Chinua Achebe’s classic novel Things Fall Apart (1958) is often seen as a riposte to European representations of African life and culture, not least for instance Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, which Achebe memorably described as the work of “a thoroughgoing racist.” Achebe’s critique is that Conrad’s novella treats “Africa as setting and backdrop which eliminates the African as human factor. Africa as a metaphysical battlefield devoid of all recognizable humanity, into which the wandering European enters at his peril.” Moreover, he continues, “The real question is the dehumanization of Africa and Africans which this age-long attitude has fostered and continues to foster in the world.”
I wonder, however, about the effectiveness of this riposte. Not least because Things Fall Apart reads as an extended obituary to a vanished way of life and as such mimics a quasi-anthropological perspective on colonized cultures. However much Achebe wants to distinguish himself not only from Conrad but also from the colonial District Commissioner who features at the book’s conclusion as a would-be ethnologist contemplating writing a book to be entitled “The Pacification of the Primitive Tribes of the Lower Niger” (209), he sustains rather than undermines the tropes that enable such Eurocentric visions.
Achebe’s novel is certainly obsessed with mourning and death: both the ultimate suicide of its protagonist, Okonkwo, a strongman in an Ibo village called Umuofia, and the vanishing of the precolonial customs and structures with which Okonkwo’s demise is associated. Okonkwo is an ambitious striver, whose rash actions lead first to his exile from the community and later to his killing himself (an unholy action) as he realizes that resistance to cultural invasion is apparently futile. But this has already been foretold: towards the end, after a convert interrupts a ritual performance and unmasks one of its participants, we hear that “the Mother of the Spirits walked the length and breadth of the clan, weeping for her murdered son. [. . .] Not even the oldest man in Umuofia had ever heard such a strange and terrible sound, and it was never to be heard again. It seemed as if the very soul of the tribe wept for a great evil that was coming–its own death” (187). We are, I think, to share in this sorrow, and thus to condemn the coming of the colonizers.
But such lamentation is a typical feature of colonial discourse itself, which regularly mourned–and continues to mourn–the destruction of indigenous practices and lifestyles for which it itself was and is responsible. From the cult of the “noble savage” and The Last of the Mohicans to the fascination towards supposedly uncontacted tribes from Amazonian Peru to the Andamans, imperial powers have always professed ambivalence towards the consequences of modernization and/or development. But this mourning is expressed so as to suggest that these are the inevitable victims of a progress that is unstoppable, the price we pay for so-called civilization. At the same time, the anthropological lament tells us that as soon as the pristine authenticity of the indigenous is compromised, they cease to be (really) indigenous at all. Hence, it is not only no use trying to save the victims of colonization: in that as soon as we know of them they are irredeemably transformed (acculturated, inauthentic), it is not worth saving them either.
Perhaps the success of Achebe’s book, as no doubt (and by some distance) the best-known and best-selling novel written by a black African, is due to its playing into precisely this colonial fantasy. It helps that its narrative is set in some rather vague and imprecise past: the Ibo are presented very much as people without history, whose way of life is perpetuated through constant repetition undergirded by folk memory. As the colonizers arrive, inducing a “terrible sound” never heard before and “never to be heard again,” this is the eruption of a new mode of temporality into an otherwise relatively static (at best, cyclical) way of life. Okonkwo then has to die, in a foolhardy act of useless resistance, because his life is unimaginable after the taint of Western corruption has come.
In fact, however, the Ibo (now usually called Igbo) have had a rather more interesting postcolonial history than the novel suggests. Indeed, the very notion of Igbo identity is itself largely the product of colonial contact, and led to a dramatic twentieth-century history (not least the Biafra rebellion) in which Achebe himself played a not insignificant part. But this afterlife of the I(g)bo would come as a surprise to a reader of the novel, riven through as it is with an air of chilling finality. And I would argue that this attempt (almost literally) to close the book on I(g)bo culture is as dehumanizing as anything to be found in Conrad or his ilk. For it denies them their human complexity, even as the figure of Okonkwo himself (twice over traitor to his tribe) points indirectly to the mythic dimension of the dream of precolonial purity.
For more, see my lecture on Arts One Open.