Anthills of the Savannah

by Chinua Achebe

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Critical Overview

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Achebe is revered as one of the founders of modern Nigerian literature for his historically sensitive and insightful novels about his native land and its people. He is praised for his ability to artfully combine traditional folklore and tradition with Western ideologies, and critics are quick to note that Achebe's writing is relevant to a multitude of societies, not just those of Africa. Still, Achebe is first and foremost a contemporary African writer writing novels that carry important messages about and for his people.

Upon the release of Anthills of the Savannah, critics responded by praising the author's refined insights and discipline, often attributing them to his twenty-plus-year hiatus. Nadine Gordimer of New York Times Book Review commented that the novel ‘‘is a work in which twenty-two years of harsh experience, intellectual growth, self-criticism, deepening understanding, and mustered discipline of skill open wide a subject to which Mr. Achebe is now magnificently equal.’’ A. Ravenscroft of Literary Criterion commented on the cross-country bus trip taken by Chris and his sympathizers in which Chris comes to appreciate the depth of his heritage. Ravenscroft wrote that if Achebe had ended the novel at this point, ‘‘it would have meant that in the twenty-one years since A Man of the People, Achebe had learned only to confirm the rather bleak, intellectually cynical vision of political Africa that the earlier novel tends to project. Now, however, the urban masses comprise people with individual lineaments. And the final chapter, even with its acrid question: ‘What must a people do to appease an embittered history?’ is about the unorthodox, strangely ecumenical naming ceremony for Ikem's child, performed by Chris's woman-friend Beatrice.’’

Achebe's presentation of the corrupting nature of power is admired by readers and critics alike. Fellow Nigerian Ben Okri noted in Observer, ‘‘This is a study of how power corrupts itself and by doing so begins to die.’’ Other critics view the senseless deaths of the three former schoolmates as representative of a generation willing to sacrifice its self-knowledge in exchange for power. Related to this idea is Okri's observation that the end of the novel implies that power is better left within the ‘‘awakened spirit of the people’’ than given to the political elite. Similarly, in Research in African Literatures Neil Kortenaar described Sam as an illustration of the dangers of a regime or government system that is disconnected from its citizens.

As for most of his novels, Achebe is commended for his use of language in Anthills of the Savannah. According to Joseph Swann in Crisis and Creativity in the New Literature in English , Achebe's use of multiple narrative voices indicates that history is more than a set of events in the past to be told; it is also the feelings and ideas that different people have about the events. Critics also agree that Achebe writes in Western English without sacrificing the integrity of his characters or their African settings and is capable of writing dignified speech as well as he writes dialect when necessary. The frequent use of Pidgin English in the novel, however, posed a problem for a few critics who felt it might alienate Achebe's international readers. Ravenscroft, on the other hand, found that its inclusion represents unity in diversity: ‘‘With political orthodoxies side-stepped, the sounds of hope come through across a range of diverse language levels—the sophisticated English of the educated elite, the demotic [everyday] Pidgin of the people, the proverbial and parable-like cadences of the Abazon elder, the liturgical incantation of Ikem's ‘Hymn to the Sun,’ the lyricism of Beatrice's temple-priestess lovemaking with Chris,...

(This entire section contains 725 words.)

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the transformation of traditional kolanut ritual into litany for blessings not only upon the infant being named but upon all life of Kangan.’’

To many critics, Achebe offers in Anthills of the Savannah the message that Nigeria herself must take responsibility for her state of disarray. Certainly, the colonial period ushered in a host of problems, he seems to say, but ultimately the country itself must pick up its own burden and cure its own ills. In New York Review of Books Neal Ascherson wrote, ‘‘In this new novel … Chinua Achebe says, with implacable honesty, that Africa itself is to blame, and that there is no safety in excuses that place the fault in the colonial past or in the commercial and political manipulations of the First World.’’


Essays and Criticism