When my friend John moved to Philadelphia recently, I considered bringing a bag of rice to his new apartment. At the time I was in the middle of my second consecutive Nigerian novel, Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart after Half of a Yellow Sun (which I wrote about last week), and it seemed like the kind of thing that would have happened in Okonkwo’s village, tagged to a parable about a frog and an eagle, and bearing the sentiment “may hunger never sleep beneath your roof.” My fiance, who is used to my flights of cultural longing, counseled against the idea, and reminded me that we have traditions of our own for this sort of thing. A bottle of wine might be more appropriate, she suggested (if my friend John is reading this, he’ll note that he ended up with neither the rice nor the wine).
In an early review of Things Fall Apart, released in 1958, The New York Times lamented the disappearance of “primitive” society as among its primary responses to the novel. Reading this in a profile of Achebe that appeared in the May 26 issue of The New Yorker, I couldn’t immediately tell if I was supposed to object to the lament or the lamented, whether the Times’ error was in wistfully recalling a culture that was never its own, or in characterizing that culture as “primitive.” Thinking about my own experience reading Things Fall Apart, I recognized the phantom nostalgia with which I read about the life of the Igbo people. I don’t know if culture is always opaque to those living in it, or if Igbo life really was richer in that way, but regardless, I found myself hungering for a time when there were fewer choices to be made and stronger reasons for making them.
Things Fall Apart is set on the eve of the colonial encounter between British missionaries and a group of Igbo villages called Umuofia. The book tells the story of Okonkwo, a village leader, who became famous as a young man for his wrestling prowess and ferocity in war, and later enjoys high status owing to the abundance of his yam harvests. Okonkwo is proud of what he’s achieved, but also afraid that he’ll be perceived as weak and lazy like his father, which leads him often to brutal acts of overcompensation.
When the missionaries arrive late in the book, it is with the slyness of a stranger sneaking ashore at night. They take advantage of local superstition to gain a foothold in the village, building a church in the forest of Evil Spirits, and their first converts are the villagers who suffered from the cruel side of Igbo culture, mothers forced to abandon newborn twins into the bush, and other varietals of outcast. Although he clearly has no patience for the progress narratives of colonialism, Achebe renders the first celebrations of the Sabbath, with gospel songs spilling out of a pristine church, as a kind of reprieve from the intolerance and arbitrariness which gather over time in tradition. But the end of Things Fall Apart is as inevitable and tragic as the history of colonial conquest. There are moments of hope, but the circumstances are inexorable and there are not enough good men around to hold them back.
There is a tantalizing moment in the book, though, when the first missionaries arrive and innocuously ask to build a church on the outskirts of the village. If the village leaders had known the ruse, could they have prevented the British from taking root? Even more to the point, how should the Igbo have reacted to an outsider come along, bearing a different culture, and asking to live right next door? Set aside the nefarious motives of the British, and it’s the same question of pluralism which we face a million ways over in America, in everything from gay marriage to immigration and assimilation. At most junctures, we have answered the question affirmatively, expanding the boundaries of how people live in our country. But pluralism necessarily comes at the expense of tradition and when you move too far along that curve, you end up with the quandary of an American staring at a supermarket aisle full of cereal. So many options, and no compelling reason to choose any of them.