Monday, October 13, 2008

Achebe’s Enduring Classic

In fifty years of its existence, Chinua Achebe’s classic novel, Things Fall Apart has lived up to its reputation as perhaps the best work of fiction to have come out of Africa. Celebrated for its story line, its simplicity of language and its unaffected African setting, Things Fall Apart has proved, over the past half a century, to be a highly readable and influential novel. To date, it has been translated into more than 100 languages across the continents. That alone says a lot about its wide appeal to readers of diverse national and cultural backgrounds.
Just the other day, this epic novel was, not surprisingly, named as one of the top national best sellers in the United States where many highly respected colleges and universities have adopted it as recommended text for literature students. This distinction coincides with the golden jubilee celebration of the novel in many parts of the world, but more so in Africa and the English-speaking world generally. Achebe, the author of the book, who now lives and teaches in the US is scheduled to speak at a number of commemorative events for the golden jubilee of the great novel.
Things Fall Apart which has earned a place in some of the world’s most renowned libraries including the famous US Library of Congress, is ironically no longer a recommended text in Nigeria’s School Certificate syllabus. This has been so for more than a decade now. However, what the novel appears to be losing at home it is inversely gaining abroad where more and more countries are showing interest in the study of the book as a guide towards a better understanding of the cultural underpinnings of African traditional societies.
At its publication in 1958, Things Fall Apart was an apt reflection of the cultural contradictions of the African society. Through Okonkwo, the tragic hero of the novel, the tension between African traditional values and the modernizing influence of the western culture epitomized by Christianity, could almost be sliced with a knife. Achebe captured in a tellingly artistic manner the dilemma of the Umuofia people who were torn between retaining their culture – warts and all – and submitting to the positive, even disruptive, influence of Christianity. This nagging conflict had to be resolved one way or the other. It wasn’t easy but through a carefully plotted tragi-comedy crafted in a typical Achebesque style, a painful resolution was made. Okonkwo, an impetuous, self-appointed custodian and defender of the Umuofia culture found himself committing murder ostensibly to preserve the traditions of his community. To escape the shame of facing trial for such a capital offence, Okonkwo aggravated matters by committing suicide, an ignominious way of dying in Igbo cosmology.
Things Fall Apart is indeed an all-time classic. Its thematic relevance in understanding the clash of cultures between Europe and Africa in the run up to political independence by many African countries, continues to make it a compelling reading in many parts of the world. It also explains why it has continued to enjoy a pride of place in the literature syllabus of many an African university as well as Black colleges around the world.
That it is still among the national bestsellers in far away United States is cheering news. It goes to demonstrate the continuing relevance of the novel. It is also further proof that a good artistic work will command good attention and overcome racial and other prejudices to take its rightful place.
The lesson in this for budding writers is that a piece of good writing has no artificial boundaries. If any is erected it will break it down. Nor does it have a glass ceiling. If any is put up, it will shatter it to take its rightful place.
We congratulate Prof. Achebe whose 76th birthday incidentally is only weeks away. He has been a source of inspiration to many young writers. By this feat, he has added another feather to his repertory of literary honors. Nigeria, Achebe’s land of birth, would do well to encourage its youths to deepen their reading culture. It is puzzling that in spite of the great wave that Things Fall Apart has made globally, millions of Nigerian youths are yet to read this classic. How so ironical!
The government should therefore take deliberate steps to promote the reading culture among Nigerians. This has many benefits not the least being the opportunity to expand one’s horizon.