The Appalling Things Fall Apart

V.S. Naipaul on Things Fall Apart in the Guardian

‘Naipaul has seemed content to pay less attention than ever to the
novelistic nature of his work. He believes that “prose narrative” is
undergoing a change, and that change is needed. “In the 19th century,
the novel came out of a great need to describe society. I find in myself
an unwillingness to pick up a modern novel. What is against the form is
that everybody can do it and everybody does it, and I think this has
debased it, has made it obvious that there needs to be something else.
Interesting writing is always being done for the first time.”
In recent years, he has made good copy for journalists by criticising
writers such as Forster and Powell – “I was appalled”, he says by A
Dance to the Music of Time – not to mention Waugh and Greene, another
disappointment. In each case, his objections are based on the writer’s
failure to replenish his material. “Have you read Things Fall Apart by
Chinua Achebe? I think it’s an appalling book. It’s one of the things
that people talk about, without considering. It’s a primitive piece of
writing about primitive people ..and that’s something that’s very
limited. This thing – the rhythm of the year, the rituals – you can do
it once, you can’t do it all the time.” He feels that “there’s been no
African writing about Africa, in a way I would understand. I mean,
someone trying to explain to me why Africa is in a mess. Is it old
African magic in their heads?”

It is very refreshing when intelligent minds rubbish universally
acclaimed books. You just know that in the toss of arguments will come
fresh perspectives. Seen in this light, the opinion of the Nobel
Laureate that Things Fall Apart is an appalling book, a primitive piece
of writing about primitive people
is frankly, quite exciting.

As to the charge that he has chosen a primitive people for subject
matter, Chinua can have of course no defence. He may suggest, soto voce,
that his critic choose a less prejudicial and judgemental word to
describe a society that is afterall more democratic than most today, but
when it comes down to it, Chinua Achebe will have to admit that he
failed to write a sufficient number of dishwashers and Mercedes Benzes
into the pages of Things fall Apart. And naturally great literature
cannot be written of primitive, pre-email societies.

As to the charge that the writing itself is a primitive piece of
writing, one must of course employ the use of a thesaurus to deduce that
the learned Nobel Laureate probably meant that TFA was a book whose author and
characters spoke simple words on their way to elaborating a simple plot
invested in a simple storyline. And how can Professor Achebe respond to
this? Did he, after all, out-garcia Garcia Marquez with a dreamy sweep
of one or two hundred years of imperial Okonkwos and Okonkwresses? No. Did his
characters take Okrian leaps from Umuofia to heaven and back? No. Of
course he might argue that it was simplicity that took away the breath;
yes, it was a simple story rendered with an adroitness that fabricated
of blunt language a new idiom, a new metalanguage that twined strands of
English such that suddenly the Igbo leapt at the reader, yes, yes, yes –
but Chinua cannot deny that the writing itself is a simple piece of
writing.

Which leaves us where exactly? Here, I suppose: Naipaul’s gripe against
the Modern novel is that everyone can do it and everyone does it. He
says interesting writing is always being done for the first time.
Naipaul is apparently appalled by many things apart from TFA; there is
Anthony Powell, there is Waugh, there is Greene… and the central bone
with these appalling writers is their failure to renew themselves. In
this sense of course, Chinua is in a class of his own, in failing to
renew himself in his very first book, published fifty years ago when it
arrived literally at the head of a genus of literature.

Nothing of course takes away everyman’s right to intensely dislike
anybook for anycause. That is the reader’s prerogative. A reader is also
entitled to seek books that teach him why Africa is in such a mess. He
is entitled to say, for instance: there’s been no African writing about
Africa, in a way I would understand
. Fortunately the writer also has a
prerogative to write what he wants to write. And Chinua Achebe – if one
credits the drift of his own words – wrote TFA because there was no African writing
about Africa, in a way he could understand
. Two different goals
entirely.

Occasionally, the twain do meet of course, and then there might be a fan
club.

Chuma Nwokolo.

2 thoughts on “The Appalling Things Fall Apart”

  1. Hi Chuma – this is an excellent comment on Naipaul’s criticisms. Did you send it to the Guardian?

  2. Never got around to doing that Angie, but then, I never read it first-hand on the Guardian either. The internet is a strange beast alright.
    Chuma

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