Chinua Achebe Long Fiction Analysis
Chinua Achebe is probably both the most widely known and the most representative African novelist. He may very well have written the first African novel of real literary merit—such at least is the opinion of Charles Larson—and he deals with what one can call the classic issue that preoccupies his fellow novelists, the clash between the indigenous cultures of black Africa and a white, European civilization. He avoids the emotionally charged subject of slavery and concentrates his attention on political and cultural confrontation. His five novels offer, in a sense, a paradigm of this clash. He begins in Things Fall Apart with the first incursion of the British into the Igbo region of what became the Eastern Region of Nigeria, and his subsequent novels trace (with some gaps) the spread of British influence into the 1950’s and beyond that into the postindependence period of the 1960’s. The one period he slights, as he himself admits, is the generation in transition from traditional village life to the new Westernized Africa. He had difficulty imagining the psychological conflict of the African caught between two cultures. There is no example in Achebe of Cheikh Hamidou Kane’s “ambiguous adventure.” Achebe does, however, share with Kane and with most other African novelists the idea that his function as a writer is a social one.
Achebe insists repeatedly on this social function in response to Western critics who tend to give priority to aesthetic values. He seems to suggest, in fact, that the communal responsibility and the communal tie are more fundamental than artistic merit for any writer, but certainly for the African writer and for himself personally at the present stage in African affairs. He describes himself specifically as a teacher. His purpose is to dispel the colonial myth of the primitive African and to establish a true image of the people and their culture. This message is intended, to some extent, for a Western audience, but especially for the Africans themselves, since they have come to believe the myth and have internalized the feeling of inferiority. Achebe’s aim is to help them regain their self-respect, recognize the beauty of their own cultural past, and deal capably with the dilemmas of contemporary society.
It is important, however, that Achebe is not fulfilling this role as an outsider. He returns to the traditional Igbo concept of the master craftsman and to the Mbare ceremony to explain the functional role of art in traditional society. He insists that creativity itself derives from a spiritual bond, the inspiration of a shared past and a shared destiny with a particular people: Alienated writers, such as Ayi Kwei Armah, cannot be in tune with themselves and are therefore likely to be imitative rather than truly creative. It would appear, then, that Achebe values originality and freshness in the management of literary form but considers these attributes dependent on the sensitivity of writers to their native settings.
Whereas Achebe’s motivation in writing may be the restoration of pride in the African world, his theme—or, rather, the specific advice that he offers, albeit indirectly—is much more pragmatic. He does not advocate a return to the past or a rejection of Western culture. Like other African writers, he decries the destructive consequences of colonial rule: alienation, frustration, and a loss of cohesiveness and a clear code of behavior. He recognizes as well, however, that certain undesirable customs and superstitions have been exposed by the foreign challenge. His practical advice is that Africans should learn to cope with a changing world. He teaches the necessity of compromise: a loyalty to traditional wisdom and values, if not to tribal politics and outmoded customs, along with a suspicion of Western materialism but an openness to Western thought. He notes that in some cases the two cultures are not so far apart: Igbo republicanism goes even beyond the British-American concept of democracy, a view that the Ghanaian novelist Armah has developed as well. Unlike the negritude writers of francophone Africa, Achebe, in his attempt to reinterpret the African past, does not paint an idyllic picture. He regrets the loss of mystery surrounding that past, but he chooses knowledge because he considers judgment, clarity of vision, and tolerance—virtues that he locates in his traditional society—to be the way out of the present confusion and corruption.
This key idea of tolerance pervades Achebe’s work. One of his favorite stories (Yoruba, not Igbo) illustrates the danger in dogmatism. The god Echu, who represents fate or confusion, mischievously decides to provoke a quarrel between two farmers who live on either side of a road. Echu paints himself black on one side and white on the other, then walks up the road between the two farmers. The argument that ensues concerns whether the stranger is black or white. When Echu turns around and walks back down the road, each farmer tries to outdo the other in apologizing for his mistake. Achebe’s most pervasive vehicle for this idea of tolerance, however, is in the concept of the chi, which is central to Igbo cosmology. Achebe interprets it as the ultimate expression of individualism, the basic worth and independence of every person. Politically it means the rejection of any authoritarian rule. Morally it means the responsibility of every person for his or her own fate. The chi is one’s other self, one’s spiritual identity responsible for one’s birth and one’s future. Thus, while one’s chi defines one’s uniqueness, it also defines one’s limitations. As Achebe frequently notes in his novels, no one can defeat his or her own chi, and the acceptance of one’s limitations is the beginning of tolerance.
