Griswold notes from the opening of her essay that “writing fiction is the contemporary analog to telling stories in the moonlit village,” and it is this point which strikes me as the most intriguing facet of Achebe’s narrative. Throughout the first part, we encounter numerous aphorisms such as “when mother-cow is chewing grass the young ones watch its mouth” (70). These sayings are often introduced by some variation of “as our people say…” or “as the story goes…” which lends them credence and authority. Thus, it seems that, more than anything else, the first part of this novel is about the power of stories in Nigerian Ibo (as Achebe spells it) culture. It is not simply tradition, I don’t think, but rather a uniform understanding that the clearest way to understand the contemporary world is through analogies with the past. It is in the lesson of fables, for instance, that the morality of the village is ensconced. The story of the tortoise that flies with the birds embodies a necessary selflessness of village life, for instance.
What does the pervasiveness of these adages mean for a Nigerian literature? And, importantly, what does it say about early Nigerian novels like this one? It seems to me, on the one hand, that the Nigerian novel owes less of its origination to the British form, and more to the oral, storytelling tradition of Nigerians. Achebe’s novel sometimes reads like an extension of all of the sayings and stories which populate it, both through the lives of the characters who live by them, and by the characters themselves as models in the greater narrative. On the other hand, the novel as a mode of storytelling seems a natural fit in a far more ambivalent post-colonial society, one in which the novel is appropriated for “modern” storytelling. That is, I wonder, in light of this storytelling tradition, how British novels were received by Nigerians. Given the novel’s ostensible fictiveness, could it be that they were received much like the stories told by Ekwefi and Okonkwo? If so, it would seem only logical that the Nigerian novel would be one which leans heavily on the juxtaposition between tradition and modernity, between oral and written texts, in order to express the new lessons of postcoloniality and national identity. This is not to say that Things Fall Apart is simply a modern fable, but rather that, just as Okonkwo’s world is understood in terms of traditional maxims, the “modern” world would incorporate traditional forms within the “modern” literary mode of the novel.