This house believes that blurb writers who include events that happen more than 50% of the way through a novel should be lined up and whipped.
Even over 20% is bad form, and 75% is unforgiveable – immediate disembowelling is surely not too harsh. With the classics, blurb writers probably think they can get away with more. They picture the learned scholar, perhaps, bending over the wrinkled volume for the umpteenth time. But this scholar has no need of blurb. It’s the fresh eyed young reader, palms sweating into the still-sharp corners of the book that soak it up and all too often find that they’ve effectively read the final chapter.
I am smarting from the latest offence in the blurb to a Penguin Modern Classics edition of Achebe’s seminal Things Fall Apart, which focussed exclusively on a major, specific event 80% of the way through the book. But I’ll back up in case you aren’t the learned scholar mentioned.
Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness of 1899 and Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart of 1958 are viewed to be the dual foundation stones of “African” literature; one with a firmly colonial (and in the fair words of Achebe “thoroughgoing racist”) view of the continent, the other the first globally acclaimed English language African novel by an African. I read Heart of Darkness perhaps ten years back and hated its dark oily vision from the off. Things Fall Apart has been on my reading list ever since, its very slimness making it seem less pressing.
The first surprise, perhaps, is the detailed knowledge of African tribal life which occupies the majority, and heart of, the novel. It is a life revealed in all its complexity – “primitive” by European definitions, but labyrinthine in its customs, rules, beliefs, hierarchies, and codes of behaviour. Achebe paints an intricate picture of a society as rounded and full as any European alternative. It’s laborious in its steady recounting of major and minor village events, but at no point anthropological – it’s an insider’s voice. This insider perspective is particularly interesting when the arrival of a European influence starts throwing some of its assumptions into question.
For the most part, the Europeans clearly do not see the richness of local life – but some examples, like their failure to die when they occupy cursed land and nurture baby twins rather than leaving them to die in the forest – clearly demonstrate the limitations in local thought and paint a nuanced picture of the state of innocence prior to their arrival. This refusal to paint “before” as an Arcardia is what gives the novel its power and its tragedy – we have looked clear-eyed at what has been lost, and can weep for it in all of its complexity. Okonkwo, the protagonist, is our hero, and though we are with him on his downfall, do we seriously feel the continuation of the violence that he represents (sipping palm wine merrily from the skull of a man he beheaded) is the answer that he believes it to be? Even as he mourns its loss, I don’t think Achebe does.
Achebe’s decision to write in English is something that has been much wrangled over, as has the question of whether it upholds or subverts the “Western tradition.” For me, it was a clear subversion which gave the book an extra edge. There is a refusal to pander to the usual Western narrative construction – whipping through the background, pausing ominously before a key event to gather tension, living the key event in minute detail before exploring the consequences at length, including the protagonist’s emotions about their involvement. For the most part, Things Fall Apart completely fails to do this, dedicating more time to minor episodes of tribal life than the major events which it often almost skips over entirely. That these brushed over events are those focussed exclusively on by the backing blurb only heightens the irony.
Although the arrival of the Europeans is important to this book and obviously pivotal in the history of Africa, this book is really about the Africa that came beforehand – complicated, peopled with all sorts of characters, reverend in its beliefs, and vitally, CHANGING. Achebe’s picture is not of an idyllic static society changed only by the arrival of outsiders but a world as problematic and evolving as any collection of humans you’d find the world over. Blurb-man, I wish you’d focussed on that.