Story and Storytelling: Chinua Achebe’s Narrative Strategy
Chinua Achebe has been very conscious about the significance of story and storytelling in African oral societies. In an interview with Bill Moyers, Achebe says: “It’s the storyteller, in fact, who makes us what we are, who creates history. The storyteller creates the memory that the survivors must have – otherwise their surviving would have no meaning.” (333) Achebe’s novels exemplify this observation; in his novels Achebe plays the role of a storyteller to tell the real story of Africa.
In writing back, Achebe’s aim is to project Africa not in an idealized way. Achebe objects to simple idealization of ‘blackness’ and indiscriminate glorification of African culture 1. Achebe is a realist writer who tries to look at his culture and people from inside and depict the same in a realistic manner. From the very first novel, Achebe tells the story of the Ibos giving the impression that as a storyteller, he is intimate but critical too. Achebe’s manner of storytelling is appropriated with the different messages he wants to convey to his readers. Therefore, each of his novels shows how the narrative strategies change according to the contexts. Using a western narrative tradition i.e. the novel, Achebe makes it adaptable to serve his purpose. Thus the story he wants to tell and the manner of his storytelling are important issues for discussion.
The omniscient narrator of Things Fall Apart is not a character in the novel, but the narrative voice gives the impression of a wise and sympathetic elder of the community who is well aware of the socio-cultural lives of the Ibos. As the art of storytelling is a dominant aspect of African society, Achebe also begins his narrative in accordance with this aspect of his culture. He plays the role of an insider narrator while telling the story of Okonkwo:
Okonkwo was well known throughout the nine villages and even beyond. His fame rested on solid personal achievements. As a young man of eighteen he had brought honour to his village by throwing Amalinze the Cat . . . He was tall and huge, and his bushy eyebrows and wide nose gave him a very severe look… When he walked, his heels hardly touched the ground and he seemed to walk on springs, as if he was going to pounce on somebody. And he did pounce on people quite often. He had a slight stammer and whenever he was angry and could not get his words out quickly enough, he would use his fists. He had no patience with unsuccessful man. He had had no patience with his father. (3-4)
The opening lines clearly show Achebe’s mastery in narration in which every small detail contributes to the overall effect. This passage not only introduces Okonkwo as a heroic figure, but it also hints at the future course of action. Okonkwo’s industrious and hard-working nature is a sort of reflection of behavioural norms in Ibo society. And this in turn can be seen as Achebe’s way of contesting one of the many prejudices and presumptions about oriental people that they are weak2. However, Okonkwo’s impatience with unsuccessful men reveals a major flaw in his character – he is excessively masculinist.
As a traditional storyteller, the narrator here records the legends of the land and relates the past with the present. C.L. Innes observes that the narrator, like the storyteller of oral tradition, indulges in digressions exemplified in revealing the reason of nicknaming Amalinze as “Cat”. Innes says: “The narrative voice is primarily a recreation of the persona heard in tales, history, proverbs, and poetry belonging to an oral tradition; it represents a collective voice through which the artist speaks for his society, not as an individual apart from it – he is the chorus rather than the hero.” (111)The tone of narration established in the opening paragraph is maintained throughout the novel; the narrator goes on narrating the events without showing any personal response. Achebe is careful in keeping the narrator detached from the happenings; though he is an insider, he renders an unsentimental storytelling. Eugene McCarthy, in “Rhythm and Narrative Method in Achebe’s Things Fall Apart”, refers to Walter J. Ong when he draws attention to the fact that “empathy and participation are elements of orality, objectivity a consequence of writing.” (245) The narrator of Things Fall Apart displays objectivity even though the narrative voice is the voice of an insider. Achebe succeeds in merging orality and writing by imparting credibility to the narrator as he makes him reveal many crucial facts on the basis of what is said or done by others. Okonkwo’s wrestling talents are established by referring to what the elders say:
It was this man that Okonkwo threw in a fight which the old men agreed (emphasis added) was one of the fiercest since the founder of their town engaged a spirit of the wild for seven days and seven nights. (3)
Again, Okonkwo’s physical strength and his overpowering presence are proved with reference to the villagers:
He breathed heavily, and it was said that, (emphasis added) when he slept, his wives and children in their houses could hear him breathe. (4)
The narrator emphasizes an important feature of Ibo society with the help of practical proofs:
When Unoka died he had taken no title at all and he was heavily in debt. Any wonder then that his son Okonkwo was ashamed of him? Fortunately, among these people (emphasis added) a man was judged according to his worth and not according to the worth of his father. (4)
Thus foregrounding the views of people involved, the narrator attempts to win credibility and authority over the narration. Once the credibility is established, the storyteller starts depicting the story of how the Ibos used to live in a self-sufficient world of their own before the coming of the colonizers and how their community life and sense of belonging were disrupted due to colonial invasion. He tells the story by keeping Okonkwo at the centre to make his readers realize the gravity of the situation.
