enemy), and with the violently aggressive masculinity/sexism of Okonkwo. It also seems to accept as a benefit the introduction of schools and other aspects of Western civilization while acknowledging that even beneficial changes will damage irreparably the fabric of their traditional culture.
While Things Far Apart is certainly an interesting look at African colonization, it suffers from a certain crudeness of style that never affected other writers like Conrad. I felt somewhat unfulfilled as I was reading it, as the characterization was somewhat stagnant, the prose crude (if on purpose), and certain bits unclear. The ending in particular aggrieved me, because I still had lingering questions as to why things happened the way they did.
Chances are, if you take any English courses in college, you’ll end up reading this book. Unless postcolonial literature is really your thing, or you have some burning desire to read it, I can’t recommend it as en enjoyable read. Achebe just doesn’t have the style.