Review of Anthills of the Savannah by Chinua Achebe (Penguin, 1987).
Written 29 years after his landmark debut, Chinua Achebe’s Anthills of the Savannah is another story of things falling apart.
The hawkers in Kampala’s bus stations sell everything the traveller could desire: snacks, drinks, toys, newspapers, spare socks. But when the bookseller climbs on board, there is one novel that he always thrusts beneath a waiting passenger’s nose: Things Fall Apart, by Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe. Written six decades ago, on the other side of the continent, it is nonetheless the hottest title in the bookseller’s collection. It has become the emblematic African novel, and Achebe the emblematic African writer.
Things Fall Apart was written two years before Nigerian independence. It traced the disorientations of colonialism but also, by using Igbo idioms and perspectives, embodied the hopes of a new Africa, escaping culturally and politically from outside domination. Achebe wrote three further novels in the sixties, but his fictional voice fell silent after the Biafran war, in which he was an active participant. He wrote essays, poetry, and the odd short story, but no new novel appeared until Anthills of the Savannah, in 1987.
It was a masterful return, shortlisted for that year’s Booker Prize. Whereas Things Fall Apart evokes a troubled past, Anthills of the Savannah laments a tortured present. Much had happened in post-independence Nigeria, and Achebe channels that history here. The fictional republic of Kangan, where the novel is set, has experienced its own oil booms and dictatorships; it is now ruled with solipsistic self-regard by ‘His Excellency’, the President, an army commander who came to power in a coup ‘with pretty few ideas about what to do’.
The story is told through the eyes of three friends. Chris is Commissioner for Information, striving to be a moderating force; Ikem, a journalist, writes ‘crusading editorials’ that irk the authorities. Beatrice, Chris’s girlfriend, is a frustrated intellectual, holding a first-class degree from the University of London but consigned to minor bureaucracy by ‘male chauvinist bullshit’. All three are close to His Excellency: Chris and Ikem as former school friends, and Beatrice as the target of a failed seduction.
The novel opens with the arrival of a delegation from Abazon, a remote province, protesting the neglect of their people – an echo of the plight of Achebe’s native Igboland. Like Abazon itself, these people’s struggle seems peripheral. But it comes to engulf the regime, and the lives of Chris, Ikem and Beatrice, with dramatic consequences. The discursive, philosophical tone of earlier chapters gives way to well-cultivated suspense as the novel nears its conclusion.
Anthills of the Savannah is in part a study of dictatorship, by turns satirical and tragic. Cabinet is mocked as a ‘circus show’ and its obsequious ministers as ‘clowns’. The rule of His Excellency is arbitrary and personalised. ‘Worshipping a dictator is such a pain in the ass,’ groans Ikem. ‘It wouldn’t be so bad if it was merely a matter of dancing upside down on your head… The real problem is having no way of knowing from one day to another, from one minute to the next, just what is up and what is down.’
But this novel is more than a challenge to tyrants. It is also a continuation of Achebe’s earlier work, a study of the things that are falling apart. The rich and the poor inhabit different worlds, only belatedly discovered by the novel’s elite narrators. The greatest failure of the regime, writes Achebe, is ‘the failure of our rulers to re-establish vital inner links with the poor and dispossessed of this country, with the bruised heart that throbs painfully at the core of the nation’s being’.
The ruptures of colonialism therefore live on, in the form of this ‘little caucus’ with Western education. His Excellency follows the English ‘to the point of foolishness’; trained at Sandhurst, he smokes Mayfair pipes and says things like ‘it’s not cricket’. Beatrice, ‘born… in a world apart’, knows her Othello but not the legends of her own people. Ikem, travelling with his ‘semi-literate’ girlfriend Elewa, marvels at the ‘artless integrity’ with which she builds a rapport with a taxi-driver – a skill, for all his book learning, that is beyond him.
In Ikem, especially, you sense that Achebe is writing about himself: a campaigning journalist who finds himself removed from his own people, both emancipated and imprisoned by his knowledge. ‘What I know, I know,’ he writes, ‘for good or ill.’ He offers no answers, and does not pretend to. ‘Writers don’t give prescriptions,’ an exasperated Ikem shouts at a meeting of earnest students. ‘They give headaches.’
But Achebe gives the pivotal passage of the book not to Ikem, but to an old man from Abazon, in language that recalls the mythic rhythms of Things Fall Apart. Before a hushed crowd, the old man speaks of a story that is older and deeper than the fading newsprint of Ikem’s editorials. ‘The story is our escort,’ he says. ‘Without it, we are blind.’ Achebe hints that through language, in all its plural forms, there can be redemption from tyranny, and coming together after falling apart.
At the end of his homily, the old man tells of a leopard that captured a tortoise. The tortoise asked for one wish before being killed, and then started scratching furiously at the road, throwing sand in all directions. ‘Why are you doing that? asked the puzzled leopard. The tortoise replied: Because even after I am dead I would want anyone passing by this spot to say, yes, a fellow and his match struggled here.‘
Just as Ikem cannot solve the problems of Kangan, Achebe knows he cannot solve the problems of Nigeria, or of the continent for which he was such an eloquent spokesman until his death in 2013. But in Anthills of the Savannah, like the doomed tortoise, he does his best to throw up sand.