Review – Things Fall Apart – Chinua Achebe

It must be nearly twenty years since I last read this book as an undergraduate studying postcolonial theory and literature. To revisit a novel so long after the first reading is a bit like rediscovering parts of yourself along with the story – of reassessing your own reaction to the narrative and how it has changed over time.

This is not least because, in spite of the impact of globalisation on our awareness of cultural identity, Things Fall Apart still carries the power to shock, to fascinate and to prove of relevance. And in this respect, it sheds fresh light on our ability to understand the root causes of power imbalances in our own fractured world.

Contemporary Nigerian writers such as Ben Okri and Chigozie Obioma have succeeded in presenting the internal struggles of their homeland as it confronted the legacy of colonialism, divided from its own past and forms of communal heritage, while at the same time thrown into turmoil by a newly emergent political elite. In this respect, the Biafran war, the political coups of the 1980s and the horrors of the Abache regime can all be understood in terms of a postcolonial reality in which vested interests frequently overrode the ability of the country to address the trauma of the colonial period.

However, what Achebe shows – or rather showed – us is the annihiliation of those cultural reference points: the insidious effects of a colonial policy which set out to disturb and destroy whatever it could not understand, to label complex communal structures  primitive, savage or uncivilised and to impose its own values upon a people at any cost.

To ignore writers such as Achebe is to ignore the roots of those crises which feed the geopolitical realities of our own era – the rise of radicalism, the treatment of disempowered refugees, destabilising neocolonial economic and political strategies – all of these need to be understood against the background of 19th and 20th century policies of imperialism which served to further the interests of states at the expense of other nations.