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A daily record of what I'm thinking about what I'm reading

To read about movies and TV shows I'm watching, visit my other blog: Elliot's Watching

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Things Fall Apart

Last night I finished Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart. Second time I read it, a little easier going the 2nd time, of course, as you know what people and ideas to "follow." Especially so in a book like this with so many people introduced in early chapters. Anyone reading this will wait for the plot to kick in, and it never does, really. It's not a book about, or even with, a plot. It's not a book about, or even with, characters. True, there is a central character, Okonkwe (sp?), but we don't really gain access to his interior life, ever. We see him from the outside. Though Achebe is obviously well read and steeped in western literature - the title, with its Yeats reference, tells you that! - he does not draw on any of the techniques of western lit for his novel. No stream of consciousness or interior monologues, for example. Rather, it's a book about a culture, almost anthropological. For most of the book, we have no real idea of the time period or even the specific setting (I could not find the named villages in my atlas). The book breaks into 3 sections, but they are not evenly spaced. I felt that the most interesting material - for a novel - was the conflict between cultures (white christian missionaries v traditional tribal and village ways), which does not enter until at least 2/3 of the way through. And then, to Achebe's credit, it's entirely told through African eyes, he does not even try to shift POV. Problem is, it's done so cursorily. For ex. (spoiler alert), Okonkwe's suicide: isn't that a scene that should be developed, played out, described? But no, we don't see it, don't learn much about it. It's true throughout the book: some major dramatic scenes as skimmed and some irrelevant (seemingly) scenes are played out in full. Ultimately, I think the value is in learning about the vanished village culture, and the book is remarkable for the boldness in portraying that culture as brutal and cruel, especially toward women. You'd expect this type of book to lead you to think that the white missionaries have destroyed a simple and beautiful way of life, but in fact the life of the village was horrible for many and the central character is a terrible brute (despite weak attempts to explain his life as a reaction to his wayward father). I don't know how most people react to this novel. I suspect many do romanticize the village life. If so, I would suggest: think about a novel that would portray this kind of character living in an eastern European village in the 19th century. Would you still sympathize with him? Or would you hope that he be destroyed? So I'm impressed with the honesty, the resistance to the urge to sentitimentlize and romanticize the past. Ultimatley, though, I kind of had it with all the ceremonies and yam-eating. Some of the writing is strong, some is repetitious (how many times to we hear Ok. wish that his daughter had been a boy?), some lines, though written in English, seem to cry out for a translator: "When [the bride] appeared holding a cock in her right hand, a loud cheer arose from the crowd." Hey, everyone should read this book once. I'd be interested in learning about more books about contemporary African culture and politics.

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