Sunday, April 12, 2015

Of men of old and their lesser gods


Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart is a substantial and illuminating piece of African literature written by its author in the English language with the purposes of not only portraying the Nigerian tribal culture through the neutral lenses of one of its native writers, but also to connect with a wider, global audience who very much need a fresh perspective when it comes to how Africans live, worship and govern themselves as families and clans. In this sense, most of the critical acclaim that this novel received is well-deserved. I could definitely agree that it's something schools should require for students to read and analyse in their literature classes. I also think that the broader strokes that Achebe achieved in writing Things Fall Apart must be better appreciated, I believe, with the sequels that followed it. I myself feel encouraged to pick them up someday. For now, I'm content to lavish on the richly detailed significant moments that happened in this book which were relayed with both sheer insight and pragmatism in a scale I thought was admirable and genuine.

T
he central figure of this book is a native named Okonkwo who is considered to be one of the most formidable wrestlers in his clan. He also fancies himself as a self-made man of brute force and hard labor, dedicated in making a name and reputation for himself where his own father before him has failed. From the very start, readers are immediately informed that Okonkwo despises weakness and laziness since his culture demands a man to be strong with the typical and traditional traits of masculinity. He must be steadfast in dominating his wives and children and must never show affection or leniency even towards his loved ones. The mark of a proud man, indeed, and this singular quality has made him rather unappealing to me. Nevertheless, I thought he was a main character I didn't mind reading about or learning more from since there are other times I think he is also sympathetic enough to warrant some of my understanding and compassion. I like the fact that Okonkwo values hard work above all else, that he has to strive to attain for a prosperous life, and that he wants the same for his eldest son borne of his first wife. In this sense, I thought he was agreeable enough.

With Okonkwo as the focal point, Achebe also explored the inner workings of the clan he is a part of which include some practices and customs that may seem bizarre from an outsider's point-of-view. Much of the book delved upon the daily grind of their lives which include the homemaking and services provided by the women, festivities and certain offerings for their gods especially during harvest seasons, and the clan's very own judicial system which may seem primitive if not outright cruel for modern readers who will encounter it in this book but I think it's a system that works best for them in the long run. There is also a matter of how Okonkwo treats his wives and children which are questionable, of course, because he can be violent and definitely beats them around whenever they displease him but Achebe never describes this violence in detail which gives the effect that such a occurrence is commonplace. I didn't particularly feel enraged either only because Achebe can somehow make a reader readily understand that this is simply a matter of how the culture works and whatever preconceived judgments someone of my own upbringing has should be cast aside to enable to view this with a more pragmatic observation. 

I succeeded, in this case, and bore in mind that a husband beating his wife in the context of their culture is his right because she is his property, and that is a norm I should only consider myself fortunate not to be a part of. In my perspective, it is nothing other than systematic abuse that is normalized by societal acceptance, but to the clansmen and women it's what is prescribed by their laws and religion. I find it amusing, though, that there was a mention of a certain holiday where husbands cannot beat their wives because it would displease gods. The irony of that did not escape me.

I think books like this one (and Mahfouz' Palace Walk which I read a week ago) have challenged me to keep an open mind when it comes to things which I'm readily prejudiced against especially when it comes to the maltreatment or oppression of women as portrayed in fiction. I think an author's intention is the defining point in this and so far neither Achebe or Mahfouz has glorified violence or the subjugation of women and their neutrality is helpful and comforting somewhat. Still, there are real social issues and horrors that condemn and harm women across the world; some of those struggles are culturally unique as well, but although Achebe and Mahfouz have touched upon them in their respective books, their stories were ultimately not modes of advocating for it or against it, so readers shouldn't concern themselves too seriously about them when reading either of these books. 

Or you may choose to do so but hopefully with caution, tact and good intentions. Such an open discussion is something that might prove to be otherwise fruitful. 

Going back to the review: Things Fall Apart as a chronicle of tribal life is well-versed and insightful, but midway in the book, the story gradually builds up to the altercations and cross-cultural misunderstandings that occur between the Africans and the Christian missionaries who settled in their homelands, and whose warped sense of ethnocentrism and religious fervor drove them to convert these people they perceive to be barbaric and inferior to them. I thought this is the most exciting part of the entire novel itself even though it only happened for less than a hundred pages. Amdist this conflict is Okonkwo who view these outsiders as a plague that threaten to corrode their way of life and worship, and he must make the ultimate choice as an individual as to whether or not he must subject himself and his family to their will.

At the heart of Things Fall Apart are the small moments of triumph and compassion that Okonkwo and his family share which are my favorite parts of the book. But, unlike Palace Walk, this novel is not character-centered so I can admit that I find myself rather detached at times when reading certain texts. I never felt like I knew any of the characters in this book so identifying with their sorrows and struggles never deepen enough to take root. In general, I've looked at the events that took place in Things Fall Apart with the knowledge and experience of someone who grew up and lived in a colonized nation such as the Philippines. Contextualizing my own cultural struggles with the ones Achebe have showcased here was rather helpful. My country is an archipelago which meant that there are still a variety of existing tribal natives in other lands, and though the Philippines is now a homogeneous Christian nation, that road to progress is paved by civil wars between the Filipinos and their Spanish patrons who aimed to spread the Catholic faith by any means necessary.

I think this was why I was very fascinated and sympathetic with the last five or six chapters of the book that delved upon this conflict because I have read it in my own history books. In this manner, I thought Things Fall Apart is remarkable and brilliant. It may not be as personal or intimate as my reading of Mahfouz' Palace Walk has been but it's nonetheless just as invigorating and exceptional. This is a book with impressive breadth and insight, and one you should strive to explore at one point in your life. It's quite an indisputable treasure.

RECOMMENDED: 8/10

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