ArtSunday: Truth and beauty and death…and hope…

Cover, Anthills of the Savannah (Courtesy, Wikimedia)

The 2013 reading list‘s next work is Chinua Achebe’s 1987 novel Anthills of the SavannahAchebe, whom many critics would cite as Africa’s most distinguished novelist and man of letters, died in March of this year, leaving behind a body of work that gives both testimony of the African experience and explores the author’s personal history. In the best of Achebe’s work, such as this novel and his chef d’oeuvre Things Fall Apart, the melding of African (particularly Nigerian) history with elements of autobiography is seamless and allows us to understand, through the life (and death) of humans the life (and death – and perhaps resurrection) of a country and a continent.

The merest outline of the novel will do. Anthills of the Savannah is not about its action but about the ideas that provide motivations to its characters – and about those people, those characters, themselves: whom they understand – or don’t; whom they love – and gain or lose.

The story takes place in a fictional country, Kangan (based, one senses, at least in part on Achebe’s experience in Biafra) which has become a military dictatorship ruled by one of three friends. His Excellency, known to his friends as Sam, has changed, as the novel opens, from being friend to enemy of his two old schoolmates Chris and Okem, both of whom hold positions of power in the government (Chris is Commissioner for Information while Okem is editor of the nation’s newspaper of record, the Gazette). The unraveling of the relationships of these childhood friends, their subsequent deaths, and the reactions of what Achebe calls throughout the novel “witnesses” (Chris’s well educated, deep thinking girlfriend Beatrice and Okem’s girlfriend Elewa, a retail shop clerk with depths of her own, as well as Emmanuel, a university student leader affected first by Okem’s, later by Chris’s examples of speaking truth to power even at pain of death and Abdul, an officer in the Kangan secret police who comes to recognize the evil inherent in power suppressing truth) allow Achebe to explore the concepts that one senses he believes Kangan (i.e., Nigeria and all of Africa) must come to embrace and empower if it is to achieve a place of dignity in the larger world.

Achebe first explores the ideas – ideas such as freedom of speech, action, thought – ideas such as equality, fairness,and, perhaps most importantly, acceptance of the value of all people at every social, educational, and economic level – ideas that motivate the best actions and  from all citizens of a state.

Equally important to this exploration of ideas, though, and what gives Anthills of the Savannah its real power – is Achebe’s examination of the novel’s people. If Erikson is right, and personality is the construct of one’s social relationships, then Sam (the BMOC from schooldays gradually turned brutal dictator by his societal developed sense of entitlement), Chris (the basically conservative, highly principled government official enlightened – and radicalized – by his friend Okem’s death [at the hands of that government] who nevertheless causes his own destruction by, in a moment of crisis, reverting to bureaucratic behavior, albeit in a selfless act of  trying to protect a woman being assaulted), and Okem (the poet-radical railing against what is and dreaming of what should be – to the point of making himself the enemy of a government he has no real interest in bringing down, merely enlightening) have, Achebe might want us to see, sowed the seeds of their own destruction – possibly by simply having become school friends. They are, in some ways, fascinating characters.

But surpassing them both in interest and depth are their counterparts. Beatrice is a brilliant, cultured, and thoughtful person who, due to her gender, might never be allowed to achieve all that she could. Her relationship with Chris strengthens him as a man and betters him as a person despite  his often rigidly bureaucratic, though  principled outlook. Elewa is a simple person of great emotional sensitivity and strength who inspires Okem in his dream of a better path for his country – and his life. These roles as nurturers and inspirations, though some might complain they are merely reflections of sexism inherent in the culture, are, at the least, also assertions of the endurance of the life force – a saving grace for any culture, no matter how troubled.

Elewa, indeed, gives the novel its hopeful ending by offering a new generation, through the child she has by Okem. The baby, given an unconventional naming ceremony, is dubbed Amaechina (may the path never close).  Though Elewa’s mother complains about the name (“a girl with a boy’s name”) and the unconventionality of the ceremony,  an “uncle,” actually a traditional shaman from her tribe that the mother has brought along, affirms the name and leads a series of blessings that ends with blessings for “everybody’s life” and “the life of Kangan!”

In the midst of this celebration of life, Beatrice has a realization about Chris’s death based upon what Emmanuel – a witness – has told her. His last action – a smile – and his last words – “the green” – were a coded message to her. His realization that his last conscious action – daring a drunken soldier to shoot him because he was a government official – was a waste and that his last thought was not of government duty, or of his murderer’s wrongdoing, but of his love for her. And so he laughs at himself as he realizes the great truth: love is all that matters. Beatrice notes how beautiful that realization must have been – even through her tears, she is grateful for Chris’s epiphany.

Truth and death and beauty – those elements suffuse Anthills of the Savannah. But, as always, by having Elewa remonstrate with Beatrice for her grief when there is a child to raise, Achebe offers – hope.


XPOST: The New Southern Gentleman