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Appeals to the past are among the commonest of strategies in interpretations of the present.” – Edward W. Said

A cursory glance at unnervingly creative means of propaganda, ranging from Nazi archaeology to Mugabe’s retelling of history via “catchy jingles” on radio, supports Said’s claim. Too often, history finds itself being moulded into an ideology and vice versa.

Perhaps partly because of the reliance of history on our collective memory, the thought of this manipulation scares us – and rightly so. The implication is that in changing history, those in power to do this are also changing us. We can agree that this is a dishonest and self-servicing act. Yet, must the same moral condemnation be applied to literature which “appeals to the past” – as borderline fictitious as that may be – to suggest “interpretations of the present”?

I am inclined to answer in the negative, even – and perhaps because – ‘fiction’ is one of the most basic definitions of ‘literature’.  Precisely those stories from Germanic mythology which Hitler used to allude to, were fundamental for the re-interpretation of the present of the time and the creation of the future that came later. The power of stories on our imagination, and consequently our actions, is undeniable.

For this reason, when Chinua Achebe published Things Fall Apart in 1958, it contrasted starkly with many other literary works written by “dead white European males” (as the label goes). Here was a novel written by a Nigerian, in English, about the Nigerian people; and which presented a story set in the past (at the end of the 19th century) that attempts to present a more human, and therefore more realistic picture of the native people of Africa. Far from being a mere untruthful text, Things Fall Apart makes a very eloquent point on the place that one man has in relation to the ‘many’ and the ‘powerful’ outsiders.

The protagonist is the anti-hero Okonkwo who is a dominant warrior in a village of the Ibo people.  Yet, because of his disdain towards what he deems as useless art and all that is feminine, he becomes an aggressive, egotistical and intemperate citizen.  Ironically, Okonkwo’s valued rationality is hindered by his crisis in masculinity. Evidence of this lies in the fact that he decides to bring up Ikemefuna – the boy given to the clan by another community in compensation for a murder in Okonkwo’s clan – as his own son, rather than as a slave.  The fact that Okonkwo forms this bond with Ikemefuna for his manly skills, makes killing the child a traumatic and psychologically harmful experience.  In fact, when the elders decide that this must take place, it is a destructive event for the individual Okonkwo and the group…which is also reminiscent of Oscar Wilde’s famous phrase “each man kills the thing he loves” from The Ballad of Reading Gaol. Tragically however, Okonkwo does end up with “a noose about his neck”.

Chinua Achebe

The narrative voice of the novel plays an important role in the eliciting of empathy to Okonkwo’s (and his village of Umuofa’s) plight. The voice feels like that of an elder of the village who has experienced the events alongside the characters, and is now narrating the story, almost like you would expect at a gathering around a fire. The language used is not complicated but it retains a certain elegance, wisdom and balance. These qualities are admirable in the work because of the temptation to be completely biased against the colonising English outsider, especially in Part II.  Achebe criticises some aspects of the Ibo culture, such as the belief in the evil nature of twins and the practice of leaving them to die in the Evil Forest. Ultimately, no indirect criticism hits as raw a nerve as that which is weaved into the final pages of the novel, and which in a rather authorial and self-conscious manner demonstrates the discrepancy in the imagination of the Colonised and the Coloniser.

Sadly enough, Things Fall Apart remains as relevant to readers of the 21st century as it was to the reading-public of the late 1950s. Only recently, Achebe has declined the award offered to him by the Nigerian President on the basis of the argument that the country still hasn’t addressed the problems it had in 2004, when it first offered him the award.

A novel like Things Fall Apart is what helps us discern and connect in an attempt to understand the wherefore.

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