Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2275
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 dignity and wisdom is incarnate in the leader of a delegation from the province of Abazon who has come to Bassa, the capital city, to plead for help for his drought-ridden land. He supplies the central motif and title for a speech later given by one of the main characters to a group of university students. In the relationship between this Anglicized African and the tribal elder, Achebe illustrates that truth is not the exclusive possession of one civilization. As the tribal elder expresses it, “What is true comes in different robes.”
Shortly after A Man of the People was published in early 1966, a group of Nigerian army officers turned the vision of the novel into reality by wresting control of the state away from the civilian politicians. Anthills of the Savannah is a fictional reflection of the next tragic act in this political drama. At the outset of the novel, the government of a military strongman has already entered into a critical stage. Rumors of corruption run rampant, and the chief of the secret police and the army chief of staff have become the chief of state’s most trusted advisers—an access enjoyed earlier by Chris Oriko, the Minister of Information, and Ikem Osodi, a poet, political thinker, and editor of the national newspaper. The friendship of the latter two men with His Excellency, or “Sam,” as they knew him earlier in their lives, reaches back to their days as schoolmates in an English preparatory school. All subsequently received their higher education in Great Britain. After a military coup thrust Sam into the position of head of state, Chris returned to help him form a new government in Kangan. While Chris has since continued to advise his old friend on matters of state according to his own convictions, Sam has become increasingly autocratic and dependent on advisers anxious only to reflect his fears and suspicions. Ikem has stubbornly refused to betray his own social conscience in his editorials; finally, he becomes an unbearable thorn in the side of the fragile tyranny. Most important, neither Chris nor Ikem had given Sam their support in a postcoup plebescite held prior to the events of the novel and designed to elect him President for Life. This lack of support triggers the mistrust...
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in Sam’s mind and brings the events of the novel proper in its wake.
At the outset of the novel, Achebe plunges the reader directly into an argument between Chris and Sam taking place at a cabinet meeting of government ministers. Only gradually during the course of the first few chapters does he fill in the background information necessary to comprehend all the implications of this initial scene. This exposition of past events occurs in a skillfully orchestrated variety of modes—through first- as well as third-person narration, dialogue, and the inner monologue of memory and reminiscence. By giving each of the four figures a share in narrating the situation from a personal vantage point, Achebe achieves what Ikem calls at one point “the very stuff of life,” a richly complex fictional reality filled with the ambiguities and contradictions inherent in everyday reality. For Achebe and his alter ego in the novel, who calls on Walt Whitman as a poet-witness to the multitude of perspectives even within the individual, orthodoxy or lack of contradiction is anathema to political thought and art.
Sam’s rule over Kangan is fatally flawed precisely because it demands confirmation and forbids contradiction. His training as a military officer at Sandhurst has blinded him to compromise and taught him to perceive in the absolute terms of a tyrant. In his mind, the longtime loyalty of his two friends seems to be evolving into treason. A native son of Abazon—the only province unsupportive of Sam’s campaign for the title President for Life—Ikem appears particularly suspect when a noisy delegation from the province appears outside the council chamber. Fearing the beginnings of an insurrection, Sam leaves the chamber and seeks private council from the obsequious Professor Okong. Depicted as an opportunist and clown, Okong nevertheless possesses the acute sensitivity of the court lackey for saying what may be only at an unconscious level in the mind of his superior. With great subtlety, he alludes to Abazon as rebellious and to the danger of even greater disaffection being fomented by Ikem and Chris.
His suspicions raised to a conscious level, Sam next calls in his Attorney General to confirm them. An even greater master of sycophancy than Okong, the Attorney General expertly reflects and embellishes His Excellency’s state of mind. A man whose reasoning powers were formed by an inherited inferiority complex toward the white man, he rationalizes the social difference between him and His Excellency:You went to Lord Lugard College where half of your teachers were Englishmen. Do you know, the nearest white men I saw in my school were an Indian and two Pakistanis. Do you know, Your Excellency, that I was never taught by a real white man until I went to read law at Exeter in my old age as it were.
