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In all his literary works, the famous West-African Anglophone novelist Chinua Achebe has creatively Africanized the English language. In the process of writing counter-narratives to Euro-centric misrepresentations of Africa, Achebe has successfully harnessed the colonizer’s language to make it bear the burden of his native experience. Reading his novels, which are set in Nigeria during different historical periods, one can hardly miss the fact that his narrative strategies change in accordance with the time and message of each novel. As Gikandi puts it: In every novel Achebe has written to date, what we know about Igbo or Nigerian culture is less important than how we know it: Achebe’s narratives seek to create the initial situation in which the African problematic developed and to express the conditions in which knowledge about phenomena is produced. (Gikandi 11) Thus, the narrative strategy becomes an important element in elucidating the various paradigms of West-African, socio-cultural reality and human experience in Achebe’s novels. However, the choice of narrator remains central to the narrative strategy in any text, since it asserts the
intentionality of the respective author how s/he intends to capture the complexities of the time being portrayed in his/her work. For Achebe, this
choice is implicated with the question of representation itself, i.e. who has the right to tell the stories of Africa. If not the bigoted Europeans, then whom amongst the natives? All his five novels remain, in a way, an exploration for the answer to this question through his choice of narrators, the answer to which is finally reached in the fifth novel. The present paper proposes to show how Achebe develops a more sophisticated mode of narration in Anthills of the Savannah to solve this problem of
representation in the African context. The setting of Anthills of the Savannah is a fictional African state named Kangan, which is “a very thinly disguised Nigeria”(Innes 152). The country is ruled by a military despot, Sam Okoli, whose abuse of power brings tragedy upon himself as well as his former friends, Christopher Oriko—the Commissioner of Information, and Ikem Osodi—the Editor of the National Gazette. Their tragedies also greatly affect Beatrice Okoh, a senior secretary in the Ministry of Finance and a close acquaintance to Chris and Ikem. The social attitudes which characterize the historical background of this novel are more complex as compared to the previous novel by Achebe, namely A Man of the People . As Innes points out: “the easy optimism and the more vulnerably youthful cynicism which
characterized those early years of independence have been replaced [now] by awareness of a deeply diseased society and a more profound
determination to understand and cure the illness” (Innes 151). In keeping with the complicated problematic of characters and situations displayed in
the novel, Achebe employs a multi-voiced narrative strategy that brings out the dialectics of power and representation in the context of the West African society of the late 1970s. He discovers that none—be it the western-educated elites, or the people who are at the helm of affairs, or be it an omniscient narrator who has access to both traditional and modern ways of African life—none is capable of telling the story of modern Africa singly, since “the African space [is] heterogeneous and
multiple, defined by differences and contradictions, [and is] not homogenized into a single national voice” (Gikandi 128). That’s why, Achebe breaks down the singular narrative persona (as used in his previous novels) into four different narrators, three of whom are character-bound ones—Ikem, Chris and Beatrice, and the fourth is an omniscient, third-person narrator. Together, these four narrators attempt to construct a text of the recent national history of Kangan in the manner of folklore, that involves
juxtaposition of multiple accounts rather than privileging one single version of reality. Each of the narrator displays a certain kind of drawback which disqualifies him/her from being the exclusive storyteller of Kangan.
