“50th Anniversary Edition” it says on the title – a phrase that always makes me wonder what makes books, or rather, the stories they present, endure. Acknowledging my bias for contemporary – if not postmodern – if not recent – literature (meaning I’d be surprised to find more than 5 books in my shelves that are older than 40 years), 50th anniversary editions are not something that regularly ends up in my bookshelf. Now Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart (1994 , First Anchor Books) did. I am struggling with labels such as “truly African”, which is how Achebe’s prose is labeled in the backpart of the book. I find this problematic especially thinking of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TED talk about the dangers of a Single Story, because it perpetuates imageries of an exotic Africa, that “still” organizes in “tribes”. What is worse, that’s exactly the kind of condescending colonialist logic the writer quite eloquently exposes in the novel.
Achebe does this in two ways: there is first, the story. It’s the story of Okonkwo, a man from an Igbo tribe in times of expanding colonialism, and his coping mechanisms with this new order of things. As the title suggests, these mechanisms do not work out well, and the reader presences continuous backlashes and misfortunes, interpreted through the lense of Igbo beliefs. After showing how colonialist expansion and christian belief turn the Igbo order of things upside down and endanger and disappear people, their beliefs and traditions, Achebe’s final twist is the exposition of the appropriation of a story of conquest through the lense of the British colonizer, who, in the worst ethnographic tradition, writes a book about the “Pacification of the Primitive Tribes of the Lower Niger”, when really there was no need to pacify, and the only thing primitive in the story is the white man’s racism and ignorance.
The second way in which Achebe criticizes the colonial appropriation of the narrative of conquest is more a question of style. At first, readers used to certain mainstream noveistic prose may find it challenging to read. But then, at least for me, there was a point when it dawned on me that this style is actually an impressive way of writing orally. The book comes across as a story told by one of the village elders themselves, and imitates the style they would tell tales. The text is full of proverbs, often following a path and an episode for illustration of a point, without ever coming back to it: the threads are not knotted together, but left open for the reader/listener to find her own interpretation of what to do with the episode. In this way, the style metaphorically doubles Achebe’s critique in pointing out to the reader her own (eurocentric) prejudices and expectations about how stories should be written.
How did I come across the book?
This one was recommended to me by Amazon. Their algorythm probably didn’t have too much trouble getting from Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie to Chinua Achebe, not only because they’re from the same country, but also because she lists him as one of her inspirations. Which was the reason for me to read it, and surprised me insofar as I expected something different, probably closer to her books. In the end then, this was a lesson in expectation management as well, which made something clear to me: Inspirations does not mean immitation, necessarily.
When and where did I read it?
Mostly at home, before bedtime, since this was the only opportunity I had to actually read, in the last weeks. The end of the semester took its toll on me with yet another conference and correcting my student’s works.
“A child’s fingers are not scalded by a piece of hot yam which its mother puts into its palm.” p.67
Teju Cole’s Open City (2011, Random House) is this year’s number 2 accomplishment on my reading list. It does definitely count as accomplishment for me, because besides being a rather short book, it took me several weeks to really get into it. Still then, there were moments of severe irritation, about how a book can be at the same time intriguing and boring, offering innovative perspectives on living together in a “multicultural” city and some very conservative remarks about connections between faith and politics. While I liked the anecdotal style in general, and the way the author offers glimpses at so many different life stories connected in the urban space, I was often disappointed by the flatness of the female characters and the oftentimes very self-confident judgements of the protagonist. At some point, the main character’s cosmopolitanism becomes enervating, and it is particularly unclear to me why the author uses nationalities to describe people. While there are page-long discussions between males about Islam, Philosophy and World Politics, female characters mostly serve to literally spice up the story and don’t get many chances to dialogue. There’s one exception however: Dr. Maillotte, an elderly doctor the protagonist meets on a plane to Brussels. A great part of the writing is devoted to descriptions of walking along the streets of either New York or Brussels. Personally, I am not a huge fan of long descriptions of walks and observations of their respective environments. But maybe people familiar with the respective city’s geography find these parts more interesting to read. Spoiler alert: the most surprising part is possibly the confession made by his highschool friend’s older sister about 15 pages before the book ends. After that, you may have gotten to a deeper understanding of Hannah Arendt’s banality of evil.
How did I come across the book?
A very good friend borrowed it to me before he had to read it himself for a class. I had talked with him about Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah – which I loved, and he found OK, and since I am generally very receptive to his recommendations, I gave it a try. Plus, I was interested in broadening my knowledge of Nigerian writers.
When and where did I read it?
I began mid-december on a trip to Berlin, then mostly read it before going to sleep. It took me until early january to really get into reading it, and then took another two weeks to finish.
For my taste, this paragraph sums up pretty well what the book is like:
Instinctively saving a baby, a little happiness; spending time with Rwandans, the ones who survived, a little sadness; the idea of our final anonymity, a little more sadness; sexual desire fulfilled without complication, a little more happiness: and it went on like that, as thought succeeded thought. How petty seemed to me the human condition, that we were subject to this constant struggle to modulate the internal environment, this endless being tossed about like a cloud. Predictably, the mind noted that judgement, too, and assigned it its place: a little sadness. (p.146)