Sixty years ago, 27-year-old Chinua Achebe initiated a publishing sensation when London-based William Heinemann printed 2000 hardback copies of his debut novel, Things Fall Apart.
Born Albert Chinualumogu Achebe in Ogidi, eastern Nigeria, on November 16 1930, he was in the first set of students admitted to the University College, Ibadan, when it was founded in 1948. Although he was supposed to study medicine on scholarship, he graduated with a BA degree in English, history and religious studies in 1953. Achebe began working at the Nigerian Broadcasting Service (NBS) in Lagos in 1954 and travelled out of Nigeria for the first time in 1956, when he flew to England on a scholarship to attend a course in radio production at the BBC Staff Training School.
Achebe, who brought a manuscript with him, showed it to one of the instructors, British broadcaster, novelist and critic Gilbert Phelps. Phelps recalls: “As it happens I can throw some light on the novel’s genesis. I was working for the BBC staff training department in London when Achebe was attending a course there. Achebe showed me his type scripts and I was immediately struck by their quality. I advised him to divide his material into several separate novels — at that stage Achebe was contemplating one very long one — and when the first part, Things Fall Apart, was finished, I introduced it to his London publisher.”
Having amended his manuscript to reflect the section that would be Things Fall Apart, Achebe sent a handwritten version to a London typing agency in response to an advert, “Authors’ manuscripts typed”, in The Spectator and sent £22 in British postal orders for two copies. The agency failed to contact Achebe and he became concerned. But Achebe’s boss, Angela Beattie, whom he would succeed as head of the NBS’s talks department in 1957, traced and recovered the manuscript from the agency while she was in London on annual leave. One typed copy of the manuscript of Things Fall Apart was eventually sent to Achebe in Lagos.
Having not previously published a novel by an African, the executives at Heinemann were initially reluctant to bring out Achebe’s novel. Then Donald MacRae, a reader in sociology at the London School of Economics and one of Heinemann’s educational advisers, who had just returned from West Africa, read Achebe’s novel and reportedly declared: “This is the best novel I have read since the war.”
Achebe took his title from The Second Coming (1919) by Irish poet WB Yeats: “Turning and turning in the widening gyre/ The falcon cannot hear the falconer;/ Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;/ Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,/ The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere/ The ceremony of innocence is drowned;/ The best lack all conviction, while the worst/ Are full of passionate intensity.”
Heinemann’s African Writers’ Series (AWS) was founded in 1962 by Alan Hill, who had been a director at Heinemann when he oversaw the publication of Things Fall Apart in 1958, and Evander van Milne, whose career included stints at Thomas Nelson, the Scottish publishing house and Heinemann Educational Books. The AWS made paperback copies (with their trademark orange covers) of African texts available at affordable prices to students in schools and universities in Africa. Things Fall Apart was the first text published in the series, as AWS 1. Achebe served as editorial adviser to the AWS from 1962 to 1972.
Since 1958, an estimated 10-million copies of Things Fall Apart have been sold and it has been translated into more than 50 languages, including Czech, French, German, Hebrew, Hungarian, Italian, Russian, Slovene, Spanish and isiXhosa.
There have been African novels published before it: in South Africa, Thomas Mofolo’s Chaka (1925), RRR Dhlomo’s An African Tragedy (1928), Sol Plaatje’s Mhudi (1930) and Peter Abrahams’ Mine Boy (1946); in Senegal, Bakary Diallo’s Force-Bonté (1926), Ousmane Socé’s Karim (1935) and Ousmane Sembène’s Le Docker noir (1956); in Togo, Félix Couchoro’s L’esclave (1929); in Benin, Paul Hazoumé’s Doguicimi (1938); in Nigeria, Daniel Olorunfemi Fagunwa’s Ògbójúdnínú Igbó Irúnmal (1938), Amos Tutuola’s The Palm-Wine Drinkard (1952) and Cyprian Ekwensi’s People of the City (1954); in Congo, Paul Lomami-Tchibamba’s Ngando-le-Crocodile (1948); in Guinea, Camara Laye’s L’enfant noir (1953); and in Cameroon, Mongo Beti’s Le pauvre Christ de Bomba and Ferdinand Oyono’s Une vie de boy (both 1956).
