Moving in with another person (or indeed vice versa) is always an interesting experience. When my late wife and I became ‘an item’ I was delighted to have access to a number of new records and books. One of these was Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe which I read either in 1977 or 1978. I can’t recall now whether Audrey had bought the novel herself or it had been given to her by her brother Fred.
Sadly, I have to confess it was my first encounter with African literature. It left a lasting impression on me, even though I wasn’t fully aware at the time of its established reputation which has waxed further over the past forty years.
Published in 1958, the novel describes pre-colonial life in the south-eastern part of Nigeria and the impacts of European settlement and Christian missionary activity as it follows the life of Okonkwo, an Igbo, who is a famous wrestling champion in the fictional Nigerian clan of Umuofia.
What makes Things Fall Apart such a compelling read is the assured way in which Achebe is able to communicate the cultural ambiguities and contestations that must be addressed if discourse about African identity, nationalism, and decolonisation is to be understood in a mature, non-cartoonish way. Nigerian Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka has described the work as “the first novel in English which spoke from the interior of the African character, rather than portraying the African as an exotic, as the white man would see him”.
The title of the book is taken from W.B. Yeats well-known poem The Second Coming. That connection with the latter has recently been explored in depth by Bristle Walshe. According to Walshe:
“Are ‘things’ falling apart in Things Fall Apart?
“Quite the opposite. The ‘things’ in Things Fall Apart retain their solidity. The gourds made of goatskin, the kola cubes and the objects which populate the domestic sphere of the novel remain steadfast in their function as ritual objects. What is constantly under threat of dissemblance in Things Fall Apart are identities, both individual and collective.”
Few first novels have enjoyed the extraordinary success (selling twenty million copies worldwide and being translated into at least fifty languages) as well as the critical acclaim that Achebe achieved. His later novels such as A Man of The People (1966) built on this initial success and are also well worth reading.
Unsurprisingly, the publication of Achebe's Things Fall Apart helped pave the way for numerous other African writers, including Ben Okri (The Famished Road, 1991) and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (Half of a Yellow Sun, 2006).
If this volume is not already on your library shelves, all I can say is that it ought to be!