RIP Chinua Achebe, 1930-2013
I will never forget the first time I read Things Fall Apart, Achebe’s famous novel that mixes elements of magical realism and postcolonial criticism into the story of brave, stubborn Okonkwo, a killer, an exile, a man too big for his world. I was a high school senior and the book was part of an AP Literature reading list. I found a tattered copy in my classroom library, and compelled by the cover and the book’s name (what a great name!) and the author’s name, I read it. I devoured it. I absorbed it. I read it again.
And I stole the book of course.
And then years later, a student of mine stole it from me, which is as it should be.
I used Things Fall Apart for years in the classroom, reading it aloud with my classes in the inner-city school where I taught. Few of my students were avid readers, especially the angry young boys, who often seemed to show up merely to escape the violent streets they roamed or the chaos at home. But they liked Things Fall Apart and they loved Okonkwo and they understood him, his anger, his pride, his fury. Over the years my class set experienced that special kind of attrition all well-loved books face: The books disappeared, secreted into knapsacks and lockers, loaned to students in other classes. Or they fell apart, fittingly, the spines cracked, the glue brittle and crumbling, the pages torn. This is love, of course.
Achebe was always thrust into a strange position. He had to defend writing in English, for example, and discourse about Things Fall Apart often dwells too much on the book’s final chapters, where British colonials begin systemically decimating traditional Igbo culture. It’s not that that final section isn’t important or meaningful to the book, but there’s so much more there—so much is preserved—and shared—of Igbo culture in the book’s first three quarters. (Achebe’s scathing attack on Conrad’s Heart of Darkness often overshadows his fiction).
If we’re being honest though, let’s admit that what makes Things Fall Apart a great work of literature, a strange, strong work of literature, isn’t merely its anthropological or folkloric or political values. It’s not a book we read again and again because of its allegorical values or its maddening critique of colonialism. The reason that we continue to read and reread Things Fall Apart is that it’s an excellent novel, an aesthetic achievement, a work that produces its own anxieties, that captures terror and pity and humanity. So much humanity.