Tuesday, August 25, 2009

208. Things Fall Apart – Chinua Achebe

April 2009
History: Published in 1958, it is a staple book in schools throughout Africa. The title of the novel comes from William Butler Yeats' poem "The Second Coming".
Plot: Okonkwo has risen from nothing to a high position. His father, a lazy flute-player named Unoka, was skilled in the art of conversation, but was an unsuccessful man with no regard for material wealth. Through hard work, Okonkwo has risen to a highly regarded position in his society, showing himself to be skilled in battle and earning several titles. He is also a champion wrestler. He has taken three wives, has several children, and has built substantial wealth through his farming of yams, the staple crop of his village. He rules his family with a firm hand and an overbearing demeanor, struggling to demonstrate that he does not have the laziness and weakness that characterized his father. One day, a neighboring clan commits an offense against Umuofia. To avoid war, a bargain is struck that involves the offending clan releasing to Umuofia a boy, whose name is Ikemefuna, to be sacrificed to the gods, but not immediately. He lives in Umuofia with Okonkwo's family for three years. He almost becomes a part of Okonkwo's family. In particular, Nwoye, Okonkwo's oldest son, loves Ikemefuna like a brother. But eventually the Oracle calls for the boy's death, and a group of men take Ikemefuna away to complete the sacrifice. Okonkwo, fearful of being perceived as soft-hearted and weak, participates in the boy's death, despite the advice of the clan elders.
Okonkwo is shaken by this event, but he continues with his drive to become a lord of his clan. He is constantly disappointed by Nwoye, but he has great love for his daughter Ezinma, his child by his second wife Ekwefi. Ekwefi bore ten children, but only Ezinma has survived. Ekwefi loves the girl fiercely. Ezinma is sickly, and sometimes Ekwefi fears that Ezinma, too, will die. Late one night, the powerful Oracle of Umuofia brings Ezinma with her for a spiritual encounter with the earth goddess. Terrified, Ekwefi follows the Oracle at a distance, fearing harm might come to her child. Okonkwo follows, too. Later, during a funeral for one of the great men of the clan, Okonkwo's gun explodes, killing the son of the buried man. In accordance with Umuofia's law, Okonkwo and his family are exiled to Okonkwo's mother's home village of Mbanta for seven years.
During Okonkwo's exile, the white man arrives in both Umuofia and Mbanta. Mr. Brown, a missionary, begins winning converts to Christianity, though generally these are only outcasts or men of low rank. However, with time, the new religion gains momentum. Nwoye becomes a convert after realizing that the new religion will provide him a remedy for the death of Ikemefuna and the twin children who are killed as part of tribe's culture. When Okonkwo learns of Nwoye's conversion, he beats the boy. Nwoye leaves home.
Okonkwo returns to Umuofia to find the clan sadly changed. The church has won some converts, some of whom are fanatical and disrespectful of clan custom. Worse, the white man's government has come to Umuofia. The clan is no longer free to judge its own; a District Commissioner, backed by armed power, judges cases in ignorance of tribal custom.
During a religious gathering, a convert (Enoch) unmasks one of the clan spirits. The offense is grave, and in response the clan decides that the church will no longer be allowed in Umuofia. They burn the building down. Soon afterward, the District Commissioner asks the leaders of the clan, Okonkwo among them, to go and see him for a peaceful meeting. The leaders arrive, and are quickly seized. In prison, they are humiliated and beaten, and they are held until the clan pays a heavy fine.
After the release of the men, the clan calls a meeting to decide whether they will fight or try to live peacefully with the white people. Okonkwo wants war. During the meeting, court messengers arrive to order the men to break up their gathering. The clan meetings are the heart of Umuofia's government; all decisions are reached democratically, and an interference with this institution means the end of the last vestiges of Umuofia's independence. Enraged, Okonkwo decapitates one of the messengers. The others escape, and because the other people of his clan did not seize them, Okonkwo knows that they will not choose war. Embittered and grieving for the destruction of his clan's independence, and fearing the humiliation of dying under white law, Okonkwo returns home and hangs himself, which is seen as weak and as an attack against nature, so much so that others from Umuofia cannot touch his body.
The District Commissioner and his messengers arrive at Umuofia to see Okonkwo dead, and are asked to take down his body since Ibo mores forbid clan members to do this. The Commissioner plans to write a book about his experiences dealing with undignified behavior in the area, titled The Pacification of the Primitive Tribes of the Lower Niger, which might include a small section about Okonkwo.
Review: I listened to this book while back and forth to see my dad at the hospital. At first I was interested, because it is interesting to hear other cultures, especially the long last lives of tribes, customs and relationships. At the end, I realized the cultural significance of the book.
Opening Line: “Okonkwo was well know throughout the nine villages and even beyond.”
Closing Line: “He had already chosen the title of the book, after much thought: The Pacification of the Primitive Tribes of the Lower Niger.”
Quotes: "A proud heart can survive general failure because such a failure does not prick its pride. It is more difficult and more bitter when a man fails alone."
Rating: good

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