Achebe x Fantasy x Culture

I readĀ Things Fall ApartĀ about 3 years ago, and I’m giving it a second read over now. I remember feeling distinctly disappointed with this novel on my first read, but I’m getting more out of it this time.

I think I expected it to be really profound and symbolic on my first read, because I had been told to hold Achebe in high regards. It’s not that kind of novel though. It is (the first half at least) a character sketch, and a “culture sketch.”

In some ways I think it’s way too easy to write aspects of this novel off as lost in translation. It’s an exploration of tradition and of culture, but I don’t think you need to having a backing in Nigerian culture to understand what’s going on.

There’s one little passage that I wanted to share here because I had flagged it in my novel

“‘The rain is falling, the sun is shining/Alone Nnadi is cooking and eating’ Nwoye always wondered who Nnadi was and why he should live all by himself, cooking and eating. In the end he decided that Nnadi must live in that land of Ikemefuna’s favorite story where the ant holds his court in splendor and the sands dance forever” (35)

I love this model of imagination – a land of fantasy and story at the root of culture.Our understanding of the world is fashioned by our stories and myths.

One of the things that I’ve noticed on second reading of this text is the way in which Achebe is critical of tribal culture. Sometimes it’s light poking, as with his depiction of koala nut meetings which always skirt around the important topics (I like this one because I think this kind of formal dialogue is pretty universal), and other times it’s pretty focused and intense, like with Achebe’s criticism of the gender imbalances at play.

His criticism also takes on an interesting dimension in the villagers discussion of neighbors and neighboring villages. “All their customs are upside-down” (73) says Okonkwo at one point of a pair of neighboring villages. It is incredible how quick we all are to carry out value judgments on foreign cultures while failing to interrogate our own. Okonkwo’s line of thought seems ridiculous, but it is the same line of thought which was the base of colonial occupation in Africa by Europeans.

2 thoughts on “Achebe x Fantasy x Culture

  1. The quote you brought up is interesting – it reminds me of how people can (sometimes knowingly) ask unanswerable questions about common jokes/songs – “Why dd the chicken cross the road?”; “What does raining have to do with an old man who bumped his head?”. The idea of understanding the real world through stories is pretty Hacking-like, too.

    Also, real-life koala macadamia nuts!

  2. I think I kind of went through what you went through on your first read. Still, I don’t feel like Achebe is as critical of tribal practices as you say he is, at least not overtly.

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