Anthills of the Savannah (Magill's Literary Annual 1989)
With the publication of Anthills of the Savannah, the Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe ended his silence as a novelist, which began just after A Man of the People (1966) appeared more than twenty years previously. During this interim, he published poetry, short stories, essays, juvenile literature, and a critical treatise on Nigeria and taught on university campuses both in Africa and in the United States. Author of probably the most widely read African novel ever written (Things Fall Apart, 1958), Achebe has been mentioned as a candidate to follow in the footsteps of his fellow countryman, Wole Soyinka, who received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1986.
Achebe’s novels have always focused on the impact of British colonialism on the native cultures of Africa. Particularly in his earlier works, he attempted to correct the Western image of precolonial Africa as the “heart of darkness”; he has repeatedly underlined his role as educator in his essays: “I would be quite satisfied if my novels . . . did no more than teach my readers that their past—with all its imperfections—was not one long night of savagery from which the first Europeans acting on God’s behalf delivered them.” The setting of Anthills of the Savannah is the Westernized, postcolonial African state of Kangan. Yet the aura of Africa’s past...
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Typical of African cultures, Nigeria's storytelling comes from a long oral tradition. This tradition allowed generations to benefit from African literature despite widespread illiteracy. Folktales, legends, verse, myths, and proverbs were preserved in the memories of the people and communicated by performance or simple recitation. As in other societies, myths in African culture explain the wonders of nature, provide creation narratives, and relate the activities of divine beings. Legends, on the other hand, generally describe the actions of people and often commemorate heroes. The purpose of oral literature is not only to entertain, but also to instruct and honor.
The strong oral tradition in Africa is a major influence for twentieth-century Nigerian writers such as Amos Tutuola Chinua Achebe and Nobel Prize-winner Wole Soyinka. Achebe, for example, writes in the traditional novel form in a personalized way that draws from the deep resources of his Nigerian heritage. In her book Long Drums and Cannons: Nigerian Dramatists and Novelists, Margaret Laurence observed that beginning in the 1950s Nigeria experienced ‘‘the flourishing of a new literature which has drawn sustenance both from the traditional oral literature and from the present and rapidly changing society.’’
Growing up in...
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Point of View
Anthills of the Savannah provides a complete view of the action of the novel by offering multiple points of view. Achebe allows the reader to see the situation from the points of view of Ikem, Chris, and Beatrice, and also, in some passages, from that of a third-person, omniscient narrator. This technique enables the reader to make judgments for him/herself rather than relying on a narrator or a single character to supply descriptions of people and events. This also is a way in which Achebe retains the part of his African literary heritage that focuses on the community rather than on the individual.
The novel takes place in the fictitious West African land of Kangan. Its borders were arbitrarily drawn by the British colonialists. Some critics maintain that the country is modeled after Achebe's native Nigeria, while others see it as a version of Idi Amin's Uganda. Regardless, Kangan is a contemporary African nation struggling to find stability in postcolonial times. Although the setting is contemporary, there are elements of tradition that reflect consistency in the community and among the people. Tradition is perhaps the strongest source of security and gives the people a feeling of unity.
The setting also takes the reader into the government headquarters—a privilege not afforded to the citizens of Kangan. Whereas the public is forced to rely on hearsay and the press to...
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The plot of this novel is anything but linear, as several critics have noted. Varying accounts by the ‘‘witnesses,’’ thwarting of chronological order, and insertions of myths, legends, and other stories to enhance the plot and help the reader and the characters to understand the action in a larger framework all serve to make the book read recursively like a poem. One critic notes in the narrative a ‘‘process of subversion,’’ (Kanaganayakam) but if there is one, we have to ask what reasons Achebe might have for it. An obvious choice is that he wants to dramatize the confusion surrounding the characters' lives by thwarting the reader's expectations of clarity. Yet most questions about events and who tries to distort them and why are answered. Innes suggests that the novel is about the various forms of storytelling, and takes up the questions of (1) ‘‘Whose story is of significance?’’ (2) ‘‘How should the story be told—in what language, in what form, and for what audience?’’; and (3) ‘‘For what purpose are stories to be told?’’ She notes Beatrice's accusation that the three major protagonists, Ikem, Chris, and Sam, are just telling stories to each other. Yet as the novel progresses, more stories are told to more different types of characters. Thus the pastiche of narratives and dialects is buttressing Achebe's point against the isolation of the elite and his imperative that politicians be connected to their...
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Ideas for Group Discussions
1. A novel of political unrest and conflict in a country whose fate has been determined as much by foreign influence as indigenous tradition, Anthills of the Savannah invites discussion on a number of topics: the worth and integrity of the major protagonists as they hide from or confront the problems of their country; the issue of the role demanded of the well-educated in a society where most are illiterate; the responsibility of government to govern for the people; the issue of the merits of the present corrupt military regime vs. the former corrupt civilian regime, and how both stand up to the prior control of colonialism; the role of women in politics and in shaping culture; and role of the artist, the storyteller in politics and life.
