Things Fall Apart is brief, but in 209 pages it brilliantly invokes the traditional village life and spiritual beliefs of the Igbo, then shows their swift unwinding at the hands of missionaries and the colonial administration of Nigeria.
It's no wonder that this book is considered The classic work of African fiction. Things Fall Apart was written by an Igbo and is told from an Igbo perspective. The book centres African experience and challenges the colonial narrative of "exploration", "conquest", or "savages and civilization" by showing the complex social, political, religious, and cultural traditions that were disrupted by the introduction of alien traditions -- literally at the point of a gun.
It's hard to imagine how radical it must have felt to read this book when it was published in 1957. Things Fall Apart helped spark an African literature as one nation after another gained independence through the 1950s and 1960s, and writer after writer starting telling their own stories.
Both of these decisions make sense: according to Achebe, written Igbo is itself a product of colonialism. The missionary who decided how to transcribe the language into written form decided that written Igbo should be the 'average' of all of the different dialects -- so written Igbo does not reflect how anyone speaks or understands the language anyway. And as a student of English literature, it makes sense that Achebe turned to a colonial narrative form to tell a story from the history of his people.
But I wonder what Things Fall Apart might have been like if Achebe had instead followed more closely the model of the stories told at the firesides of his ancestors: the masculine stories of the land, full of violence and bloodshed, or the feminine stories like that of the bird eneke-nti-oba who challenged the whole world to a wrestling contest, and was finally thrown by the cat.....wait a minute! In his youth, Okonkwe challenges the whole world to a wrestling contest and triumphs by throwing the reigning champion, Cat.... Maybe there's more going on in this novel than meets the Western eye.
I was out of town for the book club meeting where Things Fall Apart was discussed. I wish I could have benefited from the insights of my fellow readers.