A master storyteller is remembered
One of the most frustrating parts of my summer as a high school student was having to do required reading for the upcoming school year. I figured it was fair that I was forced to read whatever teachers demanded during the school year, but the summer? No, that was too much. The summer before my senior year, however, the one in which I would be more challenged in my writing capabilities than I ever had been before, I read one book that has made an indelible impact upon my life; Chinua Achebe’s “Things Fall Apart.”
“Okonkwo was well-known throughout the nine villages and even beyond. His fame rested on solid personal achievements.”
So begins Achebe’s tale, and the reader is introduced to Okonkwo, a tough, prideful man in the village of Umuofia in Nigeria. He rules his household with an iron fist, fearful of failure, and is an icon to which all others are measured, at least when the book opens. Then a young boy named Ikemefuna is ordered into Okonkwo’s home by the village elders, a hostage from a neighboring village wishing to spare bloodshed.
Okonkwo’s life and personal feelings grow more complicated as his family looks after Ikemefuna, forcing his harsh rule on the young boy as he does his own son, Nwoye, even against the protestations of his wives and fellow villagers.
“Okonkwo wanted his son to be a great farmer and a great man. He would stamp out the disquieting signs of laziness which he thought he already saw in him.”
Achebe’s tale grows as Okonkwo’s world views and stature and in Umuofia fail, and as I read “Things Fall Apart,” I found myself eagerly flipping through each page as a new myth, hero or tragic figure was discovered.
“That boy calls you father,” says Ezeudu, one of the most respected elders in Umuofia to Okonkwo. “Do not bear a hand in his death.”
The Oracle of the Hills and Caves had ordered Ikemefuna to be killed, Ezeudu knew, and he warned Okonkwo of his participation. Okonkwo did not listen.
“He heard Ikemefuna cry, ‘My father, they have killed me!’ as he ran towards him. Dazed with fear, Okonkwo drew his machete and cut him down. He was afraid of being thought weak.”
More and more, as I read this unbelievable tale, I became engrossed, by the side of Ikemefuna that night when his supposed father killed him. I was there when Okonkwo and his family were exiled to his mother’s village for nine years, punishment for the evil omens brought upon the village because of Ikemefuna’s murder. I even witnessed Okonkwo’s return, when he sees his once proud Umuofia grow soft and submissive upon the arrival of the white man and his strange religion; Christianity.
Okonkwo did not listen to his father, Unoka, when he was younger, and hated his love of music, song and talk. They were completely against his ideals of hard work, even when Unoka tried to comfort him during a bad harvest.
“Do not despair. I know you will not despair,” said Unoka to his son many years before. “You have a manly and proud heart. A proud heart can survive a general failure because such a failure does not prick its pride. It is more difficult and more bitter when a man fails alone.”
Murder does not escape Okonkwo’s hands, and at the closing of “Things Fall Apart,” he slays a white colonist who tries to break up a meeting of Umuofia’s leading men discussing possible war with the white man.
“He knew that Umuofia would not go to war. He knew because they had let the other messengers escape. They had broken into tumult instead of action. He discerned fright in that tumult.”
Okonkwo wipes his machete and walks home to hang himself, his body discovered by fellow villagers later that day.
“That man was one of the greatest men in Umuofia,” said Obierika, Okonkwo’s friend, to the white Commissioner who arrived to arrest the murderer. “You drove him to kill himself; and now he will be buried like a dog.”
The book was so captivating, a maelstrom of so many human emotions, yet I did not realize how closely intertwined its lessons would be as I entered into my senior year of high school. I had a full course load, including AP English, AP Psychology, and fourth-year Italian, all of which I wanted to do well in. Math and science were difficult, and I had to work after schools as well.
On many occasions I failed. Quizzes, tests, essays, they were all marked up with seemingly endless amounts of red ink. Yet, as I struggled through my final year of high school, I continuously went back to read Achebe’s “Things Fall Apart.” I read it at least three times during the course of the year, and it was a guide, an escape into a world where more serious issues were being played out.
For AP English, I had a final paper to write. Every other paper was at best a B-, at worst a failure. But I figured if there was one paper I must do well on, it would be this paper. And I chose Achebe’s “Things Fall Apart.”
After three months of research and finding time to write whenever I could, I handed in my paper. I received an A+. There is no grade I have ever been more proud of, and then I remembered Achebe’s tale, and Okonkwo.
This past week, Chinua Achebe passed away at the age of 82. I never had the chance to meet him personally, although I did hear him speak at Brown University about his life a few years back. He spoke just as he had written; a true storyteller, a master of describing the human condition.
Chinua Achebe’s “Things Fall Apart” is a tale which I will always carry with me, and the lessons which its pages contain. For that, I am thankful to him.