Our Decentralized Literature: Cultural Mediations in Selected Jewish and Southern Writers

By Jules Chametzky | Go to book overview

Introduction

In the last paragraph of Chinua Achebe Things Fall Apart--perhaps the most memorable account in English of an African culture and the impact upon it of white European encroachment--the voice and language of the book shifts with startling abruptness. From the point of view of a sensibility deep within tribal culture-- in which the reader has been privileged throughout the novel to participate and whose world has therefore become familiar, nuanced, rich, and real as lived experience can be--we are suddenly forced to see all that fullness reduced by the language of the conqueror. As he orders the body of Okonkwo cut down from the tree, the English district commissioner reflects on his plans to write a book about his years toiling to bring "civilization to different parts of Africa." He muses, "The story of this man who had killed a messenger and hanged himself would make interesting reading. One could almost write a whole chapter on him. Perhaps not a whole chapter but a reasonable paragraph, at any rate. There was so much else to include, and one must be firm in cutting out details. He had already chosen the title of the book, after much thought: The Pacification of the Primitive Tribes of the Lower Niger."

Anyone who has read or taught this novel can testify to the outrageous reductionism of this last paragraph, especially its last sentence. It is chilling, but ultimately fulfills the enlightening effort of the whole book. Obviously, it forces us to confront the "Rashomon" aspect of experience--that things look different to different observers, and that one's very perceptions are shaped by the social and cultural context out of which one operates. More significantly for my purposes, and from the perspective of a chief

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