Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Tragedy of a strong man

Everyone is afraid of the brutal and ruthless Okonkwo, especially his downtrodden wives and children. But that’s a disguise:

“His whole life was dominated by fear, the fear of failure and of weakness … It was the fear of himself, lest he should be found to resemble his father. Even as a little boy he had resented his father’s failure and weakness … Okonkwo was ruled by one passion -- to hate everything that his father Unoka had loved. One of those things was gentleness.” 

As in a Greek tragedy, Okonkwo’s fatal, secret flaw leads inexorably to his downfall.

 Okonkwo is the protagonist of Things Fall Apart, the 1958 novel by Nigerian author Chinua Achebe. It is the story of the transformation of colonial Nigeria, shown from the point of view of a man who is unable to change with it. It is also a piercingly observant story of a man whose pride and fear lead him to behave cruelly, especially to those he loves.

Achebe was born in southern Nigeria 1930, many decades after the events portrayed in this novel. He does not portray precolonial Nigerian society as a paradise, but reveals its injustice and brutishness as well as its beautiful stories, complex rituals, and rich spiritual life.

Things Fall Apart is a classic novel, one of the first to explore the complexities of the colonial experience in Africa, and taught in college classes all over the world. (I read it in a cultural anthropology class in the early ‘90s, and then picked it up again and reread it with pleasure this year.)

If you haven’t read it, or if your only experience with it was as an assignment, I recommend you give this beautifully written, psychologically acute novel a try.

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