By Uzor Maxim Uzoatu
It is astounding that Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe is still so relevant across the globe at 65 years of age.
Things Fall Apart was first published on June 17, 1958, by William Heinemann, London, and contains only 50,380 words, but it has packed more influence all over the world than many fatter novels written by masters and wannabes of all races and creeds.
I cannot count the number of the editions of Things Fall Apart I have owned all through the years. My long-standing plan had been to write a short story inspired by Things Fall Apart, or more specifically the tragic hero Okonkwo. I will still write that short story based on the classic fiction that changed history, but I can’t disclose the plot just yet.
There is no argument whatsoever that Things Fall Apart has proven to be the single most important piece of literature out of Africa.
The bewildering aspect of the matter is that the original manuscript of the novel was nearly lost when Achebe posted it from Lagos to London for typing. It took the intervention of a British lady broadcaster to travel from Lagos to London to get the crooked tying agency to do the work on the manuscript and send it back to a traumatised Achebe.
When the manuscript was eventually sent to the publishers in Britain, one of the manuscript assessors sent a short report thusly: “The best first novel since the war.”
Events since the publishing of the novel have borne out the prediction that Things Fall Apart is a world-beater.
The 50th anniversary of the novel was celebrated all over the world with festivals, readings, symposia, concerts etc. The 60th anniversary was equally a worldwide celebration.
The novel which has been likened to epic Greek tragedies has been translated into about 80 languages and has sold well over 20 million copies.
It is taught not just in literature classes but in history and anthropology departments in colleges and universities in all the continents of the world.
It is noteworthy that an American judge in a racism trial in the United States recommended that the accused racist should as a part of his penance read Things Fall Apart!
The archetypal theme of the meeting of the white world and the black race makes Things Fall Apart an epochal event in the annals of world literature.
Things Fall Apart tells the deceptively simple story of Okonkwo, a strong man whose life is dominated by the fear of failure. As a teenager, he brought honour to his village by throwing the hitherto unbeatable Amalinze the Cat in a wrestling match that transcended the spirit world.
His fame spread through the nine villages of Umuofia and even beyond like harmattan bushfire, but he remained troubled that his music man father Unoka was a debtor and a failure.
As if to compound matters, Okonkwo notices weakness in his own son Nwoye, and he comes to the sad conclusion that raging fire only ends up as impotent ash.
Against the warning of an elder, he kills the ill-fated child Ikemefuna who had been given over to the people of Umuofia as ransom, a child who called him “father”.
An accidental gunshot that kills a fellow villager at a wake leads to Okonkwo being exiled from Umuofia for seven years.
When he comes back from exile he discovers that the Christian missionaries have literally overrun the land, and even his son Nwoye had joined them.
The white master delivers the temerity of arresting and humiliating Okonkwo and other villagers – and makes Umuofia to pay for their release!
In anger, Okonkwo cuts off the head of the white man’s messenger but the people of Umuofia would not follow him to war. Okonkwo then hangs himself on a tree and ends up being buried by the strangers he had spent his life fighting.
The book works at several levels, and can be read at any age from 10 to 100 and forever. As a child, one can enjoy the incidents such as the wrestling match with Amalinze the Cat, Unoka’s dismissal of his creditor, Okonkwo’s attempted shooting of one of his wives, the visitation of the masked spirits etc.
Later in life, the many ironies in the book come into play such as the joke on the District Commissioner thinking that Okonkwo’s story can only end up as a paragraph in his planned book, “The Pacification of the Primitive Tribes of the Lower Niger”, without knowing that one Chinua Achebe had taken the thunder from him by giving Okonkwo an entire book in which the story is narrated from inside.
Achebe is justly celebrated for he succeeded in changing the perspective of world literature from the gaudy picture of Africa as painted by Europeans such as Joyce Cary and Sir H. Rider Haggard etc. to the authentic telling of the story by the Africans.
It is a mark of Achebe’s genius that he took the English language and made it his own such that one reads Things Fall Apart as though it’s written in Igbo!
Unlike earlier African writers like Guinea’s Camara Laye, author of The African Child, who painted a romantic picture of the continent, Achebe is relentlessly objective in his narration, telling it as it is, warts and all.
It’s because of the remarkable success of Things Fall Apart that the publishers Heinemann UK launched the African Writers Series (AWS) in 1962 with Things Fall Apart as the first title and the intrepid editor, James Currey, as a moving force.
For many years, Achebe served as a non-remunerated Editorial Adviser of the series in which the majority of African writers got their breakthrough in publishing.
Things Fall Apart reputedly accounted for 80 percent of the entire revenue of the African Writers Series.
It’s because of Things Fall Apart that Nelson Mandela tagged Achebe as “the writer in whose hands the prison walls came crashing down.”
In 2019 the BBC included Things Fall Apart in the list of 100 most influential novels while Encyclopaedia Britannica has listed it as one of the “12 Novels considered the ‘Greatest Book Ever Written’”.
Now that Things Fall Apart has clocked 65, I bow and tremble and faint for the masterpiece!
Uzoatu writes from Alaigbo