But it was with Achebe’s Things Fall Apart that modern African literature became a force to be reckoned with both locally and globally, and in disciplinary and institutional terms.
Achebe felt the need to debunk the stereotypes of Africa and Africans in works such as Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1899) and Joyce Cary’s Mister Johnson (1939). Although Achebe’s debut appeared in 1958, its gestation period began earlier in the decade. As he recalls: “I know around ’51, ’52, I was quite certain that I was going to try my hand at writing and one of the things that set me thinking was Joyce Cary’s novel, set in Nigeria, Mister Johnson, which was praised so much, and it was clear to me that it was a most superficial picture not only of the country, but even of the Nigerian character, and so I thought if this was famous, then perhaps someone ought to try and look at this from the inside.”
The opening of Things Fall Apart remains memorable: “Okonkwo was well known throughout the nine villages and even beyond. His fame rested on solid personal achievements. As a young man of 18 he had brought honour to his village by throwing Amalinze the Cat. Amalinze was the great wrestler who for seven years was unbeaten, from Umuofia to Mbaino. He was called the Cat because his back would never touch the earth. It was this man that Okonkwo threw in a fight which the old man agreed was one of the fiercest since the founder of their town engaged a spirit of the wild for seven days and seven nights.”
Things Fall Apart is the story of a proud, stubborn and hardworking man, Okonkwo, whose impetuosity and inflexibility — his failure or refusal to accept or adapt to change — portend his tragic downfall. On a broader scope, it delineates the tragic implications of the entanglement or collision of historical forces — in this case, Europe’s (late-19th century) incursion into, and colonial domination of, Africa.
Okonkwo’s determination to be different from his idle and feckless father Unoka hardens into obsession, with tragic consequences. Witness, for example, the fate of Ikemefuna, the 15-year-old suddenly uprooted from his mother and three-year-old sister and brought, along with a young virgin, to Umuofia as compensation for the killing of a daughter of Umuofia in Mbaino, a neighbouring village. While the virgin goes to Ogbuefi Udo as replacement for his murdered wife, Ikemefuna (until his fate is decided) belongs to the clan whose elders ask Okonkwo to take care of him. He lives with Okonkwo for three years, cared for by his first wife whose first-born son, Nwoye, two years younger than Ikemefuna, becomes the latter’s close friend.
The novel is divided into three parts: Okonkwo’s story before, during and after his seven-year exile among his mother’s kinsmen in Mbanta, where he is banished after his accidental killing of the 16-year-old son of Ogbuefi Ezeudu, the oldest man in Okonkwo’s village, at Ezeudu’s own funeral. It is Ezeudu, remember, who privately informs and advises Okonkwo about Ikemefuna’s fate: “That boy calls you father. Do not bear a hand in his death.
“Yes, Umuofia has decided to kill him. The Oracle of the Hills and the Caves has pronounced it. They will take him outside Umuofia as is the custom, and kill him there. But I want you to have nothing to do with it. He calls you his father.”
Fearful of being deemed weak, Okonkwo fails to heed Ezeudu’s warnings and, with his machete, promptly joins in killing Ikemefuna, leaving Nwoye devastated. Later, with the arrival of the Christian missionaries and the introduction of British colonial rule, Nwoye joins the new religion.
The novel derives its appeal from its confident inhabitation of, and deep engagement with, the author’s Igbo culture; its profound marshalling of the forces of history and tragedy; its strategic exploration of outcasts, the destruction of twins and the myth of ogbanje (the Igbo equivalent of abiku in Yoruba mythology); its subtle use of flashback and foreshadowing; its accessibility and economy of language; its skilful interweaving of folktales and proverbs.
As Achebe points out: “Among the [Igbo] the art of conversation is regarded very highly and proverbs are the palm-oil with which words are eaten.”