Long after the British have abandoned Africa, psychic remnants of colonialism still exercise control over the Attorney General’s attitudes. In parodying these attitudes, Achebe seeks to contribute to their extirpation.
Yet such figures as the Attorney General, Achebe makes clear, are not the main culprits in prolonging the African inferiority complex toward the white man: The leaders of postcolonial states themselves imported the British sense of class discrimination along with their education and training. Sam’s major flaw, in Ikem’s eyes, was always a foolish admiration for the customs of well-to-do Englishmen. Yet, as a practical politician, Ikem recognizes that the British have long been an anachronism on the stage of world affairs. The lingering psychological effects of being for so long the “white man’s burden” still have to be swept away, but the imminent dangers to postcolonial African states are posed by the economic power of the United States as well as the psychopathological aberrations of rulers such as Idi Amin and Jean Bedel Bokassa. Moreover, economic exploitation of black by black in the state of Kangan, Ikem maintains, has replaced the racial exploitation of colonialism, and Sam’s government has failed to reestablish the vital links from the top to the bottom of the societal pyramid.
Despite his radical social analysis, Ikem is not a revolutionary or utopian thinker. He stubbornly and somewhat naïvely clings to the hope that he and Chris can penetrate the wall of lackeys surrounding Sam before it is too late. In a last speech to university students after his suspension from the newspaper, Ikem chides his audience for blaming the ills of their state on imperialism and international capitalism. The real causes lie closer to home among the self-satisfied civil servants and urban population of the middle class, whose lack of productivity ensures that rural villages will long remain without the benefits of modernization. Students too, he insists, live as parasites on the body of the state and belong to the retarding rather than to the progressive forces of their society. While Ikem is murdered, after his last speech is twisted into treason and during the struggles of the state to maintain a hold on the reins of power, Chris perishes almost accidentally in the chaotic circumstances once these reins have been lost. Too rigid and insulated to be capable of reform, Sam’s government is finally overtaken by the fate of its predecessors.
Of the four major figures, only Beatrice, Chris’s lover, remains alive at the end of the novel. Although reared by a sternly Christian father, she received an African name at birth, Nwanyibuife, which translated means: “A female is also something.” A brilliant student with an honors degree in English from London University, Beatrice had rejected the sexism of her family at an early age. She rebukes Ikem for giving women no clear role in his political thought apart from the traditional one of serving as a last, stopgap measure. Consistently opposed to orthodoxy and universal solutions, he replies by challenging her to find the particular role suitable to the oppression of her society. While free people are united globally in their freedom, he argues, each oppressed people has its own kind of oppression to which it must find a unique response.
In the native myth of creation which he inserts into the flow of the mundane events of the novel, Achebe sketches the archetypal outlines of a more active role for women in Beatrice’s society, a role grown dormant in colonial times. The Almighty, observing the unchecked rampages of Power in his creation, sends his daughter Idemili to Earth “to bear witness to the moral nature of authority by wrapping around Power’s rude waist a loincloth of peace and modesty.” Empowered with metaphysical authority, Idemili’s task is to exercise moral restraint on all earthly powers by controlling aggressiveness and pride. Although Beatrice has grown up in a world apart from the myths and legends of her ancestors, Achebe suggests that the role has found her through the inherited collective wisdom of her people. Vaguely aware at times of a sense of being two people, Beatrice unconsciously practices the civilizing task for which her African heritage has prepared her. She represents for Achebe the best hope of a people’s survival and continuity in a country in which violence and vainglory have become commonplace. Following the bloody end of the old regime and the ascension of yet another to the seat of power, she poses the author’s anguished yet undespairing question: “What must a people do to appease an embittered history?”