Therefore, the narrative is self-consciously turned into a discourse of the contemporary story of Kangan, so as to encourage the subversion of narratorial finality and to resist the hegemonic singularity of any
authoritarian account. Chris, the first narrator is a rational individual who is always at pains to dissociate himself from any opinion or point of view. This renders his
narration a cold detachment, which, though would have qualified him as a trustworthy narrator in the Western context, nonetheless dismisses him the same position in the African situation. An instance of his ‘cool-headed’ reasoning comes up when he defends Sam’s unethical squandering of government money to build a Presidential Retreat at Abichi saying: ‘Nations [. . .] were fostered as much by structures as by laws and revolutions. These structures where they exist now are the pride of their nations. But everyone forgets that they were not erected by democratically-elected Prime Ministers but very frequently by rather unattractive, bloodthirsty medieval tyrants. [. . .] Our present rulers in Africa are in every sense late-flowering medieval monarchs [. . .]. (67-68) The above statement, said in counter to Beatrice’s accusation that the
retreat is actually a symbolic withdrawal of the President from the common people’s needs of potable water, simple shelter and food, it brings out Chris’s incapacity for moral commitment to the people’s cause in fear of involvement and confrontation. That’s why he makes such “off-the cuff”(68) remarks to cover up his trepidation with a mask of reasonableness and neutrality. As Robin Ikegami observes, “Such an attitude, and such a position are luxuries that the current [West African] society cannot afford or allow. There is no such thing as an impartial storyteller in this society” (Ikegami 499). From this it evinces that the reasonable attitude in Chris is actually an effort towards deliberate distancing of his self from aligning
with any kind of social responsibility. Also, he displays a tendency for overt self-justification, which sets the readers wary of his intentionality to gloss his acts. Here goes an example: Without raising my eyes I said again: “I am very sorry, Your Excellency.” A year ago I would have never said it again that second time—without
doing grave violence to myself. Now I did it like a casual favour to him. It meant nothing at all to me—no inconvenience whatever—and yet everything to him. (emphasis added 1-2) As it is evident, Chris is well-aware of the cowardice implied through his capitulation to the monstrous ego of Sam, and that too when his own stand remains rightful (i.e. egging the dictator to reconsider his wrongful stance on the Abazonian issue). That’s why to show himself in favourable light he makes an elucidation of his mental reactions to the reader in order to highlight the reasonability and inevitability of his act. Such a
narrator, who is more given to self-preservation than bearing the onus of his people can definitely not be entrusted the singular authority of telling the story of his people. The next narrator Ikem is not as lackadaisical as Chris. But he has the defect of having his words at variance with his actions. On one hand, he claims himself as a passionate crusader of the poor and the dispossessed, but on the other he could sit inactive and watch the
harassment of vendor boys in the hands of local police at Gelegele market. That he is empathetically alienated from the common people is evident in his following statement, “I never pass up a chance of just sitting in my car, reading or pretending to read, surrounded by the vitality and thrill of these dramatic people”(emphasis added 44). The very words ‘these’ and ‘dramatic’ used by Ikem to describe the common people of the working class reveals his dissociated, elitist outlook towards the same, which renders his narration an inadequacy to become the authentic version of Kangan’s life. Beatrice, the last of the three character-bound narrators seems to possess more objectivity than Chris and Ikem as a storyteller. Unbound by the intimacy of childhood-friendship with Ikem, Chris and Sam, she could dispassionately assess the mighty triumvirate as three preposterously
conceited people who assume themselves to be the ‘owners’ of Kangan. Achebe’s narrative-shift to a female voice is a clear acknowledgement of the need of female-empowerment in the modern African context. In a novel concerning the polemics of power both in the political and
patriarchal sphere, Beatrice plays up the
author’s fictional double by
questioning the abuse of power in the male-dominated sphere, as the author himself challenges the misusage of same in the field of politics. But even Beatrice is not without her own drawbacks as a narrator. Her strict Anglican upbringing has rendered her totally ignorant of the native tradition and folk-lores. As Gikandi observes:
Dutta Beatrice’s knowledge and success as a student and government official has been achieved through the repression of tradition and legends of her people. She is educated in schools which had no place for her bearers and divinities with whom they had evolved. So she comes to barely know who she was. (Gikandi 132)