It is the social purpose, this “message” of tolerance, in Achebe’s novels that dictates the form. His plots tend to be analytic, static, or “situational,” as Larson argues, rather than dynamic. Instead of narrative movement, there is juxtaposition of past and present, of the traditional and the modern. Achebe achieves balance through comparison and contrast. He usesexposition more than drama. His main characters tend to be representational. Their conflicts are the crucial ones of the society. Theprotagonists of the two novels set in the past, Things Fall Apart and Arrow of God, are strong men who lack wisdom, practical sense, an ability to accept change, and a tolerance for opposing views. The protagonists of No Longer at Ease and A Man of the People are weak and vacillating. They accept change but are blinded by vanity and have no satisfactory code of conduct to resist the unreasonable pressures of traditional ties or the corruption and attractions of the new age. The two male protagonists of Anthills of the Savannah, also hindered by vanity, prove inadequate idealists in a power-hungry environment and wake up too late to their lack of control over events.
An even more predominant feature of the five novels is their style. Achebe makes the necessary compromise and writes in English, a foreign tongue, but manipulates it to capture the flavor of the native Igbo expression. He does this through dialect, idiom, and figurative language as well as through proverbs that reflect traditional Igbo wisdom, comment ironically on the inadequacies of the characters, and state the central themes.
Achebe thus manages, through the authorial voice, to establish a steady control over every novel. To some extent, one senses the voice in the proverbs. They represent the assessments of the elders in the clan, yet the wisdom of the proverbs is itself sometimes called into question, and the reader is invited to make the judgment. In general, it is Achebe’s juxtaposing of character, incident, proverb, and tone that creates the total assessment. Against this background voice one measures the pride, vanity, or prejudice of the individuals who, caught in the stressful times of colonial or postcolonial Nigeria, fail to respond adequately. The voice does not judge or condemn; it describes. It reminds the Nigerian of the danger of self-deception. It also recognizes the danger of failing to communicate with others. Achebe keeps ever in mind the tale (found in numerous versions all over Africa) of humankind whose message to Chukwa (the supreme deity) requesting immortality is distorted by the messenger and thus fails in its purpose. The voice he adopts to avoid the distortion is one of self-knowledge, practical sense, pragmatism, and detachment but also of faith, conviction, and humor. The voice is, in a sense, the message itself, moderating the confrontation between Africa and the West.
Things Fall Apart
Significantly, Achebe takes the title of his first novel, Things Fall Apart, from William Butler Yeats’s 1920 apocalyptic poem “The Second Coming,” which prophesies the end of the present era and the entrance on the world’s stage of another that is radically different. Things Fall Apart treats the early moments of that transition in an Igbo village. For the people of the village, the intrusion of the British is as revolutionary as the coming of a second Messiah, Yeats’s terrible “rough beast.”
To some extent, Achebe creates a mythic village whose history stretches back to a legendary past. Chapters are devoted to the daily routines of the people, their family lives, their customs, their games and rituals, their ancient wisdom, their social order, and their legal practices. Achebe remains a realist, however, as he identifies also certain flaws in the customs and in the people. Superstition leads them to unnecessary cruelties. The protagonist, Okonkwo, reflects a basic conflict within the society. He is, on one hand, a respected member of the society who has risen through hard work to a position of wealth and authority. He conscientiously accepts the responsibilities that the elders lay on him. At the same time, he is such an individualist that his behavior runs counter to the spirit of traditional wisdom. His shame over his father’s weak character provokes him to be excessive in proving his own manhood. A defensiveness and uncertainty lie behind his outward assertiveness. It is true that the clan has its mechanisms to reprimand and punish Okonkwo for errant behavior. Nevertheless, even before the British influence begins to disturb the region, the cohesiveness of the clan is already in question.
One particular chink in Okonkwo’s armor, which identifies a weakness also in the clan as it faces the foreign threat, is his inflexibility, his inability to adapt or to accept human limitations. Since he, in his youth, overcame adversity (familial disadvantages, natural forces such as drought and excessive rains, challenges of strength as a wrestler), he has come to believe that he has the individual strength to resist all challenges to his personal ambition. He cannot accept the presence of forces beyond his control, including the forces of his own personal destiny. It is this and the other aspects of Okonkwo’s character that Achebe develops in the first section of the novel against the background of the tribe to which he belongs.
