C. J. Driver on Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart

A Taker of Heads

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Chinua Achebe’s first novel, Things Fall Apart (1958), was an early and spectacular part of the flowering of West African literature after independence from colonial rule. It seemed, perhaps especially to a South African like me living under increasingly draconian controls, a wonderful illustration of what liberation might mean. Now, I suspect, it is one of those books which almost everyone knows about but very few people other than students actually read.

I am a reader, not a collector: the few rarities I have been given or have gathered are mainly scattered in the bookshelves, along with tattered paperbacks and rejects from libraries. However, one small batch of beautifully hand-set and hand-printed slim volumes sits safely protected from dust, moths and grandchildren in a glass-fronted bookcase; they are some of the books and pamphlets published in Nigeria, mainly by the Mbari Press at Ibadan University, in the late 1950s and early ’60s: Wole Soyinka’s Three Plays; John Pepper Clark’s Song of a Goat (a play) and his Poems; Lenrie Peters’s Poems; Christopher Okigbo’s Heavensgate; George Awoonor Williams’s Rediscovery and Other Poems; and others. What high hopes we had then, before the Biafran War, the tribal conflicts in Rwanda and Burundi, the civil war in the Congo, and the hollowing-out of Zimbabwe. Even so, some of us have not yet succumbed to ‘Afropessimism’ but hope that the example of South Africa in preferring forgiveness to retribution may yet herald an African Renaissance.

So I came back to the self-imposed task of rereading Things Fall Apart with a degree of trepidation. Would it seem dated? Partial in its desire ‘to set the colonial record straight’? Sentimental about precolonial history? In Morning yet on Creation Day, his book of critical essays (1975), Achebe had written that he would be ‘quite satisfied if my novels (especi

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About the contributor

C. J. Driver’s latest book is So Far: Selected Poems, 1960–2004. He was a judge for the Caine Prize for African Writing in 2007 and again in 2008.

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