Thursday, March 09, 2006


Things Fall Apart, by Chinua Achebe, Read by Peter Francis James, Recorded Books, LLC, 1997

It’s always disappointing when a book one’s been looking forward to reading isn’t as good as the anticipation of reading it. For years I had heard how good Chinua Achebe’s renowned classic Things Fall Apart was. It was the first and last word on cultural imperialism and the best possible place to start if one wished to understand the troubles besetting contemporary Africa.

Well, I like a good story and I like a history lesson wrapped in a compelling narrative and I like to know how the hell previous generations got us into so many shitty messes in so many places. Yet somehow Achebe’s book kept alluding me. I even own a print copy I’ve tried to get off my duff and read, but never managed to make it stick.

I wasn’t missing much, it turns out. The ballyhoo seems rather misplaced, in fact. Things Fall Apart tells a generic story about the life of a tribesman in Africa and he and his tribe’s reaction, later in the book, to the coming of the Christian missionaries. Any unanticipated knowledge I might have gleaned from the story is slight and of no particularly illuminating quality, save for a few particular quirks specific to our hero’s tribe, the Ibo.

Okonkwo is our “hero” and I put that word in quotes for a reason. I was never sure throughout my entire reading of the novel if we were supposed to feel any great warmth toward this person. He is large and muscular and early in his life brought his family and tribe honor for winning a major fight. He is a success in comparison to his father; who is a bit of a wastrel, preferring to play his music to striving to gain wealth. My preference for his father might be chalked up to a kind of cultural bias, but I think every society has produced the artist who scorns both material wealth and the mores of his peeers.

And so we’re supposed to sympathize at some level with Okonkwo who has two barns full of yams, three wives, and has earned a high-rank in the village of Umuofia. Were he merely a striver who didn’t wish the fate of his father, poverty and low repute, to befall him, that’d be one thing. Yet when you write of a character “Okonkwo ruled his household with a heavy hand. His wives, especially the youngest, lived in perpetual fear of his fiery temper, and so did his little children” you are not inviting me to like this person.

Okonkwo is full of himself, regularly angry, abusive well beyond just loud-mouthed, and cares for nothing so much as accumulating wealth, wives, and prestige. There’s a name for this kind of person whether he’s a Gordon Gecko Wall Street exec or a Ibo tribesman or an Industrial Age beadle or a mammoth hunting Cro-Magnon, and that word is asshole.

Achebe writes that the village was not the kind where a person is judged by their father, but by their own standing in the community. Okonkwo, however, completely judges himself by his father, hating everything his father loved, including “gentleness and idleness.” It’s possible to argue against the latter of these as a virtue, though you’ll find little sympathy here against arguing for the former. When the book first began, I wondered if I was supposed to admire Okonkwo or not. Was there a tactic Achebe was striving for here with a loathsome protagonist, or perhaps was some cultural friction between what was admired in his village and what was admired in our softer, western society. But as time went on, I realized that he is a jerk no matter where he’s from.

In college I had been upbraided by an American woman who was dating an Arab man and was planning to move to his country and take the veil. I asked her if she didn’t find the veil sexist, and she accused me of cultural insensitivity. While there may be some honesty in the charge that I prefer my own cultural background to most others, I’m still of the opinion that I was right in that debate and she was wrong. It is a question I have wrestled with repeatedly, and I can only conclude that any society, no matter what their mores, any society that argues one type of person based solely on their color, their gender, their sexual orientation, any society that sets a value on a person based upon an inalterable part of their character, is deficient in enlightenment. Any culture that values destruction over creation is deficient.

The general problem with accusations of cultural insensitivity, as a rule, is that such suggestions assume culture as a monolithic whole. While clitorectomies, to use one particularly vile example, are common in certain cultures, it isn’t like there aren’t people within that culture who object to such things. Branding my objection to societies who glorify war as cultural insensitivity is to suggest that these other, alien cultures exist in a mindlock. It denies the very individuality of humanity that is an greater or lesser degree of fact. Are there none in that society who object to war, who find mass slaughter revolting?

I think there are. Achebe even says as much. Okonkwo’s father does not like war. His reason given is that he’s a coward, but that is beside the point. The point is that he believes differently from the dominant structure of his group, and I’m certain he’s not alone. When I say that this tribe’s worship of war is revolting, I am not saying this society is a primitive organization deserving of cultural imperialism and whatever they get at the spear or rifle barrel. I am placing myself firmly in the party of Okonkwo’s father, not Okonkwo’s. It is illogical to argue that one should show obeisance to a culture’s dominant belief structure merely on the grounds that it is the dominant belief structure.

Should we celebrate with sensitivity Nazi Germany, Spain of the Inquisition, public executions of women convicted of adultery in Saudi Arabia, pro-slavery antebellum Georgia? Is it cultural insensitivity to say that these belief structures are repugnant? These are examples of the dominant culture, but we celebrate in fact the people who resist, the people who oppose such wide held belief systems. We do not celebrate them merely because we judge our belief structures to be superior; we celebrate them because the dignity of the individual is a universal, inalienable dignity.

And it’s not as if I didn’t understand that in celebrating those who have opposed certain belief systems that I am making value judgments upon other societies and times based on my current time and place. That is inevitable and impossible to get around. I can’t value bottled water without it reflecting a certain time and place; I can’t value freedom of speech without it reflecting time and place. I can’t value most anything without that reflection.

Nevertheless, the book does paint a compelling portrait of how the coming of Christian missionaries to Africa destroy clan life, uprooting tradition, some of which is quite wonderful. There is no particular shame in the loss of traditions like drinking wine out of the skull of the enemies you kill, but the tight-knit bonds of family and extended family is saddening. And Achebe isn’t blind to the ridiculous hypocrisy of a social justice system that prizes beatings and punishment being paired so tightly with a religion that so loudly proclaims forgiveness and non-violence. It is one of Christianity’s organizational sins in its evangelicalism, and we are still paying a heavy price for its blunders.

Yet when Okonkwo loses everything and has to move to his mother’s family’s village, you hope that he will relearn his life’s lessons and come away a better person for it, but it’s a hope in vain. Instead, when the book’s conclusion occurs, it happens so abruptly that there is little to be said for it. Things do fall apart so quickly at the end of the novel that it leaves little time for deliberation or consideration.

Reader Peter Francis James brings nothing special to his delivery save for an elegant pair of vocal cords with mellifluous delivery. He is neither particularly flashy nor given to dramatic stylings, yet his profound voice is paired well with this book’s reputation, delivering the story up with a sedate and stately pacing.

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