Part 1 ends with the symbolic act of Okonkwo’s accidentally killing a young man during a funeral ceremony. Like death, the act is beyond his control and unexplainable, yet it is punishable. The elders exile him for seven years to the village of his mother’s family. This separation from his village is itself symbolic, since in a way Okonkwo has never belonged to the village. While he is away, the village changes. With the coming of the missionaries, traditional religious practices begin to lose their sanction, their absoluteness. In part 3, Okonkwo returns from exile but finds that his exile continues. Nothing is as it was. Open hostility exists between the new religion and the traditional one. The British government has begun to take over authority from the elders. The novel ends with Okonkwo’s irrational killing of a messenger from the British district officer and with his subsequent suicide. Okonkwo rightly assumes, it would seem, that no authority now exists to judge him: The old sanctions are dead, and he refuses to accept the new ones. He must be his own judge.
There is, however, if not a judge, a voice of reason and compassion, detached from the action but controlling its effects, that assures Okonkwo of a fair hearing. The voice is heard in the proverbs, warning Okonkwo not to challenge his own chi (his own spiritual identity and destiny), even though another proverb insists that if he says yes his chi will say yes too. It is heard in the decisions of the elders, the complaints of the wives, and the rebellion of Okonkwo’s own son, Noye, who turns to Christianity in defiance against his father’s unreasonableness. It is found in the tragic sense of life of Okonkwo’s uncle, Uchendu, who advises this man in exile to bear his punishment stoically, for his sufferings are mild in comparison with those of many others.
Achebe locates his voice in one particular character, Obierika, Okonkwo’s closest friend and a man of thought rather than, like his friend, a man of action. In the important eighth chapter, Achebe measures his protagonist against this man of moderation, reflection, and humor, who can observe the white invader with tolerance, his own society’s laws with skepticism, and, at the end of the novel, his dead friend with respect and compassion. Achebe’s voice can even be seen in the ironically insensitive judgment of the district commissioner as the novel closes. As superficial and uninformed as that voice might be in itself, Achebe recognizes that the voice nevertheless exists, is therefore real, and must be acknowledged. The final view of Okonkwo and of the village that he both reflects and rejects is a composite of all these voices. It is the composite also of Okonkwo’s own complex and unpredictable behavior, and of his fate, which is the result of his own reckless acts and of forces that he does not comprehend. Amid the growing chaos one senses still the stable influence of the calm authorial voice, controlling and balancing everything.
No Longer at Ease
From the early twentieth century setting of Things Fall Apart, Achebe turns in his second novel, No Longer at Ease, to the mid-1950’s, just before independence. The protagonist, Obi Okonkwo, grandson of the tragic victim who lashed out against British insolence in his first novel, resembles to some extent his grandfather in his inadequacy to deal with the pressures of his society, but he has far different loyalties. The novel begins after things have already fallen apart; Nigeria is between societies.
Obi no longer belongs to the old society. His father is the rebellious son of Okonkwo who left home for the Christian church and was educated in mission schools. Obi received a similar education and was selected by his community to study in England. The financial and personal obligation this creates plagues Obi throughout the novel, for after he receives his Western education he no longer shares the old customs and the old sense of loyalty. He considers himself an independent young man of the city, with a Western concept of government and administration. After his return from England he receives a civil service job and has visions of reforming the bureaucracy. The story is thus about the practical difficulties (it is not really a psychological study) of an ordinary individual separating himself cleanly from the past while adapting to the glitter and temptations of the new.
Obi faces two particular problems. He has chosen to marry a woman, Clara, who belongs to a family considered taboo by the traditional community. He attempts to resist family and community pressure, but he eventually succumbs. Meanwhile, Clara has become pregnant and must go through a costly and embarrassing abortion. Obi essentially abandons his responsibility toward her in his weak, halfhearted respect for his family’s wishes. He likewise fails at his job, as he resists self-righteously various bribes until his financial situation and morals finally collapse. Unfortunately, he is as clumsy here as in his personal relations. He is arrested and sentenced to prison.
