When I decided I wanted to do this challenge, I had an image in my head. That image was of a box set of books that my Mum had got me from the Book Man ages ago. It’s a set of 10 books that have all been banned in various countries at one time or another, for various reasons. This is a Penguin collection and it quite clearly states Penguin Classics on the side so who am I to argue?
Trouble is, I had no idea where this box set had gone to. When I moved out of the flat and in with Dorothy, an awful lot of my books had to go into storage a.k.a. my Dad’s house. They were shifting things around in their house at the time and everything was all of a jumble and I couldn’t find my beloved box set.
Until I started living there and had time to rummage and finally laid my grubby hands on them. I think it’s safe to say these are all what you would probably term Modern Classics. I don’t want to start off a grand debate on whether a classic is Pride & Prejudice territory or Midnight’s Children territory – I’m going with the publishers on this one.*
Anyway, so there I am, deciding what to read next (and praying for a teeny book rather than a hefty tome) and up pops this post from Nose in a Book about Chinua Achebe. And in my box set there resided “Things Fall Apart” by Chinua Achebe. And it’s about 150 pages long. Decision made.
I’ve come to the conclusion that the main difference between Old Classics and Modern Classics is a question of making your brain work a little bit harder. Modern Classics tend to be just that bit more complicated with hidden meanings and themes running throughout whereas the Old Classics feel more concerned with writing a good story with good prose.
For 150 pages Achebe packs a lot in. Okonkwo is great warrior in his village of Umuofia. To say he has anger issues would be underplaying his character – he beats his wives and is responsible for the death of a boy he has virtually adopted. However, when he accidentally kills a fellow clansmen he is extradited for 7 years, in which time missionaries and colonialism sweep in to change the lives of the villagers.
He is a proud man and is incapable of dealing with the change this brings and the book draws to a climactic conclusion that could leave you a little disappointed.
The power and beauty in this book is the simplicity of its writing. I don’t mean by that that it’s not clever, it’s just very to the point, the lives of the villagers are ruled by proverbs and when you’re reading Things Fall Apart you feel like you’re reading one of Aesop’s Fables or a book with old fairy tales in it.
And to prove t hat simple does not equal ugly, check out these couple of paragraphs;
“At last the rain came. It was sudden and tremendous. For two or three moons the sun had been gathering strength till it seemed to breathe a breath of fire on the earth. All the grass had long been scorched brown, and the sands felt like live coals to the feet. Evergreen trees wore a dusty coat of brown. The birds were silenced in the forests, and the world lay panting under the live, vibrating heat. And then came the clap of thunder. It was an angry, metallic and thirsty clap, unlike the deep and liquid rumbling of the rainy season...Palm trees swayed as the wind combed their leaves into flying crests like strange and fantastic coiffure.
When the rain finally came, it was in large, solid drops of frozen water which the people called ‘the nuts of the water of heaven’....The earth came quickly to life and the birds in the forests fluttered around and chirped merrily. ..As the rain began to fall more soberly and in smaller liquid drops, children sought for shelter, and all were happy, refreshed and thankful.”
Aren’t you just there and part of it? Lovely.
Achebe takes you in to the lives of these villagers. The book feels like it’s not going anywhere, but in fact you’re just learning about their lives – learning about their customs – how they deal with justice, death, marriage, birth and all that life brings in between.
Okonkwo sees the missionaries as a threat to this life. They come and denounce the Gods that they follow and some people are converted. When Okonkwo’s son, Nwoye, converts to Christianity, Okonkwo washes his hands of him, feeling he’s betrayed his life and way of living.
The colonial governors and officials are a step further along – people who don’t understand their way of life and don’t wish to, merely looking to change their customs to the “right” ones, as they see them.
I know the book is supposed to leave you feeling outraged at colonialism – how dare these people come in and ruin whole villages – but I think I felt a little differently. To me the book represents Okonkwo’s total inability to deal with change and the unknown. As much as the colonial governors make no effort to understand how things work in Umuofia, Okonkwo is so filled with rage that he will not attempt to converse with them either and is instead intent on waging war.
This is not a post extolling the virtues of colonialism by any means but I don’t think that the issue is quite as black and white as it’s supposed to be. At the end of the book, there is reference to a book The Commissioner is writing which is going to be called ‘The Pacification of the Primitive Tribes of the Lower Niger’ and I’m guessing this could be a reference to Joseph Conrad’s book – Heart of Darkness, which is mentioned in the post over at Nose in a Book.
This is where Achebe has excelled where so many fail – he’s written a book that’s easy to read but yet provokes your mind into turning issues around and around and upside down. You don’t need vast tracts or points rammed down your throat, Achebe makes them subtle but they reverberate in your head long after you’ve turned the last page.
*Also. Remember me saying how I’d never heard of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich until my Dad recommended it along with some other people? When I uncovered my box set, guess who was in there?!