Thursday, May 22, 2008

Mere Anarchy

I was gratified as I thumbed through my latest issue of the New Yorker to see Ruth Franklin's appreciation of the book which since the sixties has become established as the Great African Novel, Chinua Achebe's "Things Fall Apart," ("After Empire," May 26). Drawing his title from a line in the W.B. Yeats's "The Second Coming," possibly both the greatest and most misunderstood of all twentieth century poems, the young Ibo author attempted to gain a personal understanding of the sorrows of contemporary African society through an analysis, gleaned from eyewitness testimony by older family members and friends, of the traditional West African society destroyed by colonial penetration.

It's been fifty years since western critics puzzled uncomprehendingly over this profound work, which is as brilliant a bit of social documentation as it is a masterpiece of storytelling. Writing in English (not his first language) because it is the only language Africans have in common, Achebe avoided the twin traps of portraying the vanished society as a lost paradise and casting the European colonialists as devils. The result is analytical and at the same time affectionate, but without sentimentality or romanticism. Above all, it's a work of astonishing honesty.

I taught this wonderful book for several years, and would highly recommend it to anyone who has not read it. Every European and North American who thinks of precolonial Africa as a patchwork of "primitive" societies could learn from it.

And for those who read it and persist in finding a chronicle of primitivism, I would not recommend, but prescribe Achebe's 1977 essay, "An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad's "Heart of Darkness." It's a dose of harsh medicine, but should cure anyone still laboring under the misapprehension that the history of subjugated people can be accurately rendered by the subjugators.

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