A short digression on the great Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe

One of the (many) things missing in my understanding of the North is any conception of how things were before. Before whalers, before missionaries, before bureaucrats… all that stuff. What was day to day life like? And most importantly: how did people think about things?

Don’t get me wrong. There’s a lot of information out there. Lots of stories. Lots of documentation. Many people have written about how people lived, what they did for fun, how they explained things. But where does one turn for a sense of what life was actually like before so many things began changing?

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Chinua Achebe’s 1958 novel takes the reader on a journey through an Ibo village, just as the first white people are beginning to arrive, bringing with them a completely different way of life.

Fiction, of course, is the real avenue for this.

Obviously the Ibo people in Nigeria are pretty different from anyone living in the (now) Canadian Arctic. But Chinua Achebe’s novel Things Fall Apart is a beautiful story of one worldview giving way to another, with pretty drastic consequences. I had always meant to read it, and now that I have, I have to share just how perfectly it captures this transition.

Things Fall Apart is really two stories, both concerning Okonkwo, a “strong man” of an Ibo village. Because I want you to read this book, I won’t spoil either story, but I will spoil some of the plot in order to explain why it’s so great.

The first story involves Okonkwo facing two very dire punishments. The first comes about by accident, as a result of something he’s not even responsible for, but it is the way of the tribe, and he accepts it without complaint though we, the reader, see it as harsh and unjust. The second punishment is equally harsh and seems even more so because this time it’s for something that Okonkwo does completely by accident. But again, the punishment is wrought by a long tradition of which Okonkwo is deeply a part, and so he accepts it, thrives throughout it and plans a marvellous comeback, which he is putting into effect at the beginning of part two.

The second story includes the arrival of a white missionary. At the end of this tale, Okonkwo actually does clearly break the rules, this time doing something demonstrably terrible, for which he obviously deserves punishment. But this time, the punishment comes from outside of the deep and rich tribal life that we’ve come to know from reading this far, and no reader will believe Okonkwo deserving of it.

It’s a neat trick, from a masterful storyteller.

Achebe’s book takes a while to get interesting. There’s a lot of confusing stuff happening — babies being born and reborn, kola nuts being shared, ancestors being appeased, even child sacrifice. It felt at first like a bit of a slog, through unfamiliar (and irrelevant, to me anyway) territory.

But Okonkwo and his wives and children and friends and fellow leaders are hugely compelling. So much happens to him, and the backdrop of his ideas and views about himself and his village is so richly drawn that, however strange it may feel at first, we’re soon experiencing it with him.

The Holy Grail of fiction.

Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner does something similar. The film re-tells an old Inuit legend without reference to anyone outside of that fully realized world. I saw it in a movie theatre in Toronto and was absolutely mesmerized, and maybe even transformed, just by learning this whole thing existed (the place, the language, the customs). Make that definitely transformed. I mean, I really had no idea about any of this. 

But I believe Achebe, who published Things Fall Apart in 1958, was the first to use the novel as a blunt instrument to smack the civilizers over the head. It still does so today. And so even though it’s not a northern read, to anyone who’s made it this far, I highly recommend it. 

Update, May 8, 2019: A loyal reader just informed me that Achebe actually toured Baffin Island and Igloolik in 1990, on a tour with PEN International, organized by John Ralston Saul! That trip is referenced briefly at the bottom of this obituary. Thanks John MacDonald for the tip.

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