Look, I am going to give this book a good rating, not because I actually enjoyed it or was drawn into it, but more because it gives us an insight into the colonial world from the eyes of the people being colonised. This book is set in Nigeria, and is written by a native Nigerian in English (which by the way is his second tongue, though he is also a professor at Brown University). However, one sort of wonders if this example of post-colonial literature is designed to criticise the colonists or the world that is being colonised.
There is a concept, I believe first coined by Rudyard Kipling, called 'White Man's burden'. This is the idea that the European civilisation has been given the job of taking their civilisation out to the world and raising the non-European races out of barbarity. However, one sort of questions whether this burden, as it is coined, was really the intention of the colonisers, or simply propaganda that was spoken by the imperial overlords. I am inclined to lean towards the second interpretation.
The reason that I say this is because if we take one case study, that of the Australian aboriginals, we see that white man's burden never actually lifted them out of poverty, and it was not for lack of trying. In fact, the attempts to civilise the aboriginals had almost the opposite effect than was intended. Granted, there is a very small group of aboriginals in our society that have successfully integrated into our culture, but there are still many that haven't. While it is possible to wonder around an Australian city and not actually see aboriginal tribes camping in the city parks, I assure that they are there (and I caution anybody against approaching them 'just to have a look').
What we see in this book though is a view from inside the culture that is being colonised, and like the aboriginals, it does not work. However, the book is divided into two parts, the first part involves the social collapse of the indigenous culture from within due to its own contradictions, and the second part involves the destruction of the lifestyle and the culture as the imperialists (in the form of missionaries) force their gospel of European Economic prosperity upon them.
In many ways we like to criticise the imperialists for destroying the natural cultures of the indigenous people, however sometimes it is necessary. There are many aspects of our culture that we take fore-granted, and there are many aspects which are truly barbaric that we simply want to step back and say, 'but that is their culture'. Take the aboriginal act of spearing somebody through the leg for punishment. What is it supposed to do other than cripple the person. Is it supposed to be a deterrent? Well, like most deterrents, it does not work. The death penalty is a deterrent against drug smuggling in Singapore and Bali, but it does not seem to stop people smuggling drugs, or killing people in the United States. What about cutting off the right hand of a thief in some cultures (the right hand being the hand you eat with and the left hand being the hand you wipe your butt with), is that a deterrent, or simply a punishment that literally prevents the person from ever being able to integrate back into society again. We all make mistakes, and one of the good things about our society is that punishment does actually allow people to return and become productive members of society (as has happened with myself).
Then there are the missionaries, not that I actually have anything against missionaries. Many have suggested though that missionaries are the first wave of colonisation. This means that when the missionaries arrive you can be sure that the merchants, then the army, and finally the colonisers, are close behind. However, I am doubtful that many missionaries, both then and now, ever considered themselves to be the first of a wave of colonists. There are many historical missionaries that actually went out to do what they believe (and I believe) is a good thing. I do not believe it is wrong to offer somebody an alternative to their religion, especially if their religion keeps them living in fear and oppression. However, it is clear, historically, that more scrupulous people have used missionaries as the vanguard for colonial efforts, and when the missionaries were expelled from China, I guess that was one of the reasons for doing so.
The title of the novel is about the destruction of the traditional life of the village. To us it is about change, where as to them it is their world that they have lived in for thousands of years being destroyed. Colonialism was always going to happen, and I do not believe that we should not give tribal people the opportunity to experience a new way of life, however I do not believe that we have the right to roll out a monoculture across the world. One thing us Europeans, especially us Christian Europeans, forget is that Christianity was never meant to create a monoculture, but rather it is our stubbornness, and refusal to look outside the narrow box that we surround our lives with our own misguided sense of what is right and what is wrong.