What a beautifully constructed story. Chinua Achebe is able to characterise such incredibly strong emotions in a book of merely 150 pages. He tells a complete emotional story of colonialism without attempting to touch on any historical facts. I can understand why Things Fall Apart is lauded as a modern classic.
The story starts slowly but steadily in a Nigerian tribal community. Achebe gives readers a good sense of the cultural, religious and seasonal experiences of the community. The experiences have a mystical element because many are based on superstitions and cultural beliefs. One gets a sense of the low value assigned to human life during this time, both due to the lack of modern medicine and the community’s decision to outcast certain individuals. Twins are just one example – seen as evil they are killed after birth. Despite the low value attached to an individual’s life, one gets a clear sense of the peaceful, happy and contented way of life. While many of the rituals could be classified as barbaric, Achebe’s tone and tempo gloss over these events as they don’t significantly impact the rhythm within the community. The rituals are momentarily painful but accepted.
After a calm but quick-fire introduction to the mystical life in rural Nigeria, the arrival of white missionaries radically changes the tone and pace. There is a sudden clash of cultures!
Initially, the elders in the community are wary of the missionaries but concede by allowing them to build a church in the evil forest in the expectation that they won’t last 4 days. But of course, there isn’t anything particularly evil about the forest. Initially, the missionaries’ warm and welcoming stance with their evangelic song and dance is a beautifully positive influence. The church welcomes the outcasts with open arms. To start, the community is happy to get rid of the outcasts. But tribal leaders are far less satisfied when close family relatives are pulled into the congregation.
Achebe is able to briefly outline the positives and negatives of both the tribal and missionary communities in his story. I’ve mentioned the happy tribal community above. One can also imagine the immensely positive influence of the new missionary culture on personal liberty and formal education that didn’t exist before. But clearly, the major thrust of Achebe’s narrative is the negative colonial influence because it pulls apart families and communities that were previously happy and content. One of the missionaries is very keen to allow a symbiosis to develop between the old and new worlds. But all it takes is a more hard-line approach and the imposition of European laws and regulation on society to tear the social fabric apart.
Powerfully written and certainly worth reading.