Reading Chinua Achebe's 1987 novel Anthills of the Savannah in the weeks leading up to the U.S 2020 elections was difficult on multiple levels. Looking back at it for this review while a childish despot attempts to cling to power is almost chilling. Achebe's story is a reflection of its time and place in history. It is also a timeless reminder of how quickly a democracy can become a dictatorship.
I'm unused to novels confusing me. Maybe I should have taken more post-colonial literature courses in university. Mind you, what confused me wasn't the theme, the reflection of late-80s Africa struggling against years of colonialism and a sudden vacuum where power used to be, or even (in the end) the plot. It was the structure.
I was never clear if it was an omniscient narrator or one of the characters narrating. I think the narrator changed now and then, and it was those unclear transitions that threw me. Or, maybe I was just not paying enough attention or the right attention. I did a lot of flipping back to earlier chapters in the first half of the book. Both the story and the characters were compelling enough to keep me fighting through my confusion.
The female characters particularly stick with me, perhaps because my learning in anti-racism this year has taught me how essential and over-looked Black women are. Moreso, the females in this story were full characters with their own motivations and complexities, not just addenda to the male characters. They were active, and they held their spaces.
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At this point, I could go off on a whole discussion of gender norms and assumptions, the performative stress of gender, and how that is reflected in this novel, but I won't.
Missing for me, Africaphile that I am, was a sense of setting. Generally, stories about Africa contain descriptions of the savannah or desert or jungle, herds of wildlife, the heat of a burning sun. And, most of these tropes come from colonial/white writers treating Africa as an exotic and mysterious other world - think of Dinesen, Gullman, Conrad, et al.
Since Achebe is Nigerian, "Africa" itself is not foreign or exotic to him. This is an urban story. It could be set in almost any capital city. It's valuable for me, in diversifying my reading, to see how I have a particular stance regarding these stories, even as I roll my eyes at others who talk of Africa as if it is a homogenous monolith.
Anthills of the Savannah is short, rich, and engrossing. I highly recommend it.