Anthills of the Savannah by Chinua Achebe

Anthills of the SavannahAchebe’s fifth novel, Anthills of the Savannah takes place in a fictitious, recently decolonized West African nation named Kangan. Kangan geographically resembles Nigeria, in that its south is typified in the novel by lush tropical jungles while its northern province is blasted by the same Harmattan that blows over Sokoto, Kano, and Maidiguri. Kangan’s political life is also modeled on Nigeria’s successive military coup d’etats in the 1970s and 80s (and as it turns out, post 1987), and the novel follows the tragic fates of four Kangan civil servants: Chris, Ikem, Beatrice, and “His Excellency,” Sam, during a horrific drought and the civil unrest which accompanies the forces of nature.

Each of these characters, minus Sam, takes a turn at narrating this story of political malfeasance and intrigue, and each narrative leapfrogs or backtracks on the others in time and space, making Anthills at times a difficult plot to traverse. What is clear from the beginning is that Sam, the almost unwitting president, has begun to cling to power and take personal umbrage against even trivial shows of political dissent, and this signals the predictable, bloody, course so many dictatorships seem to take. He begins to suspect his erstwhile college friends, Chris and Ikem, as “threats to the state” and investigate their movements. As is typical of Achebe’s other work, each of his narrators come across as well-developed, believable characters. Chris, Beatrice, and Ikem each speak as if Achebe were recording three people, not penning three characters. This is what always impresses me about Achebe’s writing; you don’t have a protagonist and the supporting cast, but rather a whole crew of “real” people.

Ikem, like Achebe early in his career, works for the nation’s media, and is an author of some renown. Through Ikem, Achebe recasts some of his earlier essay, “The Novelist as Teacher” and launches some searing critiques of the modern African nation-state, neocolonial interference with African politics and economies by America, and the shortcomings of civil society (such as university students and unions) to break free of the cycles of violence and poverty that nations such as Nigeria have faced in spite of breaking free of their colonial yokes. Although written in 1987, much of Achebe’s overarching critique remains relevant as we become an increasingly globalized world.

Not to make a mountain of Anthills, but this is a really good book. (that is the only pun I could come up with over ten minutes of concerted effort, so that’s as good as it’s getting for now).

Availability: SMCM Library, USMAI
Review Submitted by:  Shane D. Hall
Rating: Recommended

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