Anthills of the Savannah

I am not proud of this—and it’s something I try to remedy—but I am no political animal. I bought Anthills of the Savannah because it was on sale, and because it’s by Chinua Achebe. I didn’t know what it was about until I started reading it. The book opens with Chris, Commissioner for Information in a fictional West African country. But the point of view quickly (and frequently) changes to center around two other characters, both close to Chris: his childhood friend Ikem and his girlfriend Beatrice. Their stories create a narrative of their nation’s current affairs—a tumult of coups and suspensions and failed referendums. Our protagonists ride these troubles with relative safety; but when things escalate into a full-blown crisis, the three make a last scramble to keep their lives—and dignity—intact.

Although I refer to it as a narrative, Anthills of the Savannah offers not a straight story but a portrait of politics in Africa (and everywhere else)—with hints of delightful narrative to save it from the tragedy of tedium. In this book, characters go beyond interesting; they become alive. Through them, Achebe shows his knack for describing tiny personality quirks (best seen in the mechanics of group dialogue). Often, while reading, I caught myself wondering at the writer’s capacity for perception, how skillfully he infuses his text with real observations. All these contribute towards cultivating in the reader an unwavering faith in the heroes and heroines of this tale, even after their death. They make you believe and long for a happy ending (which the book does give, in a way).

Achebe also uses his characters as lenses through which the reader is made to perceive African politics. Admittedly, I at first found the book’s lack of structure confusing. The writer’s uncommon language, combined with shifting perspectives and a non-chronological arrangement—all this made the novel difficult to digest (one section exhibits an essay within a conversation within a flashback narrative). But I soon realized the deliberation behind this: it is precisely in this way that the novel chooses to present its subject matter, through mosaic, and—looking at the state of politics everywhere now—it has good reasons for doing so.

Full of wit, and rich, earthy wisdom, Anthills of the Savannah strikes with the force of a parable. Teeming with valuable insights, it leaves you sad and hungry for more.

‘Passion is our hope and strength, a very present help in trouble.’

‘…the most awful thing about power is not that it corrupts absolutely but that it makes people so utterly boring, so predictable and…just plain uninteresting.’

‘Free people may be alike everywhere in their freedom but the oppressed inhabit each their own peculiar hell.’

‘Man will surprise by his capacity for nobility as well as for villainy. No system can change that. It is built into the core of man’s free spirit.’

‘Contradictions if well understood and managed can spark off the fires of invention. Orthodoxy whether of the right or of the left is the graveyard of creativity.’

While we do our good works let us not forget that the real solution lies in a world in which charity will have become unnecessary.

‘What must a people do to appease an embittered history?’