Friday, April 13, 2018

The 306 Greatest Books #147 - Things Fall Apart

The next up on my reading of the 306 greatest books is Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe. This book can be found on the Norwegian Book List and the Observer Book List

Before ever reading this book, I was enamored by the title. Things Fall Apart is a truly fantastic title because it encompasses a whole lot of information with only three words. The story is also incredibly short, taking me less than a week to read with my version (the Everyman's Library hardcover) only having 180 pages. For the book itself I am terribly conflicted on how I feel.

The first half of the book deals with the main character, Okonkwo, who lives within a tribal village in Africa. This story is his story, and we get to see life primarily from his point of view. My first problem though, is that he is a horribly unlikable character, however this could easily be a cultural thing. Within the story we witness Okonkwo's life from his perspective, where he routinely beats his wife and children and usually it is no big deal. There are times where he does get in trouble for it, but mostly because he does it during a sacred time, not that he actually did it. He also murders a kid early in the story, where it is implied he will see retribution in some form, but it never happens. Looking at Okonkwo's culture in general, it is presented as horribly machismo. If you're not a "man" then essentially you are weak and not worth the ground you will be buried in. I would visualize it as toxic masculinity at its worst, at least from Okonkwo's perspective. However, as you read more and more into the story the reader really gets into their society. It makes sense. And a lot of the things that happen, you as the reader, can go along with and understand.

The first half sets up Okonkwo's life and culture and then something happens, which I'm still not terribly sure how it happened, but Okonkwo is exiled for seven years for manslaughter (essentially). And it is at this time that things start to "fall apart". And it is really interesting. I was under the impression while reading the first half, that this story would focus entirely on this African tribe but shortly into the second half of the story we are introduced to the 'white man', whom not many, if any, of the tribe have ever seen before. The white man ends up bringing his church with him and slowly lures people away from their culture, to the point that local tribesmen are doing things that are horrific to their former beliefs.

And this is where I am conflicted. On the one hand, I don't like the main character as a person. But on the other hand the church here is much worse. They basically condemn these people to death in many instances because the church obviously knows better. Not all of the church people are bad, but the good one in the story goes away and much worse people take his place. The reader can easily see that it is the church that basically dismantles this tribe's culture and society. You feel for these people and when 'everything falls apart', it's heartbreaking. The writing style of this book is actually fantastic. It is incredibly easy to read, which is remarkable since it was written in English, the author's second language. It does take a little while to get used to the names of the people, since many of them are written in similar styles, so piecing them apart to discern who is who takes some time. But I caught on fairly quickly. It's similar to Russian writing in this way. 

And so overall, should you read this? A definite yes (I think). It's not a feel good story by any means, but it is an important one. It is a story about the death of a rich African culture, where the reader truly feels that culture, and watches it slip away from them. Where some of the people stand up to fight this change, and they are the ones who are quickly put down, leaving only this new system behind. Heartbreaking to say the least, but important to understand.

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