The late writer Chinua Achebe originally published his remarkable book, Things Fall Apart, in 1959. That it still lands on “best books ever” lists is a testament to its lasting effect on readers. Late to the party, I just read it for the first time this year.
The book follows the life of an Igbo warrior named Okonkwo and is set in the late 1800s. It’s a narrative about transitional times when the colonial presence of Europeans begins to be felt in places like Okonkwo’s home, Umoufia.
Okonkwo is also a wealthy farmer, but he makes some mistakes. And although he suffers consequences for those mistakes, his family still supports him. Achebe uses Okonkwo’s life as an illustration of life among the Igbo. It’s fascinating and sometimes jarring. But nothing is as tragic as watching the interactions between indigenous people and the European missionary settlers.
The arrival of colonialists changes everything about Igbo life. While most tribe members attempt to retain their traditions and beliefs, other family and friends accept the missionaries’ Christian beliefs. And once you give up the fundamental values of your community, everything falls apart.
Achebe quotes W.B. Yeats’ poem The Second Coming in his epigraph:
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart, the center cannot hold,
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.
Using a European poet’s words to illustrate an African man’s experiences and tribe is ironic. But perhaps it also describes what Okonkwo’s people lost—their homes, traditions, stories, history, and more. Achebe recaptures the essence of the time before and during this transition.
This is a classic work of historical fiction and holds as much meaning today as when Achebe penned it. Understanding colonialism from the perspective of the oppressed is a vital endeavor. I heartily recommend this book.