Recently I’ve read two books about cultures foreign to my own, Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe and The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck. Things Fall Apart is widely cited as the best known African novel. The Good Earth helped Buck to win a Pulitzer.
Let me note from the outset that these books have nothing to do with one another, so far as I am aware. The connections between the books arise in my mind merely because I happened to read one immediately after I had read the other (which in turn is merely a fluke of when my holds on them came through from the library).
Both books are about the downfall of basically good, hard-working men. They are both books that have a near-explicit intention to educate the readers about Igbo and Chinese culture, respectively. The influence of outsiders is present in both books, with missionaries and various other outside forces figuring into both narratives.
I will be more controversial: neither author, properly speaking, has standing to address the issues that s/he address. Buck was the daughter of Western missionaries. She had a lifelong interest in China, and perhaps spoke the language. She could have witnessed events similar to what she narrate. But was not an insider. Achebe is an Igbo, but he grew up in the colonial period, not in the time of transition from the traditional period that is depicted in the book. He is an insider, though not a witness to what he writes about. More from the authors’ backgrounds than from the quality of the narratives, one gets the sense that the authors are filling in the gaps.
Both books are didactic, but Buck does it better. She writes dialog in a slightly stilted English style, as if trying she had been producing an overly literal translation. She weaves explanations into the text in a way that manages not to be heavy handed. She explains characters’ motivations and emotions in a way that allows us to infer their cultural values. Achebe, in contrast, litters the text with Igbo words. This is a technique that works when used sparingly, but it rapidly becomes tedious if overdone. Little of the first part of the book contributes to the whole, but concentrates on introducing Igbo manners and customs (which never come up again…). The narrator often steps into explain what’s going on, with the consequence that the text begins to read rather like an anthropological description than a novel.
Both books deal with the downfall of the main characters: Okonkwo as a result of interventions from foreign forces, Wang Lung as a result of his moral failures. And this is a crucial difference between the books.
As the title suggests, The Good Earth is about the relationship between man and the soil, and the consequences of disrupting that relationship. Wang Lung begins a poor farmer and ends a wealthy city dweller, but what he gains in lucre he loses in moral character, as he neglects his wife and falls into moral dissipation. At the end of the book, the rupture is complete, as his sons secretly agree to sell the land after his death, which they known to be against his wishes. Foreigners are present in the book, but they are either harmless and foolish customers or religious zealots preaching an unintelligible message. (The revolutionary agitators in the story may have had foreign backing, but this is not noted.)
In Things Fall Apart, Okonkwo is similarly a self-made man. He is represented as a man with flaws (within Igbo cultural parameters): a dangerous temper, a harshness to his family. Yet his fate is determined by outside forces: his son converts to Christianity, his tribe is cowed by the power of local colonial officials. He commits suicide out of frustration rising from the estrangement he feels from reality, and that estrangement is caused by outsiders. Achebe is by no means painting an idyllic picture of pre-colonial Igbo culture. He is careful to depict the moral and the immoral aspects of the culture. Among the negative: violence against women, warfare and mutilation of corpses, folk magic leading to the death of children. Yet none of these are implicated in the fate of the protagonist.
As I noted, these books are not in explicit dialogue with one another. I was struck by the superficial similarity of the books, but also their deeper incompatibility. In the one the protagonists’ downfall is due to intrinsic factors; the other is a result of purely extrinsic factors. A consistent theme in this blog (and my own thought) is the abdication of personal responsibility, particularly (but not exclusively) in the developing world. Nevertheless, I will leave it at what I’ve written so far.
Both books are well worth the reading.