Tuesday, July 24, 2012

#57 - "Things Fall Apart" Chinua Achebe

My first African book, and I believe the only African book on the list, was Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe.  Written in 1958, it is the story of Okonkwo, an Ibo tribesman in present-day Nigeria in the late 19th century.  Okonkwo is a leader within his tribe, powerful, successful at war, and wealthy.  Although generally an unpleasant and gruff person, he is respected in his tribe for his many accomplishments, despite these faults.

Things seem to be rolling along pretty well for the main characters, which one must assume is going to make for a pretty boring book; unless a wrench is thrown into the mix of course.  Soon Okonkwo's world begins to unravel.  First, in an effort to maintain his honor and status, he is forced to kill his foster son (these things happen!).  Later he is banished to another village for an accidental homicide, which happens to coincide with the arrival of evil white missionaries (are there any other kind?).  You might say things...fall apart for poor old Okonkwo, as imperialism and an ever changing world catch up with his old-world, tribal ways.  As Milhouse Van Houten once said, "we started out like Romeo and Juliet, but ended in tragedy."

This was an enjoyable read, and one that pulled me in the more I read.  As things turn for Okonkwo, and the inevitable tragedies draw nearer, it really did become somewhat of a page turner.  I knew things were not going to end well, but was unsure of how that result would be achieved.  It's like watching a horror film; you know everybody is going to die, but the 'fun' is in seeing how the end is met.

While it was a good book, and one I enjoyed reading, I think it is a book that was selected for this list, not for the actual writing or story, but because of the circumstances under which it was published.  This was a book written by a black man, about African tribesmen, told from their point of view, and portraying white missionaries as something less than benevolent, all in 1958.  Although I can't personally attest, I'm guessing there were not a lot of books of this nature on the shelves in 1958.  So I suspect it is here more because of its ground-breaking status than its actual content.  I say this only as an observation, not as an indictment; these culturally significant books are just as important as the most well-crafted and entertaining reads.

Looking back at the books I've read, I'd also put The Painted Bird, Tropic of Cancer, and Naked Lunch in this same category, where the fact the book was written is more important than the words contained within.  These types of books, and the same thing is seen in the movies, that 'push the envelope', allow for future writers to explore subjects that previously might have been taboo, and I like to think that benefits us all in the long run with some really great books.

I've started reading Under the Net by Iris Murdoch as #58.  So far it is very entertaining, and for reasons I'm not sure of yet, reminds me very much of The Berlin Stories.

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