Thursday, August 11, 2011

92. Anthills of the Savannah by Chinua Achebe

Title: Anthills of the Savannah
Author: Chinua Achebe
Genre: Fiction/Tragedy/Politics
Publishers: Heinemann (African Writers Series)
Pages: 233
Year of First Publication: 1987
Country: Nigeria

Anthills of the Savannah, a 1987 Booker Shortlist, is the fifth book of Achebe's oeuvre I have read. This novel is quite different from the first four of Achebe's books in terms of the narrative style, the prose, the setting and to some extent the theme. Had Achebe not written Things Fall Apart  and my favourite The Arrow of God, this book alone would have established the Man Booker International Prize winner (2007) as one of Africa's literary giants.

In this very unique novel, Achebe treats the issue of despots, male chauvinism and power from a rather different and unexpected perspective. He opens up the struggles that goes on behind the power scenes and how easily an innocent, generally good individual could easily transmogrify into an absolutely demented despot. Anthills of the Savannah is a tale of three friends: Sam, Ikem and Chris and the girlfriends of the last two: Elewa and Beatrice (BB) respectively. The story begins with Sam as the head-of-state following a coup d'etat. Sam is an army General and since his school days has never failed in anything he does. And so could take any advice and follow through with success and he did when he 
fell [...] under the spell of [their] English headmaster who fought the Italians in Abyssinia in 1941 and had a sword from an Ethiopian prince
and so enrolled in the cadet corps in the country and went on to train in Sandhurst. As head-of-state with democratic tendencies in a military rule, his colleagues encouraged him to seek 'life presidency' through a referendum. Though this was not his original idea and he initially resented it (and Chris, the Commissioner for Information and Ikem, the editor of the National Gazette were both against it), it was the unsuccessful bid for this life presidency coupled with other events that set the platform that would eventually lead to tragic events for these three Lord Lugard College friends. 

However, when Sam got to know, through these other 'colleagues' that his childhood friends were jealous of him because they think they were the ones who should have been occupying his current position as head-of-state, he decided to assert himself and put them in their proper place. First Ikem was suspended and Chris refused to write the suspension letter. He was later accused of organising thugs and presenting them to His Excellency as people from Abazon who want to meet the head-of-state to talk about the drought in their area. Abazon, an area north of Kangan - the fictional country where the story is set had earlier resisted the president's quest for life-presidency. This 'subversive' behaviour invigorated with a speech Ikem gave at a university. According to the State Research Council, he had advocated for 'regicide' when after his lecture a student had asked him if it were true that the Central Bank of Kangan was working to put the president's image on the nation's currency, to which Ikem had answered
Yes I heard of it like everybody else. Whether there is such a plan or not I don't know. All I can say is I hope the rumour is unfounded. My position is quite straightforward especially now that I don't have to worry about being Editor of the Gazette. My view is that any serving President foolish enough to lay his head on a coin should know he is inciting people to take it off; the head I mean.
So when after several vain calls through to Ikem the next day, Chris and Beatrice visited Ikem's apartment only to be informed by his neighbour that Ikem was taken in handcuffs the night before in a military Jeep, Chris new that his friend was in danger. And when it was reported that 
In the scuffle that ensued between Mr Osodi and his guards in the moving vehicle Mar Osodi was fatally wounded by gunshot
he knew Ikem Osodi had been murdered and that his own life is in danger, after all 
[I]nvestigations are still proceeding with a view to uncover all aspects of the plot and to bring to book any other persons or persons, no matter how highly placed, involved in this treasonable conspiracy...
This set a series of tragic events that involved a nurse, a student leader, Chris, Elewa and Beatrice, leading to the denouement. Chris had to travel incognito out of Bassa, the capital of Kangan. And this particular section of story is similar to what Achebe's country man, Wole Soyinka, had to go through as set out in his memoir You Must Set Forth at Dawn. 

