5) Things Fall Apart, by Chinua Achebe
Slightly by accident, this turned into a very interesting paired reading of two famous short novels, both directly addressing the question of the European colonial policies in Africa, for completely different reasons. I got the Achebe book for my birthday, and while googling him for a bit of background came across his essay on Conrad, which inspired me to go back and re-read the older book.
I had first read the Conrad book while living in Banja Luka in 1997, itself a place that had been dubbed "the heart of darkness" during the war, so it has a certain meaning for me. The Achebe was basically on my reading list anyway, though I was also a bit intrigued because my grandmother has a note of meeting him in her memoirs, when they were both visiting Makerere University in Uganda, where my father was teaching in the late 1950s. I don't have my grandmother's anecdote to hand, but it is something to the effect that she felt Achebe was rather full of himself. (Of course, it takes one to know one; and this must have been almost exactly at the time that Things Fall Apart was first published to wide acclaim, so he would have had every reason to feel patronised by well-meaning elderly American ladies who hadn't heard of him.)
Both books are set in the 1890s, I think. Achebe's critique of Conrad is pretty perceptive. His accusation that Conrad is a "thoroughgoing racist" is harsh but well-founded. And I have to agree with his assessment of the strengths and weaknesses of Conrad's writing style. The sense of tropical oppression really does get a bit relentless, reminding me almost of Lovecraft's At the Mountains of Madness.
I think he is a little unfair in two respects. First off, I think Conrad's writing reveals not only the standard racism of his day, but also a general misanthropy. His descriptions of Brussels, for instance, really make the flesh crawl:
...a city that always makes me think of a whited sepulcher. Prejudice no doubt. ... I found myself back in the sepulchral city resenting the sight of people hurrying through the streets to filch a little money from each other, to devour their infamous cookery, to gulp their unwholesome beer, to dream their insignificant and silly dreams.Nobody comes out of the story well. The other point where Achebe I think is unfair is in totally rejecting the proposition
that the attitude to the African in Heart of Darkness is not Conrad's but that of his fictional narrator, Marlow, and that far from endorsing it Conrad might indeed be holding it up to irony and criticism... he neglects to hint however subtly or tentatively at an alternative frame of reference by which we may judge the actions and opinions of his characters. It would not have been beyond Conrad's power to make that provision if he had thought it necessary. Marlow seems to me to enjoy Conrad's complete confidence...Marlow, certainly, enjoys Conrad's complete confidence; but he is critical (if somewhat off-handedly so) of the whole colonial enterprise, and in particular of the easy resort of the European colonists to violence. Kurtz is fascinating but also appalling, but almost more appalling is the conclusion of the company boss that he was "a partisan of methods for which the time was not ripe" - the implication being that at some point the time would indeed be ripe for the local agent to get the locals to make blood sacrifices to him and to decorate his hut with their severed heads.
Achebe's book is certainly the better of the two. As an sf fan, I very much enjoy novels where the author has put sufficient time into world-building, and Achebe has done the same here, in a reconstruction of what an Ibo villager's life would have been before the arrival of Europeans. The first half of the book, practically, is an infodump about traditions, rituals, social structures; the sort of background colour about Africa which is wholly absent from Heart of Darkness. No doubt there will be scholars now and in the future who try to disprove Achebe's depiction of the details, as they did with Alex Haley's Roots; that is a bit like criticizing Shakespeare for putting clocks in Julius Caesar (and anyway any inaccuracies in Achebe's account are much less obvious). This is a work of fiction, and what I require is that it be told well, and it is. If I want a history book I'll read a history book.
It does, however, seem to me that Achebe is vulnerable to the same criticism that he makes of Conrad. Okonkwo surely enjoys Achebe's confidence as much as Marlowe enjoys Conrad's; what does Achebe think of Okonkwo's regular beatings of his wife and children, which appears to be only criticised if happening at the wrong ritual time? Edited to add see below kulfuldi on Achebe's misogyny.
His portrayal of the clash of cultures between the British colonisers and the Ibo is gripping and tragic. It must also have been revolutionary in its day. Achebe himself grew up in an evangelical Christian environment, so in telling this story he is rejecting not only the received wisdom about enlightened colonialism, but also presumably his own family background. This explains perhaps why the focus of the intrusion is not so much on the physical force aspects of the colonial regime but on the impact of Christianity. The missionaries, Mr Brown and Mr Smith, are I think the only named white men in the book. It is the destruction of the church that triggers the final catastrophe.
Given the concentration of the book on telling Africa in its own terms, I was a bit puzzled at the reliance of the title on Yeats. I suppose Yeats is invoked as someone who played a crucial role in the reclaiming of Irish culture. I just don't know enough about African perceptions of Irish history to make a judgement. And I'm not sure, to be honest, how useful the concept of "colonialism" actually is. It seems to me that history has always been about the relations between powerful and less powerful, and sometimes shoehorning events into a colonial mould isn't helpful. But that's a general remark, not one directed at the explicitly colonial environments depicted in these two books.