Things Fall Apart

Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart, cover

Chinua Achebe’s classic novel Things Fall Apart (1958) is often seen as a riposte to European representations of African life and culture, not least for instance Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, which Achebe memorably described as the work of “a thoroughgoing racist.” Achebe’s critique is that Conrad’s novella treats “Africa as setting and backdrop which eliminates the African as human factor. Africa as a metaphysical battlefield devoid of all recognizable humanity, into which the wandering European enters at his peril.” Moreover, he continues, “The real question is the dehumanization of Africa and Africans which this age-long attitude has fostered and continues to foster in the world.”

I wonder, however, about the effectiveness of this riposte. Not least because Things Fall Apart reads as an extended obituary to a vanished way of life and as such mimics a quasi-anthropological perspective on colonized cultures. However much Achebe wants to distinguish himself not only from Conrad but also from the colonial District Commissioner who features at the book’s conclusion as a would-be ethnologist contemplating writing a book to be entitled “The Pacification of the Primitive Tribes of the Lower Niger” (209), he sustains rather than undermines the tropes that enable such Eurocentric visions.

Achebe’s novel is certainly obsessed with mourning and death: both the ultimate suicide of its protagonist, Okonkwo, a strongman in an Ibo village called Umuofia, and the vanishing of the precolonial customs and structures with which Okonkwo’s demise is associated. Okonkwo is an ambitious striver, whose rash actions lead first to his exile from the community and later to his killing himself (an unholy action) as he realizes that resistance to cultural invasion is apparently futile. But this has already been foretold: towards the end, after a convert interrupts a ritual performance and unmasks one of its participants, we hear that “the Mother of the Spirits walked the length and breadth of the clan, weeping for her murdered son. [. . .] Not even the oldest man in Umuofia had ever heard such a strange and terrible sound, and it was never to be heard again. It seemed as if the very soul of the tribe wept for a great evil that was coming–its own death” (187). We are, I think, to share in this sorrow, and thus to condemn the coming of the colonizers.

But such lamentation is a typical feature of colonial discourse itself, which regularly mourned–and continues to mourn–the destruction of indigenous practices and lifestyles for which it itself was and is responsible. From the cult of the “noble savage” and The Last of the Mohicans to the fascination towards supposedly uncontacted tribes from Amazonian Peru to the Andamans, imperial powers have always professed ambivalence towards the consequences of modernization and/or development. But this mourning is expressed so as to suggest that these are the inevitable victims of a progress that is unstoppable, the price we pay for so-called civilization. At the same time, the anthropological lament tells us that as soon as the pristine authenticity of the indigenous is compromised, they cease to be (really) indigenous at all. Hence, it is not only no use trying to save the victims of colonization: in that as soon as we know of them they are irredeemably transformed (acculturated, inauthentic), it is not worth saving them either.

Perhaps the success of Achebe’s book, as no doubt (and by some distance) the best-known and best-selling novel written by a black African, is due to its playing into precisely this colonial fantasy. It helps that its narrative is set in some rather vague and imprecise past: the Ibo are presented very much as people without history, whose way of life is perpetuated through constant repetition undergirded by folk memory. As the colonizers arrive, inducing a “terrible sound” never heard before and “never to be heard again,” this is the eruption of a new mode of temporality into an otherwise relatively static (at best, cyclical) way of life. Okonkwo then has to die, in a foolhardy act of useless resistance, because his life is unimaginable after the taint of Western corruption has come.

In fact, however, the Ibo (now usually called Igbo) have had a rather more interesting postcolonial history than the novel suggests. Indeed, the very notion of Igbo identity is itself largely the product of colonial contact, and led to a dramatic twentieth-century history (not least the Biafra rebellion) in which Achebe himself played a not insignificant part. But this afterlife of the I(g)bo would come as a surprise to a reader of the novel, riven through as it is with an air of chilling finality. And I would argue that this attempt (almost literally) to close the book on I(g)bo culture is as dehumanizing as anything to be found in Conrad or his ilk. For it denies them their human complexity, even as the figure of Okonkwo himself (twice over traitor to his tribe) points indirectly to the mythic dimension of the dream of precolonial purity.

For more, see my lecture on Arts One Open.


Alphabetical Africa coverUpon mentioning recently that I had just finished Walter Abish’s Alphabetical Africa, I was accused of having a taste for “novelty” books. I replied that this novel was more John Cage than “Laughing Gnome”: a sustained exercise in minimalism and constraint that tries to say something about the form itself.

The constraint is simple enough: the book’s first chapter contains only words that begin with the letter “a.” A typical extract: “Albert arrives, alive and arguing about African art, about African angst and also, alas, attacking Ashanti architecture…” (1). The second chapter adds words that begin with the letter “b,” the third adds those that start with “c,” and so on until only with the twenty-sixth chapter can words start with any letter of the alphabet. But then the process is reversed. Gradually the number of permitted words decreases until the final, fifty-second, chapter again consists of nothing but words beginning with “a.”

The plot takes us from Antibes to Zanzibar, on the trail of what emerge as a couple of jewel thieves, Alex and Allen, who themselves are pursuing the mysterious Alva, who seems to have made off with their loot following a bungled kidnapping in the south of France. Of course, the mystery takes a while to unfold, because for instance the fact that Alex and Allen are “killers” cannot even be mentioned until chapter eleven, when words beginning with the letter “k” are first permitted. A shady Queen Quat (could she perhaps be Alva in some new disguise?) is the focus of much interest in the central part of the book, but necessarily fades from view after chapter thirty-five.

The reader is constantly aware of what can and cannot be said, of the gradually expanding and then contracting field of signification. First person narration is only possible once “I” can be uttered; definite articles and third-person plural (they, their) have still longer to wait; and second-person address is only fleetingly available.

Perhaps Abish’s greatest technical achievement, indeed, is maintaining a remarkable stylistic consistency despite the very different resources available to him at distinct points of the novel. Even when, briefly, all the constraints are lifted, he still writes with enigmatic terseness: “Zambia helps fill our zoos, and our doubts, and our extrawide screens as we sit back” (64). It is as though when the full richness of language is available, we fear being overwhelmed by detail; we need to sit back. Meaning and sense-making are possible only thanks to constraint, to a recognition that not everything can be said, at least not all at once.

The book is clearly about representation: its arbitrariness and its slippages. But it is not about representation alone: there is a constant sense that Africa is slipping away, but also that it is somehow now physically wasting away. Abish acknowledges that there is something particular about Africa, and its colonial and postcolonial history, that enables fantasy and seems to wither the real: “Africa is a favorite topic in literature, it gives license to so much excess, and now to a shrinking land mass” (58). And Ernst van Alphen argues for a subtext of genocide and counter-insurgency.

Finally, there are the mistakes, the points at which the rigid representational strictures are breached. It’s tempting to regard these as accidents, but some are so blatant they seem to be calling out: in a chapter in which words beginning with “s” are supposedly now banned, “for she’s a jolly good fellow, for she’s a jolly good fellow” (105). These errors point less to the impossibility of the task that Abish has set himself, than to a perverse, perhaps unconscious rebellion against the project. “I,” for instance, will make its way where it has been outlawed (138, 146, 147).

In short, both Africa and the alphabet become fields on which the dramas of order and disorder, rebellion and domination, pattern and singularity are played out. The book calls out attention both to grids (linguistic, geographical, political) and to their limits, and ends up with the perhaps utopian gesture of invoking “another Africa another alphabet” (152).