Therefore, being cut off from her native African identity, Beatrice also loses eligibility to become a singularly trustworthy storyteller of her people. It must be noted that all the three first-person narrators are given limited scope of narration, and that too at the beginning of the novel when they are yet to reconcile with their native identity or social responsibility. However, these characters, also the protagonists in the novel, are given the narrative authority because their highly enlightened and receptive
perception allows them not only to have a comprehensive outlook of the entire situation in Kangan vis-à-vis the current global politics, but also to articulate their voice of protest against organized tyranny more powerfully. Through their individual narration though they establish their respective idiosyncrasies to disqualify themselves as the authoritative storyteller of Kangan, they do reveal their potentiality to become the true leaders of their people to guide them in the battle against tyrannical oppression, once they are reconciled with their social responsibility. From Chapter Eight the narration is entirely taken over by the omniscient narrator. S/he gives a comprehensive picture of the whole scenario, which is yet another version of reality seen from the bird’s eye-
view. But even this narrator is flawed, as the objectivity of the same is often jeopardized. At some occasions, this omniscient narrator’s voice merges up with that of the characters described, as it happens in the following instance: She [Beatrice] heard far away the crowing of a cock. Strange. She had not before heard a cock crow in this Government Reserved Area. Surely nobody has been reduced to keeping poultry like common villagers. Perhaps some cook or steward or gardener had knocked together an illegal structure outside his room in the Boys Quarters for a chicken-house. (emphasis added 98) The statement, though coming from the omniscient narrator, is definitely focalized through Beatrice, which is evident through the intentionality of the highlighted words. This reveals that the narrator here does not make any discernible effort to distance his/her opinion from merging with the
subjective attitude of the character. With the objectivity thus jeopardized, the third-person, omniscient narrator in this novel diminishes his/her
prospects of becoming the authentic and exclusive storyteller of Kangan. By highlighting the weaknesses involved in all his narrators, Achebe
highlights that the very assumption of a singularly dependable account of Africa or Kangan is erroneous in itself. There can be no first-person narrator without the in-built limitations of his/her eccentric disposition, and there can also never be a totally disinterested omniscient narrator since such kind of narrator definitely contains the vestiges of author’s own
ideological presuppositions. Therefore the best way to derive the picture of reality is to combine the various prismatic refractions of the same from various people’s accounts. A discreet point may be made here regarding the first-person narrators used in the novel. Chris and Ikem are respectively referred to as the ‘First Witness’ and ‘Second Witness,’ whereas no such tagline is attached with Beatrice. The reasons may be, first, Beatrice is in a more objective
position to assess the activities of the mighty triumvirate—Ikem, Chris and Sam, since she remains exclusive to their bond of childhood intimacy. Second, it may be seen as an early hint from the author himself that Beatrice is to survive the trial of embittered history (as enacted in the current socio-political scenario of Kangan) in which Chris and Ikem are drawn onto the shoes of witness against Sam, the mighty dictator on the scaffold. She would live through the trial, bearing testimony to the ultimate fate of the triumvirate, thus carrying forward the message evolved through it to the surviving milieu in the end, that that the world belongs to the common people and not any power-hungry, self-presuming individual. Another point worth noting regarding the narration is, though Sam, the antagonist, is not given a chance of narration, there is one occasion in Chapter Two where the omniscient narrator’s voice briefly slides into the ‘I” of Sam without the demarcations of inverted commas. Here is that particular passage: What Exactly did the fellow mean, His Excellency wondered . I
Dutta 10 handled him pretty well, though. I certainly won’t stand for my commissioners sneaking up to me with vague accusations against their colleagues. It is not cricket! No sense of loyalty, no esprit de corps, nothing! [. . .] whatever put it into our [triumvirate’s] head when we arrived on this seat [of power] that we needed these half-baked professors to tell us anything. What do they know? Give me good military training and discipline any day! (emphasis added 19) As it is evident, only the first line of the passage is in third person, after that the narrator slides into the subjective self of Sam. This reveals that even the dictator is given a brief chance to speak up for himself, in which he reveals his ineptitude as a ruler, since he attempts to translate the complexities of African bureaucracy in foreign terminology, and also tends to straight-jacket the problems of his country by deeming military rule as the only available option. Also, he shows total disregard for the experience of civilian leaders, who are better acquainted with native life and customs than him. Thus, Sam is revealed as a thoroughly unreliable ruler of his people, which is revealed in the distrustful absence of the inverted
