At 50, Achebe novel looks immortal

Times Staff Writer

About a half-century ago, a shy young Nigerian man, who had grown up reading Dickens and "Pilgrim's Progress," put his handwritten novel in the mail to a typing service in London. The manuscript sat untouched for months, until a colleague rescued it during a visit to Britain. These pages, after several rejections, later found their way to a sympathetic publisher.

The book eventually released, "Things Fall Apart," became a critical hit in Britain as well as the first African novel to break through to the English-speaking world. Not only did it sell -- nearly 10 million copies, in 50 languages -- this slim, understated volume became the one African novel to break, unambiguously, into the often impenetrable Western canon. The book continues to live: High school kids and college students read it for class, while African novelists read it to pursue its ideas and themes.

To literary scholar John Marx of UC Davis, it's "the first novel of the African literary canon, to be sure, but also a key text in the body of writing one needs to know to be literate. I'd say that's the case not only in the English-speaking world but just about everywhere."

"Things Fall Apart," set in a traditional, folkloric Igbo village that is eventually dismantled by white missionaries, is also the unusual classic whose status has grown since its canonization.

Over the next few weeks the novel's legacy is being celebrated -- including an event at New York's Town Hall on Tuesday initiated by the publisher Vintage and produced by the PEN American Center, with appearances by Toni Morrison, Ha Jin, Colum McCann, members of the Alvin Ailey dance troupe and Chinua Achebe himself. The tribute is expected to fill most of Town Hall's more than 1,500 seats.

Chris Abani, the Los Angeles-based Nigerian writer who's read the novel a dozen times since discovering it at age 10, calls the book inescapable. The only people he knows to come out against it are young African novelists announcing themselves as iconoclasts.

"And then six or seven years later, they think about the debt that they owe that book," he said. "You're either working against it or within it; you're rejecting it or you're accepting it. But the conversation has to include it."

Showing the way

Though the book is written as a fable or oral story that might be told over a village feast, it's a deeply literary book as well: Its title comes from W.B. Yeats' "The Second Coming," a poem that echoes through the novel.

"The book establishes a series of conventions on how things are to be written about . . . that had never been represented before," said Kwame Anthony Appiah, a Princeton University professor of philosophy. The novel, he said, differs from previous African novels such as Amos Tutuola's "The Palm-Wine Drinkard," which used pidgin English. "No one had taken the stately cadences of traditional African speech into English."

Actual Igbo conversations, especially the language's proverbs and metaphors, can be complicated, Appiah said, but Achebe managed to streamline it so it would become standard: a kind of "King James-y English" for traditional languages and a modern register for European speakers. Also, despite dropping readers into an unfamiliar time and place, there are no footnotes or parentheses describing tribal customs.

The book tells the story of Okonkwo, whom we meet in the novel's first sentence. The brave son of an underachieving father, he's respected by the nearby villages. "But his whole life was dominated by fear," Achebe writes, "the fear of failure and of weakness. It was deeper and more intimate than the fear of evil and capricious gods and of magic, the fear of the forest and the forces of nature, malevolent, red in tooth and claw."

Said Abani: "A lot of its power derives from the character of Okonkwo, who at the time was the most psychologically developed and flawed character in African literature and in some ways still is." He reminds Abani of Dostoevsky's tragic, rebellious protagonists.

Unbeknown to Okonkwo, as he rises and falls in two Igbo villages, missionaries are gradually closing in. The book's depiction of their arrival -- which the reader sees from the villagers' point of view -- is another of its triumphs, said Dominic Thomas, chairman of UCLA's French and Francophone Studies department.

"It was about taking everything that had been said about Africans and turning it on its head -- and saying it about the Europeans. He has scenes of people freaking out, talking about weird white people who look like albinos driving around on 'iron horses,' " speaking a language that sounds strange even in translation.

And these pagans who worship multiple gods find "the mad logic of the Trinity" -- a god who's one and three simultaneously -- hard to fathom.

Yet Christianity prevails. "The novel is a very reliable picture," said Appiah. "The reason Christianity took off is that even in a relatively egalitarian society like the Igbo, there were painful kinds of exclusion, there were outcasts. So that made a religion that presented itself as the religion of the downtrodden quite appealing."

