Book 11 of #15in2015
It’s not often I set aside genre works to read something regarded as a literary classic, but I’ve wanted to read this since the author died a few years ago.
The main character, Okonkwo, is a tragic figure determined to make a prominent place for himself within his (fictional, but based on the Igbo of southern Nigeria) people. His father was a lazy, good-for-nothing layabout, who played music and drank other people’s palm wine, and borrowed sums he never intended to pay back. In a culture that valued community he was a likable taker.
Deeply ashamed of his father, Okonkwo was determined to be everything he was not. He worked hard, fought fiercely in war, and won renown as a great wrestler. But while he could fight and work and create wealth, he couldn’t manage the things his father was good at: he couldn’t create strong social bonds within the community. He was prone to rages, and did terrible things because he was afraid to seem weak/feminine.
Naturally, he ends up dying an outcast’s death, just like his father, because he was ready to go to war with the British colonials but no one was willing to follow him.
Okonkwo is one of those literary protagonists that literary readers lose so much: he’s an asshole you wouldn’t want to spend five minutes with in real life, but as a reader you go deep into his history and his tragic flaws, watching from a superior position as his misguided instincts push him closer and closer to tragedy. The text portrays his errors but doesn’t allow much commentary on them, except in the context of the way he clashes with cultural traditions.
However, those cultural traditions are not spared overt criticism in the text at all. For a people who explicitly value community and the bonds of tribal identity, they have terrible blind spots. The vicious misogyny, the cruelty toward babies born twins, and more, create weak points in their society that the English missionaries, who show up late in the book, exploits. Okonkwo’s own son, whom he has treated with nothing but anger and criticism (in the hope that he would grow up hard and strong) is one of the first to flee his traditional tribal community for the Christian church. And just as with the man, so it is with the community as a whole: the lowest and most despised break away first, and once on the outside, attack the culture they were once a part of.
Not that the British are made into good guys, with their sham talk about justice while they destroy the Ibo traditions and kill their people.
It’s a sad book. I like sad. It’s also complex–much more so than this review makes it seem. I enjoyed it, but I don’t think I’ll be seeking out the subsequent books.