As in Achebe’s first novel, the subject of No Longer at Ease is the individual (and the society) inadequate to the changing times. The author’s main concern is again a balanced appraisal of Nigerian society at a crucial stage in its recent history, because the greatest danger, as Achebe himself observes, is self-deception. He presents a careful selection of characters whose vanity, prejudice, or misplaced values allow them only a partial view of reality. Obi is, of course, the main example. He leaves his home village as a hero, is one of the few Nigerians to receive a foreign education, and, as a civil servant and proud possessor of a car, becomes a member of the elite. His vanity blinds him to such an extent that he cannot assess his proper relationship to his family, to Clara, or to his social role. His father, caught between his Christian faith and tribal customs, cannot allow Obi his independence. Mr. Green, Obi’s British superior at the office, is trapped by stereotypical prejudices against Africans. There is no one individual—such as Obierika in Things Fall Apart—within the novel to provide a reasonable interpretation of events.
One nevertheless feels the constant presence of Achebe as he balances these various voices against one another. Achebe also assures perspective by maintaining a detached tone through irony, wit, and humor. The narrator possesses the maturity and the wisdom that the characters lack. This novel also shows Achebe experimenting with structure as a means of expressing the authorial voice. No Longer at Ease opens—like Leo Tolstoy’s Smert’ Ivana Il’icha (1886; The Death of Ivan Ilyich, 1887)—with the final act, the trial and judgment of Obi for accepting a bribe. Achebe thus invites the reader to take a critical view of Obi from the very beginning. There is no question of the reader’s becoming romantically involved in his young life and career.
This distancing continues in the first three chapters as Achebe juxtaposes present and past, scenes of reality and scenes of expectation. The real Lagos is juxtaposed directly against the idyllic one in Obi’s mind. A picture of the later, strained relationship between Obi and Clara precedes the romantic scenes after they meet on board ship returning from England. Through this kind of plotting by juxtaposition, Achebe turns what might have been a melodramatic story of young love, abortion, betrayal, and corruption into a realistic commentary on Nigerian society in transition. In Things Fall Apart he rejects a paradisiacal view of the African past; in No Longer at Ease he warns against selfish, irresponsible, and naïve expectations in the present.
Arrow of God
In his third novel, Arrow of God, Achebe returns to the past, taking up the era of British colonization a few years after the events of Things Fall Apart. The old society is still intact, but the Christian religion and the British administration are more firmly entrenched than before. Achebe again tries to re-create the former Igbo environment, with an even more elaborate account of daily life, customs, and rituals, and with the scattering throughout of traditional idioms and proverbs. The foreigners, too, receive more detailed attention, though even the two main personalities, Winterbottom and Clarke, achieve hardly more than stereotyped status. Rather than work them late into the story, this time Achebe runs the two opposing forces alongside each other almost from the beginning in order to emphasize the British presence. Now it is the political, not the religious, power that is in the foreground, suggesting historically the second stage of foreign conquest, but the Christian church also takes full advantage of local political and religious controversy to increase its control over the people.
Achebe continues to be realistic in his treatment of traditional society. It is not an idyllic Eden corrupted by satanic foreign power. In spite of the attractive pictures of local customs, the six villages of Umuaro are divided and belligerent, and, in two instances at least, it is ironically the British government or the church that ensures peace and continuity in the communal life. By this stage in the colonization, of course, it is difficult (and Achebe does not try) to untangle the causes of internal disorder among the Igbo.
Like Okonkwo, the protagonist in Arrow of God, Ezeulu, is representative of the social disorder. In him Achebe represents the confidence in traditional roles and beliefs challenged not only by the new British worldview but also by forces within. Personal pride, egotism, and intolerance sometimes obscure his obligation to the welfare of the community. Whereas Okonkwo is one among several wealthy members of the clan, Ezeulu occupies a key position as the priest of Ulu, chief god of the six villages. The central cohesive force in the society is thus localized in this one man. Ezeulu differs from Okonkwo in another way as well: Whereas Okonkwo stubbornly resists the new Western culture, Ezeulu makes such gestures of accommodation that his clan actually accuses him of being the white man’s friend. Instead of disowning his son for adopting Christianity, he sends Oduche to the mission school to be his spy in the Western camp.