Though a significant portion of the novel was narrated by an omniscient narrator, the narrative started off in the first person with Christoper Oriko, Ikem Osodi and Beatrice telling their individual stories on how they became involved in Sam's government and how deep their friendship ran with several tangential stories all linked to the main story. The narrative also made sparing use of punctuations and though I was worried a bit, it accentuated its literariness. There were some places that I felt the author's quest to achieve literary 'gemstones' were overstretched, thus sacrificing ease of comprehension to beauty of language. It was as if, Achebe, set out to make Anthills of the Savannah a literary masterpiece and it is therefore not a wonder that it made the Booker Shortlist.

However, is there any Achebe that isn't worth the read? If so, I have not yet come across one even as I work gradually into his works.
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Brief Bio: Albert Chinụalụmọgụ Achebe (born 16 November 1930) popularly known as Chinua Achebe is a Nigerian novelistpoetprofessor, and critic. He is best known for his first novel and magnum opus, Things Fall Apart (1958), which is the most widely read book in modern African literature. Raised by Christian parents in the Igbo town of Ogidi in southeastern Nigeria, Achebe excelled at school and won a scholarship for undergraduate studies. He became fascinated with world religions and traditional African cultures, and began writing stories as a university student. After graduation, he worked for the Nigerian Broadcasting Service and soon moved to the metropolis of Lagos. He gained worldwide attention for Things Fall Apart in the late 1950s; his later novels include No Longer at Ease (1960), Arrow of God (1964), A Man of the People (1966), and Anthills of the Savannah (1987). Achebe writes his novels in English and has defended the use of English, a "language of colonisers", in African literature. In 1975, his lecture An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad's "Heart of Darkness" became the focus of controversy, for its criticism of Joseph Conrad as "a bloody racist". In 2011, The Guardian of London named An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad's "Heart of Darkness" one of the 100 greatest non-fiction books ever written.(Source: Wikipedia; edited links)

ImageNations' Rating: 5.5/6.0

10 comments:

  1. I thought this was a complex book. In fact, have read it many years ago but never got to reviewing it. Haven read Penelope Lively's Moon Tiger and this, I thought Achebe's Anthills was slightly ahead to have picked the Booker. The 2nd quote reminds me of the character Sam and I liked Ikem's response to what was purported about the central bank 'influenced' to put the President's head on the national currency. I was also intrigued by the way Achebe played out the two women characters, Elewa and Beatrice. Ehm... comparing the two, I kind of loved Beatrice's astuteness to general issues and the role given her. Don't you think so, Nana? Good job done, Nana, for bringing back memories of this masterpiece.

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  2. Beatrice was used to represent a certain category of women, the ones who had started claiming for themselves the world and who don't care a hoot about what others think of them. They take charge of their life and move on. They weren't the typical feminist ideologues who have started coming up these days and who think anyone who don't subscribe to what they teach or say is a not right in the head. Elewa on the other hand represented the turning point. And I like the way Achebe connected the two - Ikem and Elewa - so that even though the latter was illiterate Ikem saw more than her inadequacy. And Beatrice never also thought she was better than Elewa. The two worked and works.

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  3. Thanks for this review! One of Achebe's books that I have yet to pick up, I'm really looking forward to it now!

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  4. @Amy, I am proud of your reading. And the variety. Love that.

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  5. It does sound like things in this story started slowly gathering momentum and getting out of control. I can imagine that all of us think we probably wouldn't turn into this kind of person, but the reality is probably very different. This was a very thought proving and interesting review. Thanks for sharing it!

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  6. @Zibilee. Yes that's how it starts and snowballs into something big, though we are introduce into the story at the point where Sam is already the president/head-of-state.

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  7. I read this a long time ago. I don't recall being muc impressed with the Beatrice character. Always felt Achebe's female characters were a bit incomplete. But who knows? Perhaps I formed the wrong impression. Have to revisit this someday. thanks for the review, Nana.

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  8. @Kinna. I'd agree if you're refering to her capabilities as was afforded her through education and her role in the movie. But even then again the petting is always important.

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  9. achebe is a great man indeed

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