Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in the sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

                —W.B Yeats, The Second Coming, 1920.

Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart, 1958.

The best literature is connected. We are word-linked. What gives off the deepest sparks is the democracy of story-telling. The finest ones are those who, when we hear them for the first time, sound as if they’ve been whispering in our ears our whole lives. Somehow they have always been there: somehow they always will. Their stories unravel and re-make us. We enter a world we did not know. An imaginative elsewhere. We become alive in bodies not our own. The luckiest of us emerge into an old world that we, again, do not recognise.

Things fall apart. Things come together.

A language was forced on the people around Chinua Achebe, just as a language was forced on those around Yeats and Leopold Senghor and James Joyce and Aime Cesaire and yes even James Baldwin and countless others down through the years.

When they began to talk back, when they stood up and got up into the face of that language, when they caught the words in mid-flight and returned them, they did so with a different accent. Literature had been such a one-curtained, one-sided conversation for so many years that when books like Things Fall Apart appeared, we knew—those of us in Ireland, or in Korea, or in Jamaica, or in New York—we just knew that the so-called “rest of the world” could finally rip off the cloth and open up the windows. That’s what Chinua Achebe did: he opened up the windows of his room, his story, and made of that space an everywhere. He made the local the universal, and helped us all to change our voices.

He himself once said: “If you don’t like somebody’s story, tell your own.”

Even today, fifty years on, Things Fall Apart resists the temptation to become part of the structure. It is not ready to be neutralised, or even showered with too much glory for its own good. It does not want to meld in with the ambient noise. It is a complicated, beautiful work of art. A radical social novel. It proposes questions. It takes the pulse of the wound. It, in fact, becomes the wound. Good literature refuses to lay down a law. It doesn’t speak for people, but with people. It lodges an intent, not an answer. It’s unfinished … constantly unfinished.

And, on this night of celebration, let’s not forget one thing. It was too late. All books are too late. Otherwise they wouldn’t be needed. One writes for the present and hopes that the future can embrace that present, and perhaps make some sense of the awful past. Anna Akhmatova once said in a poem: “You’re many years too late, how glad I am to see you.”

Things come together. Things fall apart. Every now and then a book comes along that brings us all into a room together. The writer—and reader—extends the world. And the room moves outwards. Thank you, Mister Achebe. Things fall apart, things come together. And, on occasion, the centre holds.