Ezeulu’s personality, however, is complex, as are his motives. Accommodation is his pragmatic way of preserving the clan and his own power. When the opportunity arises for him to become the political representative of his people to the British government, he refuses out of a sense of loyalty to his local god. This complexity is, however, contradictory and confusing, thus reflecting again the transitional state of affairs during the early colonial period. Ezeulu does not always seem to know what his motives are as he jockeys for power with Winterbottom and with the priest Idemili. In trying to save the community, he sets up himself and his god as the sole sources of wisdom. As priest—and thus considered half man and half spirit—he may, as Achebe seems to suggest, confuse his sacred role with his human vanity.
It is in the midst of this confusion that Achebe again questions the existence of absolutes and advises tolerance. The central concept of the chi reappears. Does it say yes if humanity says yes? If so, humankind controls its own destiny. If not, it is severely limited. In any case, the concept itself suggests duality rather than absoluteness. Even Ezeulu, while challenging the new power, advises his son that one “must dance the dance prevalent in his time.” Chapter 16, in which this statement appears, contains the key thematic passages of the novel. In it, one of Ezeulu’s wives tells her children a traditional tale about a people’s relation with the spirit world. The story turns on the importance of character—the proper attitude one must have toward oneself and toward the gods. A boy accidentally leaves his flute in the field where he and his family had been farming. He persuades his parents to let him return to fetch it, and he has an encounter with the spirits during which he demonstrates his good manners, temperance, and reverence; this encounter leads to material reward. The envious senior wife in the family sends her son on a similar mission, but he exhibits rudeness and greed, leading only to the visitation of evils on human society. The intended message is obvious, but the implied one, in the context of this novel, is that traditional values appear to be childhood fancies in the face of contemporary realities.
At the end of the chapter, Ezeulu puts those realities into focus. He describes himself as an arrow of god whose very defense of religious forms threatens the survival of his religion, but he goes on to suggest the (for him) terrifying speculation that Oduche, his Christian son, and also Christianity and the whites themselves, are arrows of god. At the end of his career, Ezeulu is opening his mind to a wide range of possibilities. This tolerance, however, is double-edged, for, as Achebe seems to suggest, humanity must be not only receptive to unfamiliar conceptions but also tough enough to “tolerate” the pain of ambiguity and alienation. Ezeulu is too old and too exhausted to endure that pain. The final blow is his son’s death, which occurs while he is performing a ritual dance. Ezeulu interprets this as a sign that Ulu has deserted him.
Indeed, the voice in Arrow of God is even more ambiguous than that in the first two novels. There is no Obierika to correct Ezeulu’s aberrations. Akueke, Ezeulu’s friend and adviser, is not a sure guide to the truth. Achebe works through dialogue in this novel even more than in Things Fall Apart, and the debates between these two men do not lead to a clear answer. Akueke cannot decipher the priest’s motives or anticipate his actions. Ezeulu, as a strange compound of spirit and man, is to him “unknowable.” Nor does Achebe make the task any easier for the reader. Ezeulu does not seem to understand his own motives. He considers himself under the spiritual influence of his god. His sudden, final decision not to seek a reconciliation with his people he imagines as the voice of Ulu. He thus sacrifices himself and his people (as well as the god himself) to the will of the god. Achebe remains silent on the issue of whether the voice is the god’s or Ezeulu’s. One can only speculate that since the society created the god in the first place (or so the legend went), it could also destroy him.
A Man of the People
Like No Longer at Ease, Achebe’s fourth novel, A Man of the People, seems rather lightweight in comparison with the two historical novels. It takes place not in Nigeria but in an imaginary African country, a few years after independence. Achebe seems to be playing with some of the popular situations in contemporary African literature, as though he were parodying them. The main character, Odili, has relationships with three different women: Elsie, a friend from the university who functions as a sort of mistress but remains a shadowy figure in the background; Jean, a white American with whom he has a brief sexual relationship; and Edna, a beautiful and innocent young woman with whom he “falls in love” in a rather conventional Western sense. There is also the typical estrangement of the university-educated son from his traditionally oriented father. Achebe contrives a somewhat romantic reconciliation during the last third of the novel. Finally, while all of Achebe’s novels are essentially political, this one pits two candidates for public office against each other, with all the paraphernalia of personal grudges, dirty tricks, campaign rhetoric, and even a military coup at the end that ironically makes the election meaningless. (In fact, it was already meaningless because the incumbent, Nanga, had arranged that Odili’s name not be officially registered.) Furthermore, the contest is a stock romantic confrontation between the idealism of youth and the corrupt opportunism of an older generation. While the story might at first glance appear to be a melodramatic rendering of the romantic world of love and politics, it so exaggerates situations that one must assume Achebe is writing rather in the comic mode.
