Friday, May 31, 2013

One Novel, Two Readers, Different Effects


It is never any surprise that a book that affected me also has an effect on others. What always surprises me, though, is how one book can influence people so differently. My sister brought to my attention this article Composites: German Language and 'Things Fall Apart' by Jalees Rehman, M.D. In it, the author, whose family spent time in the same region where this story takes place, finds that the language of this novel that he says changed his life forever. One cannot disagree that this book is striking in its simplicity of language, which makes the story all the more poignant.

For me, it was something else altogether. I read the book in High School as part of a special program called "Combined Studies." This course made the bridge between history and literature. We read Things Fall Apart when we were learning about the colonization of Africa. Our teachers tried to instill in us the understanding that the concept of culture is something that is far more subjective than we think. What's more, the way a different culture's citizen acts should not be judged by the standards of another own culture. The buzz word that went along with our lesson was ethnocentric

The dictionary says that this word means "the conviction of one's own cultural superiority." To me, it is a type of unfeeling depravity that is unforgivable. In the novel, the white man's good intentions were, on the surface, beyond reproach. The death and destruction they caused was nothing more than the merest collateral damages in the war to civilize the uncivilized world. One would think that after such a novel became such an icon, that we might have learned something from it. Rehman learned the power of the simple sentence. While that is a good lesson, I think he missed the point of the book. In the article he says:

As with so many of the characters in the book, I could see myself in them and yet I was also disgusted by some of the abhorrent acts they committed. I wanted to like Okonkwo, but I could not like a man who participated in the killing of his adopted son or nearly killed his wife in a fit of anger.

Maybe if Rehman had learned about the negative effects of ethnocentrism, he wouldn't have judged the characters using what seems to me to be his own superior cultural yardstick. Many of the "abhorrent acts" in the book aren't in the least bit objectionable in the eyes of the characters that do them. They are done as a matter of fact, it was just the way they did things, and it was part of their culture.  What right did outsiders have to try to change these people? Because in trying to change them, things literally fell apart. 

Rehman goes on to say that he tried to imagine Okonkwo as someone of another race who suffered upheavals at the hands of different invaders. He says, "The history of humankind is always that of things falling apart and, importantly, that of rebuilding after the falling apart." While this is true, the question in my mind is why is humankind so eager to tear things down for the sake of what they consider to be progress?

This type of thing always brings to mind the story of the Ethiopian woman who was brought to Israel. When a group went to visit her in her new apartment, someone made the comment that her life was so much better now than it had been before. To this she replied that when she lived in Ethiopia, every morning she would milk her cow, make breakfast for her children and send them off to school. Then she would go down to the river to get water. This took her most of the day. When the day was done, they would go to sleep on the mats she put down on the dirt floor of the hut. In Israel, her apartment had stone floors, running water, a stove, an oven, a refrigerator, windows, doors and even real beds with sheets and pillows. She had all this convenience but, "I don't have money to buy milk to make my children's breakfast. You tell me - where was my life better?" 

It seems unfortunate (or maybe it's ironic) that Rehman, a German Muslim, would fail to see this as the real essence of this novel. Then again, my feeling this way is probably just my own ethnocentrism showing.

"Things Fall Apart" by Chinua Achebe is available from Amazon US, Amazon UK, Barnes & Noble, Kobo Books (USA, Canada & Australia), iTunes (iBook or audiobook), The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), new or used from Alibris or Better World Books as well as from an IndieBound store near you. 

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