Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe

Mike’s Review

I traded some zines for store credit at Book Zoo a while back. I was considering getting this as I’d only read excerpts in a stupid post-modern college class. There were a lot of other choices too. The clerk asked what I was considering. When I said Things Fall Apart, he said, “Yeah, but you’ve read that.” So I didn’t get it then. (I think I got Vollmann’s The Royal Family.) Instead I waited and got it from Pegasus. This would have been the better choice.

I don’t know that I’ve ever been as jarred as I am at the pronounced killing (honestly, I can’t read my writing all that well here and that’s a bit of an awkward sentence so that may not be what my note says, but I was very jarred, that I remember) of Ikemefuna.

I know I haven’t written much, but this is really good. The writing is simple and clear and I think this makes me say, “Of course it’s like that.” And so I don’t write much because it seems obvious.

What the fuck ending? I feel dirty. Not the suicide, but the cleverness of the book-writing commissioner. Achebe slips into white-man perspective, so the departure from simplicity is allowed (I guess), but it’s not satisfying. It’s dirty. (I expected Okonkwo to receive a Christian burial, the proper burial the tribe wouldn’t give him.) I mean, a perspective change in the final page. Yeah, it’s a white man’s world now, I get that. But it feels false somehow. I wish I understood what exactly was upsetting. I guess it’s a combination of all these things.

Valerie’s response

Are Book Zoo and Pegasus the names of bookstores?

I picked this up at a library sale once, and it’s been on my shelf for over a decade without my reading it – SAD. I love the title, I think that’s why I bought it. My copy is really old and decrepit so I’ve been reluctant to read it in fear that it will actually fall apart.

I should read it since it’s got your stamp of approval. Your Murakami recommendation has not let me down – I will have Kafka finished within a few days I think. With thoughts to share.

Mike’s response

Pegasus and Book Zoo are indeed bookstores. Remember those? If you still have a used bookstore around, I’m sure they’ll have a copy of this. It’s rare I don’t see it. Does it hurt to have multiple copies of the same book?

50 Cent wants to make a movie with the same or similar title about a football player who gets cancer I believe. Achebe sued him and made him change the title.

I recommend this, though not like I recommend Kafka. It shouldn’t take you long as it’s pretty sparse language. I think I read most of it on the train.

I’m so excited to discuss Kafka that I totally want to go buy 1Q84 (I think I’ve seen another iteration of the title so I hope that’s right). It’s weird for me to want to be on the forefront of books. I never even used to bother with new books from the library because the checkout time was less.

Valerie’s response

Finished Kafka on the Shore but cannot form the words yet. Started the Namesake, good god. Achebe is next. Then on to American Gods, maybe (am 3 books behind in my goodreads bookklub).

Valerie’s review

Finally read this…

The first two parts of the book were a setup for the third, when “things fell apart,” so to speak. Okonkwo was as unsympathetic a character as you could find. At least in my mind. He was, however, merely a product of his environment. The striving for material success he yearned for, though, was as real as today’s American businessman. His ambitions manifested in socially unacceptable ways, intolerable to both his own and to today’s culture, and in the story to the colonialists/missionaries who came to the villages.

While some may romanticize the cultures of primitive societies, to me, Achebe’s reality was vulgar. I was repulsed by the polgamy, families forced to discard (i.e., murder) twin infants because the gods called them “evil,” eating the same foods day after day… Okonkwo’s machismo was repellent: the wifebeater always wished his beloved daughter had been a son, he feared being seen weak, which caused him to strike down one son and disown another.

To me, his death in the end was unexpected, the fact that he knew he’d be castigated for another murder driving him to take his own life. Breaking another covenant of the tribe, like the accidental death he caused of his friend’s son, which forced him out of the village for seven years. He blamed his impatience/violent impulsiveness on his “chi” or personal godspirit, relieving himself of responsibility for his actions.

Though I disagree with christianity being pressed upon primitive societies, I was more neutral about the human rights aspects they brought into the village. For example, they allowed the outcasts to join the church, saved the cast-out twins, and brought book reading and writing to the tribes. The more tolerable of the pastors, Brown, was gently learning from the tribe as well, trying to understand the culture to open his own worldview and their communicative channel. Despite his preachiness, I saw him as a cultural student. The worse preacher, Smith, looked at the society coldly (christianity an elite club: “narrow is the path…”) as seen in the last pages, studying them to learn how to best impose his cultural belief system on the group. This is the negative colonialist paradigm in full effect.

Which leads me to wonder, am I subscribing to colonialist ideals with my beliefs in human equality and justice…The primitive society allowed nature to sort things out, in the old “survival of the fittest” mentality. Maybe I intrinsically reject it because I’m not a product of primitive society. I shouldn’t feel guilty about rejecting the village’s way of life, yet I do.

Mike’s response
I did not find Okonkwo unsympathetic. I wonder if this is his maleness or a general acceptance of main characters in fiction. Even in my own writing, wherein I go out of my way to create terrible people, I find myself relating. It’s different when they’re my characters, of course, but I can’t think of a single instance offhand of not identifying with a main character.

Your review makes me think it may be my own romanticising however. I didn’t recognize the cultural problems that you did. You’re right, though. We have our problems too. Maybe I’ll just choose to think I was viewing it as an account of a culture in the past which cannot be changed so there is no need to get upset. That’ll make me feel like a better person.

Honestly, on some level, I know I gave Okonkwo a bit of a pass because he’s male. The desire for power, wanting a son: it may not be right, but I do understand it.

Things can only fall apart if Christianity is bad and the old way of life is good. I know this isn’t necessarily true, but never questioned it. Good going Achebe. Like I said earlier, the writing is simple and direct enough that it makes it seem as though there is nothing to question.

Maybe I intrinsically accept it because I kinda hate myself and am a product of a modern society. I’ve spent a lot of time blaming our culture for my flaws. Flawed culture creates flawed humans, right? I guess Okonkwo and I are sorta similar in that regard. (I should note I’m not as horrible a person as I once was and accept myself and my flaws as my own more now.)

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