Along with this choice of mode, Achebe also creates a more conventional plot line. The rising action deals with the first meeting after sixteen years between Odili, a grammar school teacher, and Nanga, the “man of the people,” Odili’s former teacher, local representative to parliament, and minister of culture. In spite of his skepticism toward national politics, Odili succumbs to Nanga’s charm and accepts an invitation to stay at his home in the city. The turning point comes when Odili’s girlfriend, Elsie, shamelessly spends the night with Nanga. Odili sees this as a betrayal by Elsie, even though he himself feels no special commitment to her. More important, Odili feels betrayed and humiliated by Nanga, who does not take such incidents with women at all seriously. His vanity touched by this rather trivial incident, Odili suddenly reactivates his conscience over political corruption and vows to seek revenge. The attack is twofold: to steal Edna, Nanga’s young fiancé, who is to be his second wife, and to defeat Nanga in the next elections. Odili’s motives are obviously suspect. The rest of the novel recounts his gradual initiation into love and politics. The revenge motive drops as the relationship with Edna becomes serious. The political campaign fails, and Odili ends up in the hospital after a pointless attempt to spy on one of Nanga’s campaign rallies. Again, it is tempting to treat this as a conventional initiation story, except that Odili’s experiences do not really cure him of his romantic notions of love and politics.
For the first time, Achebe elects to use the first-person point of view: Odili tells his own story. This may be the reason that the balancing of effects through juxtaposition of scenes and characters does not operate as in the earlier works. The tone is obviously affected as well: Odili is vain and pompous, blind to his own flaws while critical of others. Hence, Achebe has to manipulate a subjective narrative to express the objective authorial voice, as Mark Twain does in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884) or (to use an African example) as Mongo Beti does in Le Pauvre Christ de Bomba (1956; The Poor Christ of Bomba, 1971). The primary means is through Odili’s own partial vision. Odili frequently makes criticisms of contemporary politics that appear to be just and therefore do represent the judgment of Achebe as well. At the same time, Odili’s affected tone invites criticism and provides Achebe with an occasion to satirize the self-deception of the young intellectuals whom Odili represents. Achebe also expresses himself through the plot, in which he parodies romantic perceptions of the contemporary world. In addition, he continues to include proverbs in the mouths of provincial characters as guides to moral evaluation.
Achebe emphasizes one proverb in particular to describe the political corruption in which Nanga participates. After a local merchant, Josiah, steals a blind beggar’s stick to make his customers (according to a figurative twist of reasoning) blindly purchase whatever he sells, the public reacts indignantly with the proverb: “He has taken away enough for the owner to notice.” Unlike Achebe’s narrator in the first three novels, Odili cannot allow the proverb to do its own work. He must, as an academic, analyze it and proudly expand on its meaning. He had done this before when he became the “hero” of Jean’s party as the resident expert on African behavior and African art. He may very well be correct about the political implications of the proverb, that the people (the owners of the country) are now being blatantly robbed by the politicians, but he fails to identify emotionally with the local situation. Nor is he objective enough to admit fully to himself his own immoral, hypocritical behavior, which he has maintained throughout the novel. He is an egotist, more enchanted with his own cleverness than concerned about the society he has pretended to serve.
In like manner, at the close of the story Odili turns the real death of his political colleague, Max, into a romantic fantasy of the ideal sacrifice. Totally pessimistic about the reliability of the people, he returns once again to the proverb to illustrate their fickle behavior as the melodramatic villains: They always return the Josiahs to power. Achebe may to some extent share Odili’s view of the public and the national leadership it chooses, but he is skeptical of the Odilis as well, and hence he positions the reader outside both the political structure and Odili as an observer of the society. Achebe, then, even in this first-personnarrative, does not abandon his authorial voice, nor does he abandon the role of social spokesman that he had maintained in all his other novels.
Anthills of the Savannah
Achebe’s fifth novel, Anthills of the Savannah, written twenty-one years after his fourth, shares some of the preceding novel’s interests. Achebe once again makes the situation political and the setting contemporary. As in A Man of the People, the country, Kangan, is fictitious (though the resemblance to Nigeria is again hardly disguised), but the time is somewhat later in the independence period, perhaps in the 1970’s or the early 1980’s. Also, once again, the main actors in the drama knew one another under different circumstances in the past. Whereas the former relationship between Nanga and Odili was teacher and student, the three male protagonists of Anthills of the Savannah are of the same generation and first knew one another as fellow students at Lord Lugard College when they were thirteen years old. The novel deals with their lives during a period of twenty-seven years, including their experiences in England at the University of London, their adventures in love, and their choices of careers. These years are shown only through flashbacks, however, for the focus is on a two-week period in the present, on the edge of a political crisis, when the characters are forty years old.