During the months after the coup d’ état, the minor characters of the novel meet regularly at Beatrice’s flat and coalesce into a nucleus of survivors, drawing strength from one another and nurturing the restorative elements of the tragedy. In the bond of love between Ikem and Elewa, the girl from the common people who has born his child, a link has been established between the past and future of Kangan. The living symbol of this link is their infant daughter. At the naming ceremony celebrated in the final pages of the novel, Beatrice assumes the task of the absent father in giving the baby the name “AMAECHINA: May-the-path-never-close,” a boy’s name signifying the eternal renewal of hope. Elewa’s mother and uncle arrive at the ceremony after the name has been given and are at first stunned by what they take to be a breach of custom. The uncle bursts into laughter when Beatrice claims parenthood of the child for all those gathered in the room. Only gradually does he agree to her metaphor and declares in a ritual prayer of consecration to his own god: “When I asked who named her they told me All of Us. May this child be the daughter of all of us.” Like other figures from the common people in Achebe’s novels, the uncle combines a rough exterior with an innate capacity for peaceful resolution of conflicts and a willingness to adapt to change, even if it entails a submisson of the individual will to the will of the group.
Achebe uses the speech of such minor figures, their Pidgin English and colorful use of proverbs and parables, to indicate that the African past has survived into the present. In general, however, the characterization of individuals has less significance for him than the depiction of the movement of society as a whole. More than any of the others, Beatrice gains an inner life of her own in Anthills of the Savannah. She is a multifaceted figure, at once brilliant, perceptive, sensual, and charitable. The social critic in Ikem outweighs the poet in his personality, and Chris at times seems only a voice. The main characters of the novel serve primarily as narrators of an episode of political intrigue from the epic of a modern African society. Much like Achebe’s own, this society is caught up in the struggle to come to grips with its history and its position in the modern world. The epic appears to have no end in sight, and, like the writer Ikem, Achebe has no “prescriptions” to offer, only “headaches.”
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Literary Heritage 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.’’
Political Instability Growing up in Nigeria, Achebe saw for himself how disruptive social upheaval and political instability are and how they affect every facet of a society. He was born during Nigeria's colonial years, a period of tremendous conflict and sociopolitical change. Achebe grew up during the ensuing period of nationalist protest. Once Nigeria gained independence in 1960, vestiges of the colonial years remained, including borders and new political ideas and structures.
Image Pop-UpNigerian federal troops in a Biafran town
When Achebe left his position with the Nigerian Broadcasting Company in 1966, he accepted the position of Biafran Minister of Information. (It is likely that this experience informed his creation of Chris, the Commissioner of Information in Anthills of the Savannah.) The Republic of Biafra was a short-lived Ibo state created upon secession. The Ibo decided to found their own state after witnessing the massacre of ten thousand to thirty thousand of their people by Islamic Hausa and Fulani people, rival ethnic groups. Anticipating further bloodshed, the Republic of Biafra announced its independence in 1967. Unfortunately, the announcement was not accepted, and a civil war ensued that lasted until 1970, when Biafra surrendered. A food shortage caused by the war brought about the deaths of close to a million people.
At the time Anthills of the Savannah was published, political unrest continued to dominate Nigeria. In August of 1985 a military coup, responding to the growing discontent of the people, overthrew the existing authoritarian military regime. The new leader accepted the role of president, banning members of certain past regimes from political involvement for a period of ten years. A few years later, the first tentative steps toward civilian rule were taken.
The Role of Women Even before Europeans arrived during the colonial period, Achebe's native Nigeria was a male-dominated society. Ikem explains to Beatrice that their culture initially regarded women as lowly and unworthy of respect and then elevated them to a pedestal, where they could remain beautiful and admired but inconsequential. Similarly, the worship of goddesses was an important part of a village's spiritual life but had little to do with decisions regarding power structures. The colonial period widened the gender equality gap by providing African men with educational opportunities while African women received schooling in utilitarian skills to prepare them for domestic work. Anthills of the Savannah, published in 1987, came at a time when women around the world had made great strides in asserting their relevance in and value to society.
Oral Tradition As central as the oral tradition is to African cultures, the widespread use of the printed word, radio, and television threatens to render this important tradition obsolete. With Anthills of the Savannah Achebe offers a story of the people told by the people (by using multiple viewpoints) and emphasizes the central role of the storyteller in African society. This message comes from various sources, ranging from the village elder of Abazon to the erudite and well-educated Ikem. Achebe reconciles the tension between the oral tradition and the printed word, demonstrating that one does not have to yield to the other as both make worthy contributions to contemporary African society.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 551
Point of ViewAnthills 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.
