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Things (do in fact) Fall Apart
There is something the contemporary can easily relate to in Chinua Achebe's novel, published in 1959. It has to do with a clan distributed over nine villages. Its way of life is completely established. They worship gods and ancestral spirits. They plant and harvest yams. They enjoy a rich communal life. Events happen all the time. Upon occasion, there is a need for the wisdom of the elders. Or, in certain cases, the manliness of warriors. There are other clans, too, and disputes as well. Marriages take place, in addition to births, and instant divorce, consisting of distraught women who, overnight, exchange one man's hut for another. Their lives are also interwoven with superstition. For instance, ogbanjes, usually stillborn children, would do harm to their mothers by re-entering the womb. The practice of mutilating their bodies after they die is especially upsetting to Anglican missionaries, who venture in about a hundred and fifty pages into the book.
Naturally, the Christians are destined to win out. They build a church in the Evil Forest, and nothing bad happens to them. But because of this victory, the protagonist, Okonkwo, is virtually robbed of a life that should by all rights have been his to live. Granted, it would not have been a perfect life. At a ceremonial funeral, in a salute to the deceased with firearms, he accidentally shoots a boy. He is forced into exile, but well on the road to recovery when the evangelists arrive. Okonkwo is a proud man and steadfastly refuses any compromise with this invasion. Nwoye, his son, thinks otherwise, and deserts his father's household. Over time, many villagers also heed the call, and, against the outspoken wishes of Okonkwo and others, convert. "What is it that has happened to our people?" he mournfully asks.
Things Fall Apart are words taken from a poem by W.B. Yeats. In the line following, "mere anarchy" is unleashed. This is in fact what transpires. It is complicated, too. The general explanation that overrides all others is that the tragedies that unfold are the brick and mortar of progress. It is never easy. And it is ubiquitous. Nigeria, too, will be modernized. Christianity, it seems, is a dialectical step forward toward true religion, after dispensing with an earth goddess and an Oracle of the Hills and Caves. But only in fiction, it seems, can the actual bulldozing of a way of life that is relatively gentle and long-lasting be brought to attention.
Something similar is in the process of occurring today. All this computerization and technological innovation has turned many decent lives into lives that are desperate and destined for the waste heap. Many stores have vanished, replaced by online warehouses no one has ever laid eyes on. Live voices are seldom heard on telephones; rings are answered by talking menus. Only a lucky few can work from home. Programmers in cubicles decide how we should live. Required fields are more authoritative than the decalogue. Jobs are scarce. Familiarity is chimerical. Everything changes overnight. A sense that human beings do not matter is pervasive. Unto the haves shall be given: the have-nots are as numerous now as they were in 1929, a year into Herbert Hoover's ill-fated administration.
Nigerians withstood the onslaught of Christianity -- yes -- but can a world in transition to tech-supported despotism long sustain computerization/dehumanization? That is why good novels are so important. If nothing else, they spread the word.