Achebe does not present his narrative in a straight chronological line; in addition to flashbacks, even during the two-week present he recounts, or has his characters recount, events out of chronological order—a technique he used in his other novels as well to control reader response. The events of this two-week period begin, as the novel does, on a Thursday morning as Sam, now president of Kangan, presides over his weekly cabinet meeting. Sam had decided long before, following the advice of his headmaster at Lord Lugard College, to choose the army over a medical career because it would turn him into a “gentleman.” His choice proved to be a good one when, after a military coup two years earlier, he was named president of the new government. A fellow student at Lord Lugard, Christopher Oriko, became his minister of information. Chris used his influence over Sam to name five of the twelve cabinet members and to appoint another old school friend, Ikem Osodi, editor of the National Gazette. The political conflict in the novel focuses on these three men, although Sam as a character remains largely in the background.
The relationship between Chris and Sam has become increasingly strained over the two-year period, as Sam has expanded his drive for status into an ambition to be president for life with total authority. He is now highly suspicious of Chris and has appointed the tough, ruthless Major Johnson Ossai as his chief of staff and head of intelligence. Chris, meanwhile, as he himself admits in the opening chapter, has become an amused spectator and recorder of events, almost indifferent to the official drama before him. Such an attitude has also driven a wedge between him and Ikem, who, as a crusading journalist, has continued to attack government incompetence and to represent and fight for the hapless public, while Chris has counseled patience and diplomacy in dealing with Sam.
The inciting force on this Thursday is a delegation from Abazon—the northern province of Kangan devastated, like Nigeria’s own northern regions, by drought—that has come to the capital city of Bassa to seek relief. Ikem has only recently written an editorial, his allegorical “Hymn to the Sun” that dries up the savannah, accusing the president (the sun) of responsibility and promoting the delegation’s cause. Sam at first feels threatened by the loud demonstrations outside his office, but when he learns that the delegation consists of only six elders and that the rest of the demonstrators are Bassa locals, he decides to use the situation to rid himself of his old school buddies and to entrench himself in power surrounded by loyal henchmen such as Ossai.
Chris and Ikem do not realize what is going on behind the scenes—nor does the reader—until events get beyond their control. Within hours, Sam has Ikem arrested and murdered (though the official version is that he was shot while resisting arrest for plotting “regicide”), the Abazon delegation put in prison, and Chris declared an accomplice of both. Chris himself has managed to escape; he hides out with friends and sympathizers and eventually, in disguise, travels by bus past roadblocks to the Abazon province. There he learns that a military coup has toppled Sam from his throne and that Sam has mysteriously disappeared. Ironically, at this very moment, in the midst of riotous celebration at a roadblock, Chris is shot by a police sergeant while trying to prevent the man from abducting and raping a girl. The novel leaves no hope that the next regime will offer Kangan any better leadership.
The men in this modern African state consistently fail to bring the persistent political incompetence under control. Sam is a variation on the Nanga type, the amoral, self-interested servant of power who does not foresee the consequences of his ruthless treatment of others. This naïveté of the tyrant is matched by the naïve idealism of the moral crusader, Ikem, and the naïve detachment of the philosophical observer, Chris. While most of the novel is an omniscient third-person narrative, with Achebe providing a clear, balanced perspective, five of the first seven chapters are told in first person, with Chris and Ikem being two of the three narrators. Inside their minds, the reader sees a false self-confidence that Achebe eventually parlays into a chauvinism, apparently characteristic of the African male. For the first time in his novels, Achebe takes up the feminist theme, stating flatly that women need to be a major part of the solution to Africa’s woes. Sam, as perceived by the third character-narrator, Beatrice, Chris’s fiancé, treats women as sex objects, as he invites Beatrice to a dinner party at his lake retreat, assuming that she will be honored to serve her president. The two male protagonists, Ikem and Chris, innocent carriers of long-held assumptions, treat the women they love too lightly, and neither understands until only days before his death the wisdom and spiritual power of Beatrice, the central female character in the novel.