commas that would have distanced his expression from the ‘custody’ of the omniscient narrator. However, similar thing happens with Ikem in Chapter Eleven, when he gains illumination of the real truth behind the atrophied socio-political condition in Kangan—“It is the failure of our rulers to reestablish vital links with the poor and the dispossessed of this country, [. . .]”(emphasis added 130-31), and he eventually comes to realize his own
Dutta 11 role in bringing a reformatory change to this scenario—“So for good or ill I shall remain myself; but with this deliberate readiness now to help, and be helped”(131). This statement brings out Ikem’s final reconciliation with the common people of the country. Earlier, Ikem has been given two chapters for first-person narration, where he displays his own weakness as an alienated, class-conscious individual. But now, with the comprehension of the entire scenario dawning in him, he rises almost to the stature of the omniscient narrator who takes in the greater picture of the reality. That’s why, perhaps the omniscient narrator allows his/her third person to
temporarily merge up with the subjective first-person of Ikem without the demarcation of inverted commas, as he is elevated to the ultimate
realization of his duty towards the society. Finally, an enumeration of an incident where multiple versions of reality are afforded becomes necessary. The Abazonian delegation at Bassa is initially projected by Sam as a mere ‘goodwill delegation’ to cover up his failure as a ruler. Mad Medico interprets is as a ritualistic effort made by ignorant natives to turn their king into a rain-maker. This reveals a bigoted attitude in the European towards the natives, as he attempts to reduce a the gravity of a serious issue into ridiculous absurdity. Ikem sees the arrival of the delegation in terms of legend, comparing it with the
archetypal journey made by the Abazonians in the past from death to life. His “Hymn to the Sun” thus imparts the delegation with a mythic grandeur. The Abazonians themselves however assume to carry a straight-forward
Dutta 12 plea to the President for supplying water in their drought-stricken district. Later in the novel, Sam fabricates the whole incident as an attempted treason, and imprisons the delegation. However, the common people of Kangan show their unwillingness to accept the tyrant’s version of the story, which is evident in the outbreak of a mass resistive movement throughout the country led over by Ikem, that ultimately snowballs into a coup overthrowing Sam’s government. From this it evinces that there does exist a power-knowledge relationship between the storyteller and his/her audience. A story is never free from the filters of the individual storyteller, and so he/she is in the position to impress the truth convenient to him/her upon his/her audience as the final and absolute one. Thereby, rather than labouring to find out which version is true, it is far more important to understand why a certain story is to be believed as true over others. This, as Gera observes, is the technique of folklore which is more practical than narratology. Whereas narratology rests by establishing the ultimate fictionaility and relativity of truth through the sampling of multiple accounts/texts, folklore follows the pragmatic needs in the selection and rejection of stories (Gera 90). This reveals why Achebe intends to present the story of Kangan in a folk-lore style, so that it includes multiple versions of reality, but also insists on the general morality of humankind to reject the improbable fables fabricated by the oppressors of humanity. The dialogic objectivity thus afforded by the multi-voiced narrative strategy in this novel approximates the Lyotardian prescription of the
Dutta 13 ‘agnostic’ multiplicity of small narratives in order to resist the formation of a grand narrative, i.e. any totalitarian version of knowledge and reality (Nayar 222). Robin Ikegami thus rightly observes, “Although each of
Achebe’s five novels reveals his view of the complex and problematic relation between power and storytelling, nowhere does Achebe more
minutely examine the nature of the relation than in his last novel, Anthills of the Savannah” (Ikegami 493). In other words, Achebe successfully turns the story of Anthills of the Savannah into a self-conscious discourse where the versions of different narrators counteract and complement with each other, thus standing a vigil against the formation of a hegemonic
representation of reality. Works Cited Achebe, Chinua. Anthills of Savannah. (1987). New York: Anchor-Doubleday, 1988. Gera, Anjali. Three Great African Novelists: Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka & Amos Tutuola. New Delhi: Creative Books, 2001. Gikandi, Simon. Reading Chinua Achebe: Language and Ideology in Fiction . London: James Currey, 1991. Ikegami, Robin. “Knowledge and Power, the Story and the Storyteller: Achebe’s Anthills of the Savannah.” Modern Fiction Studies 37.3 (1991): 493-507. Innes, C.L. Chinua Achebe. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990. Nayar, Pramod K. Literary Theory Today. Delhi: Asia Book Club, 2002.
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