Setting 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 learn what is happening within the government, the reader can see first-hand how the regime is being run, how it is changing, and how the various forces work together or against each other in the unstable military regime.
Language Most of the dialogue of the ordinary people of Kangan is written in the dialect of Pidgin English. The unusual grammar and unfamiliar words of this dialect can be difficult for Western readers, but its inclusion gives the novel a strong sense of realism. In addition, it is easy to identify a character's level of education or social standing based on his or her manner of speech. Chris, Beatrice, and Ikem are sympathetic as characters, as they are able to interact with common people by speaking Pidgin English and with powerful political figures by speaking British English. Rather than distance themselves from the ordinary citizen, as Sam does, Chris, Beatrice, and Ikem routinely abandon their British English in favor of being able to communicate in a meaningful way.
Blending of Old and New Achebe is often praised for his skillful blending of folklore, myth, proverbs, and customs with modern Western political ideologies and Christian belief systems. By presenting these two approaches, Achebe asserts his belief in the power of the past to ease the excesses and confusion of the present.
In a similar vein, Achebe was the first Nigerian writer to apply the conventions of the novel to African storytelling. Well aware of the strong oral tradition of African literature, Achebe found a way to write honestly about Africa in a way that is accessible for an international audience. Anthills of the Savannah was originally written in English, and by adopting a structure that is familiar to his English-speaking audience, he makes his African storytelling available without compromising the integrity of his heritage. At the same time, Nigerians can benefit from his writing because English is their official language.
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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 people and peoples to other peoples. One interviewer extends this idea to see Anthills of the Savannah (1987) as an amalgamation and culmination of all of Achebe's other work (Jussawalla). Having moved from a first novel which is essentially about the clash of a more pristine Igbo culture with British colonialism, Achebe moves forward historically to a time when clashing and interworse cannot be undone and must be faced by leaders, especially writers. In the process, he appears not to abandon any techniques, but to add to them. Even though Innes argues that he does abandon the European romantic novel after A Man of the People, it seems that Achebe's earlier book does not quite fit that pattern although it uses it, and that Anthills of the Savannah also includes it. There is always the sense in these books that the action, stories and encounters are part of a larger unknown in which each of the traditions, legends, stories, or proverbs taken up has some role.
Achebe's use of language and languages in the book, and his remarks about them elsewhere, are a case in point. He notes in an interview (Jussawalla) that a generation of bright Nigerians fiercely competing for academic scholarships, never get to read junky literature or speak colloquially, and that this is doing terrible damage both to their identities and their ability to communicate in a fully human way. In a perverse twist, they are suffering from a continuation of the isolation from self and society caused by colonialism. He writes this book in part to fight that isolation.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 258
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, Boston News-Letter, published. The First Amendment is ratified in 1791 and includes protection of freedom of the press. Today, sixty-three million copies of various newspapers are circulated every day.
1830s: Nigeria establishes its first newspaper. To this day, the federal government has an interest in several of the major newspapers, although censorship is infrequent. By the 1990s over twenty English-speaking daily newspapers are in circulation.
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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.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 270
Sources 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.
Further Reading 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 particular interpretations of Anthills of the Savannah.
Gikandi, Simon. Reading Chinua Achebe: Language and Ideology in Fiction. James Currey, 1991. In this book, Gikandi explores fully the role of the language and the storyteller in modern Africa as depicted in Achebe's writing.
Holst Petersen, Kirsten, and Anna Rutherford, eds. Chinua Achebe: A Celebration. Heinemann, 1991. From Achebe's original British publisher comes this volume exploring his life and work. Having been published in 1991, it includes commentary on Achebe's more recent publications.
Moyers, Bill. ‘‘Chinua Achebe,’’ in Bill Moyers: A World of Ideas. Doubleday, 1989, pp. 333-44. In this chapter, Moyers recounts his interview with Chinua Achebe.
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