In fact, Beatrice herself seems only half aware of her strength until the crisis in Kangan puts it to the test. In chapters 6 and 7, which she narrates, she reveals the change that takes place in her. Chapter 6 is her account of the visit to Sam’s retreat, where her defensiveness and vanity obscure her actual superiority over the other guests, including a young American female reporter who uses her sexuality to gain access to Sam. Beatrice sees herself, rather vaingloriously at this point, as a sacrificial shield to protect Sam—a symbol for her of the African leader—from the white temptress. Still, she rebuffs Sam’s sexual advances, and he, insulted and humiliated, sends her home in ignominy. Beatrice sees dimly, however, the role that she must play. In chapter 7, she receives help from Ikem, who visits her for the last time before his death. With her help he has made a great discovery, for she had long accused him of male chauvinism, and he reads to her the “love letter” that she has inspired. It is a feminist recantation of his chauvinism, a rejection of the two traditional images of women found in both biblical and African sources: the woman as scapegoat, the cause of evil and men’s suffering, and the woman idealized as the mother of the male god, called upon to save the world when men fail. His final word on the insight she had given him, however, is that the women themselves must decide their role; men cannot know. Beatrice tells this story of Ikem’s last visit in her journal, written months after Ikem has died. Only then is she able to put the pieces of the tragedy together in her mind.
Chris, too, begins to see a special power in Beatrice during the weeks of crisis. She becomes for him a priestess of sexual and spiritual resources who could, as a prophetess, tell the future. Indeed, it is Beatrice (a literary allusion to Dante’s Beatrice, only one of several whimsical allusions in the novel) who warns Chris and Ikem that they must mend their relationship, that tragedy is in store not only for them but also for Sam. They do not take her seriously enough, however, as they soon discover. Achebe, however, does not allow the elevation of Beatrice into the traditional Igbo role of half woman, half spirit (the Chielo of Things Fall Apart, as Beatrice herself notes), to be the work of the characters alone. In chapter 8, Achebe himself, as omniscient narrator, recounts the Igbo legend of the sun-god who sent his daughter to earth as a harbinger of peace. This legend suggests that henceforth women must stand as mediators between men and their desires, but this too is not Achebe’s final word on the subject. As Ikem says in his confession to Beatrice in chapter 7, “All certitude must now be suspect.”
In the last chapter, Achebe tries to bring together his thoughts on women and numerous other themes throughout the novel. The scene is Beatrice’s apartment, and the time is nine months after the tragedy. Those present are a family of friends, including Elewa, Ikem’s fiancé; Agatha, Beatrice’s housekeeper; and Abdul Medani, the army captain who secretly helped Chris escape from Bassa. The occasion is the naming ceremony for Elewa and Ikem’s twenty-eight-day-old daughter. The women, along with the men present, are trying to put their lives and, symbolically, the lives of their countrymen in order. Beatrice fears, however, that they are all fated pawns of “an alienated history.” They acknowledge the value of people and the living ideas that they leave behind, the importance of humor and the need to laugh at oneself, the “unbearable beauty” even of death, and the community of all religions that can dance the same dance. They learn that women can perform tasks usually reserved for men; since Ikem is not present, Beatrice, the priestess, names the child: Amaechina, the path of Ikem, a boy’s name for a baby girl. Elewa’s uncle, a male representative of traditional thinking, arrives to preside over the naming but instead pays homage to the young people in the room. “That is how to handle this world,” he says, “give the girl a boy’s name,” make her “the daughter of all of us.”
It is important not to take oneself too seriously. Sam, Ikem, and Chris forgot, as Beatrice had to remind them, that their story is not “the story of this country,” that “our story is only one of twenty million stories.” That reminder may be the main message of Anthills of the Savannah, that the other millions of people are not ants caught in a drought, retreating from the sun into their holes, but people with their own stories. As the elder in the Abazon delegation reminds Ikem, the story is the nation’s most valued treasure, the storyteller possessed by Agwu, the god of healers and the source of truth. Beatrice, like Ikem and Chris, is a writer, a teller of stories. Uchendu, in Things Fall Apart, warns that all stories are true; this fifth novel, itself full of proverbs, stories, legends, and political allegory of the sun shining on the anthills of the savannah, is an ambitious exposé and a compassionate vision of the future.