Monday, January 4, 2010

Less slouching! More Bethlehem!

Current book: Things Fall Apart
Pages read: 3-125

I bet you thought I was lying, didn't you? You should know that when I make a blogging promise, I keep it. (Even if it's promising I'm going to post, and then saying nothing but, "I didn't read and I'm not sorry." Letter of the law, people.)

Anyway. Full disclosure on Things Fall Apart - technically I read it once before, when I was studying for the GRE subject test in English Literature. However, reading for the GRE English test pretty much consists of looking at the pages and absorbing 1) the characters' names, so that you can identify them in excerpts later 2) whatever tragic ending there may or may not and 3) if you possibly can, some sort of vague inkling of theme. Point being, my recall of Things Fall Apart pretty much consisted of the following before this morning: Chinua Achebe, first widely-recognized African author, book about Africa, tribal life, Okonkwo, yams. And it stood me in good stead on the test, I must say, but I think it's probably best that I actually read it this time.

Okonkwo's our main character, and he's a respected man in his village who's overcome a bad father who didn't leave him anything of use, subsequently creating his own prosperous farm and household, which includes several wives and children. The plot is...minimal. It's really more like a portrait of daily life among the Ibo than it is a story, although the chapters do touch on small stories within the larger outline of tribal existence. One of Okonkwo's daughters is thought to be a spirit girl, and her mother is trying to keep her here on Earth, since her other children have died. For several years, a boy who is a prisoner from another tribe lives with Okonkwo's household and becomes like a family member, but then is sentenced to death. Things like that. (Right here is where I almost used the wrong "they're." I almost put "their" there, instead of putting "they're" there. The world may have come to a premature and fiery end as a result. So count yourselves lucky. And now I've realized it really ought to read "These stories," but I've written this whole parenthetical, and damned if I'm going to waste it.) They're connected with one another, but there's no larger plot until the end of the first part. At that point, which is right where I finished, Okonkwo's gun accidentally explodes next to a young boy during a tribal ceremony, and, as a result, he and his family are banished for seven years.

I find myself wanting to judge the way that people treat each other, especially men and women, in this book, but I'm forced to pause because of the difference in culture between myself and the inhabitants of the novel. (Some of us were Anthropology minors in college, you know. Still haven't really forgiven Levy-Bruhl for some of those classes. Not to be confused with Levi-Strauss. Not to be confused with blue jeans.) It's hard to judge the abuse of women and their relegation to cooking and child-tending when one is judging a culture that is completely divorced from one's own. And, so far, that seems to be the point Achebe is making. His book is not organized in the way that a normal Western novel is organized because he comes from a completely different background than a Westerner. Why should there be a cohesive, plot-driven narrative if that's not how it's done in Ibo culture? And, if we're not judging the literary style by a Western yardstick (oh, man, that's actually kind of amusingly redundant, when you think about it), why should we judge the values of the characters that have been so strongly influenced by a non-Western society? It seems like a statement to me, and having heard Achebe speak about it several times, I'm pretty sure I'm right. This might be coming off sarcastic, but I actually mean it when I say that I am impressed by his insistence on sticking to his own mores instead of bowing to the world of popular and accepted literature. Things Fall Apart is a pretty big step forward for African literature in the world, and it's nice that it's been recognized as such. It is my favorite book ever? Not really, but I'm still interested enough in the story to keep reading.

On a purely personal level, just so you know what I'm objecting to, Okonkwo is pretty mean to his wives and children, often hitting and scolding them for things they do wrong, but again, and here's where the culture comes in, Achebe makes it clear that this is socially required and that he's respected for his actions. Okonkwo still takes it a bit far, though, due to the fact that his father was a lowlife; he's clearly trying to compensate, by being overly cruel, for fears that his village and family won't respect him. We'll see where that goes during the upcoming exile, 'cause I can't imagine it being anywhere positive.


  1. Welcome back. Parentheticals and all. Interesting main character. I've never read this book, but might based on what you wrote today. Are you theorizing that if his dad hadn't been a lowlife, the main character would be less likely to perpetrate the abuse that is an accepted part of his society?

  2. Sort of. I'm theorizing that if his dad hadn't been a lowlife, he wouldn't be driven to abuse to an extreme beyond that of what is normal in his society. I'm guessing there's little opportunity to avoid abuse completely in the society of the novel, but Okonkwo is one of the most abusive of the village men. Though, to his credit, he doesn't beat his wives for no reason, which, Achebe makes clear, would be considered a transgressive act. What I'm trying to say is that he's meaner than he has to be, and I think it's to keep up appearances; he wants to be the strong, virile, commanding presence that his father never was.



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