2. The issue of class divisions and the allocation of wealth in a society is also important in Anthills of the Savannah. Is capitalism the best solution for a country like Nigeria? If so, what controls should be in place?
3. As the book gives credence to many religious views while at the same time questioning rigid adherence to them or overly literal interpretation of doctrine, it is also a good forum for discussion of religious conflicts and efforts at reconciliation of them. In addition it provokes the examination of religious sensibility.
4. Anthills of the Savannah also highlights many of the variables in the controversy about language and power, and may particularly...
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The political upheaval described in the earlier novel A Man of the People (1966) has worsened by the time this novel is set, and many of the same social and political concerns are present and treated with greater scope and depth. Once again, the country is governed by a corrupt and bungling regime, this time a military one, the chief travesty of social conscience this time being the neglect of not only the surrounding poor people, but the starving people in Abazon, the fictional Biafra. (In fact, one reason why Achebe has not produced a novel for almost twenty years is that he has been embroiled in the failed struggle for Biafran independence.) Once more the inability of educated sensitive men to govern wisely, and the huge gap in living conditions between the educated and the illiterate is vividly expressed. As Larry Diamond puts it:
Anthills does for the venality, irresponsibility and repression of military government what A Man of the People did for the bankruptcy of civilian politics: it exposes, denounces and ridicules through the construction of a story rich in recognizable details, familiar or eerily anticipated events, and vivid, utterly credible characters.
As in earlier novels, the predicament of sensitive characters both empowered and deracinated by British style educations is taken up, but in this book put even more to the test for their self preoccupation and failure. Tyranny...
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Compare and Contrast
- 1787: The United States wins its independence from Great Britain. Since then, politics has been, among other things, a forum for debate among ethnic and religious groups. At first there was little room for diversity in political office, but over the years this imbalance has improved.
1960: Nigeria wins its independence from Great Britain. Since then, politics has been characterized by rivalry and distrust between ethnic and religious groups.
- 1787: The United States Constitution is ratified and remains in place ever since. The American system of government calls for the election of a president to a four-year term and the election of representatives to Congress, made up of the House of Representatives and the Senate. The United States also has a Supreme Court.
1978: The first Nigerian constitution is ratified. However, it is thrown out in 1983. A new one is created in 1989, but in 1993 the 1978 version is called back to replace it. Nigeria's system of government calls for the election of a president to a four-year term and for a Supreme Court. The National Assembly, made up of a House of Representatives and a Senate, is dissolved after the 1993 coup.
- 1704: The United States sees its first continuous newspaper,...
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Topics for Further Study
- Consider the rise to power of three dictators in world history and provide a comparison and contrast to Sam's rise to power. In what ways is his background different from those of other dictators? In what ways is it similar? How does each figure handle power and relate to the public? Based on your findings, would you say that Achebe paints a realistic picture of a dictator-in-the-making?
- Read about Idi Amin and his regime in Uganda. Many critics maintain that this was the model on which Achebe based his portrayal of Sam and the fictional land of Kangan. Others believe Kangan is modeled after Nigeria. What are your conclusions? Why do you suppose Achebe chose to create a fictional country rather than making the setting for his novel an actual place?
- Imagine that instead of being killed, Ikem is imprisoned. As an outspoken writer, he will certainly continue his efforts as best he can from behind bars. Write a letter to the people in Ikem's voice. For reference, you might read Martin Luther King, Jr.,'s ‘‘Letter from a Birmingham Jail.’’
- Amaechina is born into a time of tremendous upheaval and instability. Her father is a well-known figure who has been killed and her mother is a simple woman left to raise the child on her own. Given Amaechina's environment, heritage, and family situation, create brief sketches of what you imagine she will be doing at the ages...
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By the time this novel was published, many other Africans including Nigerian ones had begun to publish their books, and there is therefore a richer set of contemporary African influences than in previous novels. Innes notes as ‘‘sometimes explicit more often implicit literary models’’ Christopher Okigbo, Ngugi wa Thiong'o, Wole Soyinka, Nurruddin Farah, Sembene Ousman, Leopold Sedar Senghor, David Diop (an excerpt from whose poem ‘‘Africa’’ introduces Chapter 10), and ‘‘younger writers such as Chinweizu and Festus lyayi.’’ The Zulu poems of Mazizi Kunene are mentioned on the final page. Humorous passages in the book mock Saul Bellow's Henderson the Rain King, and Ikem ponders Graham Greene's portrayal of troubled or corrupt priests although he is a Catholic, and also cites Whitman's ‘‘Song of Myself’’ as an example of inclusiveness of contradictions.
