Posted by: Lizzie Ross | July 8, 2010

A leader’s fall

Things Fall Apart, Chinua Achebe (1958), illus. Uche Okeke, Heinemann, 148 pp.

I first read this astonishing book in French (Le monde s’effondre) when I was in the Peace Corps, teaching English in a West African country. When I next encountered it, in a graduate literature course, I immediately recognized the original English title’s reference to W B Yeats’ “The Second Coming”:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre/The falcon cannot hear the falconer;/Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;/Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.

Yeats’ poem is a response to the horrors of WWI, but it could also apply to any age when it seems that humankind has lost its sense of meaning and purpose. The characters in this novel, the inhabitants of a Nigerian village in the last decade of the 19th Century, must face the consequences of their leader’s folly, and he himself must decide to what extent he is willing — or even able — to change.

The post-WWII period in Africa — as the various colonies there begin to move towards independence and the people living outside of the cities must deal with European encroachments on land and culture — becomes a perfect setting for Achebe’s tragic tale of Okonkwo, who so fears to show any weakness that he ignores the advice given by elders. As a result, his luck changes, and he and his family are driven into exile.

Okonkwo can’t bend, so you have to wonder what will eventually break him. And if strength sometimes seems to be just sheer stubbornness, what does this suggest for us today, as we continue to dig in our heels? At what point is loyalty to the past an error of judgment?

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