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Slow Bullets: The Trajectory of Tragedy
Reviewing Chinua Achebe’s Classic Novel of Cultural Collision, ‘Things Fall Apart’
If there’s one thing Okonkwo refuses to be it’s like his father. Idle, unambitious, frequently drunk, and indebted to his entire village, Unoka would rather play his flute than farm the yams that will fill his stores or pay back his innumerable loans.
By the start of Chinua Achebe’s classic historical novel, Things Fall Apart, Okonkwo has surpassed his father and risen to a place of respect and leadership in his precolonial Nigerian community by dint of pure determination and imposing physical strength. He has three wives, several children, and two barns bursting with yams—all signs of his accumulated wealth and manliness.
But Okonkwo’s character bears the cost of his hardheaded ascent; pride, inflexibility, anger, and fear above all drive his actions. What could possibly go wrong? As you might guess from the title, plenty. Fired at the start of the novel, these traits fly like slow-moving bullets bound for their target.
The triggering event? The arrival of a boy named Ikemefuna.
A Warning Unheeded
After a married woman of their village is killed while visiting a neighboring village, the boy and a virgin girl are given in a peace settlement to avoid bloody reprisal. The aggrieved widower receives the girl to replace his murdered wife, and the village itself receives the boy, son of the murderer, entrusted Okonkwo for safekeeping until his fate can be decided.
Ensconced in Okonkwo’s family for three years, Ikemefuna comes to see Okonkwo as his adopted father. And Okonkwo comes to see him in some ways as a better son than his eldest boy, Nwoye, who Okonkwo worries is soft and lazy like Unoka. Can’t have that.
After three years, the village elders determine Ikemefuna must be killed to atone for the murder. The Oracle of the Hills and the Caves, a spiritual leader, pronounces the boy’s fate, and a village elder, the revered Ezeudu, relays the news to Okonkwo. “They will take him outside [the village] as is the custom, and kill him there,” says Ezeudu before adding a warning: “I want you to have nothing to do with it. He calls you his father.”
But with such a heavy warning you know, of course, Okonkwo does have something to do with it; his pride and fear surpass both his wisdom and his love. Okonkwo thus loses not only his adopted son but also his biological son; Nwoye has developed an attachment to Ikemefuna and can’t forgive his father for his part in his friend’s demise.
Events unravel after the death, accelerated by momentary shocks and jolts. When, for instance, the elderly Ezeudu passes away, a massive funeral is held at which Okonkwo accidentally kills the old man’s son (with a nearly literal Chekhov’s gun). Accident or not, killing a member of the clan is an egregious offense, and Okonkwo is sent into exile for seven years with whatever belongings he and his family can haul away. The rest of his estate is ceremonially ransacked and destroyed.
Meanwhile, white men arrive. There is some confusion early on as to whether these are albinos, but it’s quickly clear that the English are a different people entirely with different beliefs about society, religion, law, and more. A mix of local fear and bemusement allows Christian missionaries a foothold in the community.
By the time Okonkwo returns, they are firmly ensconced. And unlike Ikemefuna, they cannot be easily dispatched with machetes. Okonkwo tries and fails, utterly.
As a tragedy, Things Fall Apart works on at least two levels, not only on the fate of its protagonist and his people—ultimately disappointed for their oversized reliance on Okonkwo’s strength, resolve, and pride—but also for the nation of Nigeria itself, a country fashioned from the raw ingredients of its wildly diverse regional inhabitants by their singleminded colonizers, the British.
There are no heroes in Things Fall Apart, only people stuck with impossible tradeoffs, which some make more wisely (or at least less rashly) than others. Surveying reality many decades after these years, Achebe uses Things Fall Apart not to vaunt Nigerian innocence and virtue but to complain we’ve too easily ignored the human calculations and costs involved in navigating cultural collision.
Achebe’s own family struggled with the challenge. His parents were both Christian converts, his father even serving as an evangelist and catechist for the Church Missionary Society. And though baptized and buried a Christian, Achebe was nonetheless drawn to more traditional African beliefs most of his life.
That’s not to say he tossed out the baby with the baptismal font. In Things Fall Apart, Achebe recognizes the good missionaries had done in attempting to curb what most modern readers (having unconsciously absorbed Christian norms, per the arguments of people such as Tom Holland and Larry Siedentop) would regard as unmitigated barbarity: leaving newborn twins out to die, slashing and disposing of babies believed to be demons, ostracizing the perpetually unclean and unworthy, not to mention the shocking treatment of women and outsiders.
It’s the Christian response to these behaviors that provoke the final confrontation in the novel and which ultimately sees the slow bullets, fired all those years before, hit home. Nwoye abandons is father for the church, and Okonkwo’s people refuse to back his final play.
When you can’t be the hero of the story you’re telling, there are two choices: humility or something more drastic. Okonkwo chooses the second path in an act so unforgivable it alienates himself from his own people just as they are being alienated from their own way of life.
Thinking and Thinking Again
Why read it? First published in 1958, Things Fall Apart is regarded as one of the greatest African novels ever written and among the finest of all times and places. It’s regularly featured today on top-novel lists and every page earns its designation as a classic.
The construction is flawless and full of surprises. I’ve given away a few, but don’t worry: there’s more. It’s laced with Nigerian proverbs and folk wisdom, much of which will raise a smile. And despite Okonkwo’s failings, Achebe clearly loves his character, a fact that reminds me of this bit of wisdom from Eugene Vodolazkin’s novel, The Aviator: “I think that when you describe a person in a genuine way,” says Vodolazkin’s protagonist, “you cannot help but love him.”
Okonkwo is nothing if not genuine, just as Achebe has drawn him. And so we readers come to love him, too, or at least sympathize with his tortured situation. And thus a classic: A book that will be read and read again because it causes its readers to think and think again, especially in a world with far more tradeoffs than resolutions.
If you’re interested in learning more about the countless cultural collisions involved with Europe’s colonization of Africa, I recommend journalist Dipo Faloyin’s history, Africa Is not a Country, reviewed here last year.
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Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita (January)
Carlo Collodi’s The Adventures of Pinocchio (February)
Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (March)
Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 (April)
In June, I’ll be reading and reviewing Alan Paton’s Cry, the Beloved Country.