As in earlier novels, both Igbo proverbs, stories and legends, and Biblical allusions are rife. Muslim ritual in the naming ceremony at the end adds to the sense of inclusiveness of influences and traditions, indicating that all of the great traditions, literary and religious, have their value.
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Girls at War and Other Stories (1972) is the only other fictional work by Achebe that responds to the upheaval of the internecine wars that followed British rule. The title story documents the deterioration of a man's priorities and, the narrator thinks, a woman's goals and personality as a result of the war climate and mentions the ‘‘parties and frivolities to which his friends clung like drowning men.’’ He is shocked when Gladys uses the word ‘‘shell’’ for having sex, and disturbed about how grateful she is for the food he gives her when their brief affair appears to be all over. Yet at the end of the story when their car is shelled, it is Gladys, whom he has supposed cheap, who gives her life to try to rescue a wounded soldier when the narrator has run for cover.
A Man of the People has been discussed as a related title throughout this piece, depicting the predicament of a civilian government as corrupt as the military one that takes over.
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What Do I Read Next?
- Achebe's first novel, Things Fall Apart, was published in 1958. It is the story of Okonkwo, an extremely proud and brusque man who is ultimately unable to adapt to the collapse of village life as he has always known it.
- A Man of the People was Achebe's last novel before his extended leave from novel writing. When he returned to the literary scene with Anthills of the Savannah, many critics viewed it as a logical continuation of A Man of the People, which predicts the coups that would plague Nigeria.
- A Good Man in Africa was published in 1981 by William Boyd. Set in West Africa, it is the award-winning story of a man whose political ambitions are thwarted on every front.
- Grain of Wheat, James Ngugi's 1994 novel, is set in war-torn Kenya, where five friends are forced to make choices for themselves, and each takes a very different path. The novel suggests that politicians, not the people, enjoy the greatest benefits of independence.
- Harold Scheub's 2000 collection, A Dictionary of African Mythology: The Mythmaker As Storyteller, contains four hundred stories and myths gathered on his journeys throughout Africa.
- African Canvas: The Art of West African Women, published in 1990, features the pottery, murals, and body art of West African...
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Ascherson, Neal. ‘‘Betrayal,’’ in New York Review of Books, Vol. 35, No. 3, March 3, 1988, pp. 3-4, 6.
Gordimer, Nadine. ‘‘A Tyranny of Clowns,’’ in New York Times Book Review, February 21, 1988, p. 1.
Kortenaar, Neil ten. ‘‘Only Connect: Anthills of the Savannah and Achebe's Trouble with Nigeria,’’ in Research in African Literatures, Vol. 24, No. 3, Fall, 1993, pp. 59-73.
Laurence, Margaret. Long Drums and Cannons: Nigerian Dramatists and Novelists. Praeger, 1968.
Okri, Ben. Review of Anthills of the Savannah, in London Observer, September 20, 1987.
Ravenscroft, A. ‘‘Recent Fiction from Africa: Chinua Achebe's Anthills of the Savannah—A Note,’’ in Literary Criterion, Vol. 23, Nos. 1-2, 1988, pp. 172-75.
Swann, Joseph. ‘‘From Things Fall Apart to Anthills of the Savannah: The Changing Face of History in Achebe's Novels,’’ in Crisis and Creativity in the New Literature in English, edited by Geoffrey V. Davis and Hena Maes-Jelinek. Rodopi, 1990, pp. 191-203.
Arua, Arua E. and Olusegun Oladipo. ‘‘Two Perspectives on Chinua Achebe's Anthills of the Savannah,’’ in Review of English and Literature Studies, 1989. Two critics from Ibadan discuss their...
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Bibliography (Magill's Literary Annual 1989)
The Atlantic. CCLXI, April, 1988, p. 78.
Booklist. LXXXIV, February 15, 1988, p. 969.
Commonweal. CXV, May 20, 1988, p. 310.
Library Journal. CXIII, February 15, 1988, p. 177.
London Review of Books. IX, October 15, 1987, p. 24.
Los Angeles Times Book Review. February 28, 1988, p. 3.
The Nation. CCXLVI, April 16, 1988, p. 540.
New Statesman. CXIV, November 27, 1987, p. 32.
The New York Review of Books. XXXV, March 3, 1988, p. 3.
The New York Times. CXXXVII, February 16, 1988, p. 23.
The New York Times Book Review. XCIII, February 21, 1988, p. 1.
Publishers Weekly. CCXXXII, December 18, 1987, p. 55.
The Times Literary Supplement. October 9, 1987, p. 1106.
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