February 5, 2008


Coming Together: On the 50th anniversary of Things Fall Apart, Chinua Achebe reflects on his intentions and his influence (PETER MONAGHAN, The Chronicle Review)

In a 1975 lecture, and then in an essay, Achebe took Conrad to task for emerging in his seminal short novel, Heart of Darkness, as a "thoroughgoing racist" even as he denounced imperialism. Achebe pointed out that Conrad had deprived his African characters of any voice, granting them only eight caricaturing words in the whole short novel. Pointing, still today, to those meager eight words, he says: "That's all that Africa has, of language; the rest is screaming, shrieking, howling — animal sounds, you see."

His criticism of Conrad drew vigorous protest from the author's defenders. But Achebe says his intention was simple: to ask "why does one go to Africa for this kind of exoticism that demeans people, makes them less than their worth?"

Things Fall Apart does not idealize Nigerians; far from it. In Okonkwo, for example, Achebe depicts courage and nobility but also ignorance and cruelty. The mighty Okonkwo beats his wives and kills a child. Fellow villagers leave twin infants in the bush to die because twins are considered evil, and mutilate the bodies of dead children so that their ogbanje, or spirits, do not return to torment their mothers again.

"There are some very hard things going on there," says Achebe. "I knew that I had to be truthful. I don't know why, because it's just as easy to make the thing up a little. But I refused. I went out of my way to pick up, to find out, to learn as much of the bad things that were going on, and bring them in, deliberately." His characters, he says, "have a dark side, if you like. But I dare you to say they are not human, in spite of that."

Just as some African critics originally chided Achebe for writing in English, the language of the colonizer, some feminists also objected that female characters were not fully realized in Things Fall Apart. Achebe's supporters responded that such criticism fell into the undergraduate trap of criticizing a work for what it was not, rather than viewing it for what it was.

In other words, they did to him what he did to Conrad?

Though, of course, he fundamentally misreads Heart of Darkness, which is every bit as anti-Colonial as Shooting an Elephant. Recall the revelation at the end of the novella, worthy of O. Henry, as Marlowe speaks to Kurtz's betrothed (?), the very flower of European civilization:

"'Forgive me. I -- I have mourned so long in silence -- in silence. . . . You were with him -- to the last? I think of his loneliness. Nobody near to understand him as I would have understood. Perhaps no one to hear. . . .'

"'To the very end,' I said, shakily. 'I heard his very last words. . . .' I stopped in a fright.

"'Repeat them,' she murmured in a heart-broken tone. 'I want -- I want -- something -- something -- to -- to live with.'

"I was on the point of crying at her, 'Don't you hear them?' The dusk was repeating them in a persistent whisper all around us, in a whisper that seemed to swell menacingly like the first whisper of a rising wind. 'The horror! The horror!'

"'His last word -- to live with,' she insisted. 'Don't you understand I loved him -- I loved him -- I loved him!'

"I pulled myself together and spoke slowly.

"'The last word he pronounced was -- your name.'

Posted by Orrin Judd at February 5, 2008 1:17 PM
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