The book's rich, lively village life -- complete with town criers, oracles and an array of animal gods -- undermined by the European missionaries is hardly Edenic. It's chauvinistic, hierarchical and at times brutal. Okonkwo's wives and children "lived in perpetual fear of his fiery temper," and there's a scene in which Okonkwo kills his adopted son that is hard to shake. At one time, Appiah recalled, the book had significant feminist opposition.

This makes the collapse of Okonkwo's world complicated instead of simply tragic: It makes it impossible for the book to be dismissed as the kind of multicultural novel that merely "celebrates" a culture to boost its readers' self-esteem. (The novel seems an obvious retort to the famously condescending line attributed to Saul Bellow: "Who is the Tolstoy of the Zulus? The Proust of the Papuans?")

This moral and literary ambiguity gives the novel its nuance but also its ability to reach into the present day. "If Africans were good and colonizers were bad, in a simple way," asked UCLA's Thomas, "how would we talk about people like Idi Amin and Mugabe? It's important to show that violence was there."

In a more literal sense, Achebe was trying to document a world -- a life still governed by the rhythms of the harvest -- that had been destroyed by the coming of colonizers and was largely gone by the time he was born.

The picture is necessarily unsentimental, Appiah said. "It's not a moral fiction like Dickens or something: There's not an agenda, nothing we're supposed to do. Except to undo a picture of African society."

Though the novel is gentle and controlled, it's been seen as a retort to Joseph Conrad's "The Heart of Darkness." Achebe would later, in an essay written in a very different tone than his debut, call the author "a thoroughgoing racist."

Measuring the reach

There's some disagreement over how much of a door "Things Fall Apart" opened for other African novelists. Since 1986, five writers from Africa -- if one counts Doris Lessing, who spent her earlier years in what is now Zimbabwe -- have won the Nobel Prize for literature. (It rankles Achebe's supporters that he has not been one of them.)

Nigeria's Ben Okri and South Africa's J.M. Coetzee have won the Booker Prize, the most prestigious English-language literary award.

But if there has not been, in 50 years, a book with anything like the following or the reach of Achebe's debut, the book itself has presided over a sea change.

At some level, influence is always personal: The Nigerian-born author of "Half of a Yellow Sun," Chimamanda Adichie, grew up writing characters who were "white and had blue eyes and played in the snow." Reading "Things Fall Apart" led to "a glorious shock of discovery. It taught me that my world was worthy of literature, that books could also have people like me in them."

The shifting fortunes of the English language played a part. When Achebe, educated by Protestant missionaries, published his novel in English, it was a controversial move: Achebe was writing in the "language of the colonizers."

Abani, who writes in English, said the move was common sense: "In a country of 250 languages, what other language could he use?"

English proved crucial to the book's international impact.

"The English language has been denationalized by India, Pakistan" and other countries, said UCLA's Thomas. Any list of the best-respected writers in English -- he names Indian-born Salman Rushdie, the Indo-Trinidadian V.S. Naipaul and Australia's Peter Carey -- would range far from the British Isles.

The paradox, Thomas said, is that it was Britain's imperial experiences -- which these days are pretty hard to defend -- that has made its body of literature perhaps the richest and most vibrant literature in any language.

"That this language has been so successful means that we've broadened the parameters of what constitutes a classic. Whereas French today is struggling with this antiquated notion of Frenchness."

Marx goes even further: "If there ever was clarity about what counted as a great novel, postcolonial literature muddied that question in a new way," he said. "There were so many more novels to consider if one was going to start talking about which books were 'great.' I don't think we've really figured that out yet."

Achebe, for his part, said he'll keep a low profile at the book's tributes, which will take place in New York, Washington, Philadelphia and Princeton, N.J. "I would like simply to see what my readers want to say," he said by phone from Bard College in New York, where he teaches.

Achebe said he'd heard from people all over the world who thought he was telling their story: The book no longer belongs exclusively to him.

"Having written it 50 years ago," he said, "it doesn't need me. In fact, it's been to places I've never been."

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scott.timberg@latimes.com

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