Perhaps down in his heart Okonkwo was not a cruel man. But his whole life was dominated by fear, the fear of failure and of weakness. It was deeper and more intimate than the fear of evil and capricious gods and of magic, the fear of the forest, and of the forces of nature, malevolent, red in tooth and claw. Okonkwo’s fear was greater than these.

There is a moment during this book when a character discusses a fable about the origin of the tortoise’s rough shell, how he was tricked by a host of birds and crashed to hard ground from a great height. Afterwards his shell was repaired, with the sticking together of the shattered pieces the reason for the roughness of the tortoise shell ever since.

I have heard this story before. I came across it in a book of fables when I was a kid. It was not attributed to a collection of African fables, instead simply presented as a legend from ‘long ago’.

Achebe’s novel describes the history of a village and a man who lived in it. Okonkwo was known as the best fighter and most powerful warrior in the village of Umuofia. He excelled in his work as a farmer as he remained embarrassed by the memory of his father’s laziness, who died debts to many of his neighbours. Okonkwo became determined to grow his own yams, care for his wives and children with the money he earned and never be thought of as lazy. To his mind that would be unmanly.

Umuofia was known by neighbouring villages to count many strong warriors among its menfolk, as well as powerful magics. So whenever a dispute was raised in relation to the town, a peaceful solution was sought to avoid any disastrous conflict. To give the village a hostage was one solution and in just such a situation the doomed boy named Ikemefuna was entrusted to Okonkwo’s family. The boy was raised as one of his sons. Okonkwo was pleased to see that the boy from another village was a positive influence on his own son, Nwoye, whom he was afraid, took too much after his own father.

When the rules of the tribe force Okonkwo to pay a terrible price, the result will haunt not only his own family but the entire village of Umuofia. The white man is coming, with his modern guns and ‘iron horses’, and a new god, greater than any spirit that the village calls upon.

Much of this story sounds familiar. The family curses, the taking of hostages and the hubris of a great man are all familiar themes from myths and legends from every culture. Achebe invests it with a unique energy all of its own. Okonkwo’s pride and cruelty to his family is at once familiar, yet emotionally wrenching. The book contains phrases and words particular to its setting, with the story allowing for a growing understanding of this culture.

The final pages reveal the ultimate tragedy, of these lives and experiences being reduced to the words themselves, now rendered alien.

Heartbreaking, intimate, a revelation.

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