By being unbiased and trustworthy in telling the true story of the Ibos, the storyteller of Things Fall Apart establishes his authority and power over the narrative. The readers are led to believe and agree what the storyteller tells. He narrates the story of the self-assured Ibo world with complete assurance. But towards the end of the novel, Achebe shows how the assured voice of the storyteller is upset by the imposed voice of an outsider, the District Commissioner, who wants to ‘write down’ the ‘story’ so far being told.
By placing the oral storyteller and the writer in opposition, Achebe shows how the oral world of the Ibos is overpowered by the written. As the District Commissioner plans to shape the perspectives of future colonial administrators and officials by writing a book entitled “The Pacification of the Primitive Tribes of the Lower Niger”, he finds it necessary to silence the native’s voice. Obierika laments over the death of Okonkwo. His attempt to give an account of the story from inside: “That man was one of the greatest men in Umuofia . . .” is at once marred and stopped by the District Commissioner’s official: “Shut up!” (208) Resultantly, the narration is usurped like the land.
The last paragraph of the novel holds utmost importance as it marks not only the establishment of new historical, anthropological and fictional approaches to the story of the native people, but it also signifies the displacement of the oral tradition with a written one. Okonkwo’s death marks not only the literal death of the hero but also the metaphoric death of the story of Okonkwo in particular and of the Ibos in general. It also signals the end of oral lore as the story of Okonkwo would now be ‘written down’ and would be included in the ‘book’ to be written by the District Commissioner. Obeirika’s attempt to ‘tell’ the story of Okonkwo, and his failure to do the same signifies how orality is now being overpowered by the written language of the colonial officials.
The last paragraph of the novel emphasises the replacement of Ibo culture by English culture, of the Ibo language by the English language and of the displacement of oral tradition by writing. The audience who has been listening to Okonkwo’s story directly from the insider narrator is immediately placed in a distance for whom the story of “this man” (impersonified) “would make interesting reading” (lack of sympathy). Ultimately the last passage signifies the triumph of English (written) language and the breakdown of Ibo (oral) language. The story of Okonkwo’s dignity, strength, courage and sacrifice would be treated only as ‘materials’. As the writer DC had to “make interesting reading” and had “much else to include”, he had to be accurate in “cutting out details”, (209) details of the social and cultural life of the native people. “Cutting out” means “to reduce the living, oral world of Umuofia to a series of words on the page”, (Griffith 68) it also implies to delete from history, from people’s memory, from the written document. Thus the final paragraph of the novel bears clear sign of the disruption of Ibo cultural and linguistic authority. By presenting the written word of a foreign language as a means of representation, the Africans are framed as people without language. The power of the African voice is thus silenced. Neil Ten Kortenaar, while discussing Achebe’s reference to the coming of literacy into the oral Ibo world in Arrow of God, alludes to the final pages of Things Fall Apart saying that the DC’s book will never be able to contain the magnificence of the African world depicted in the novel: “The story of the man who hanged himself because he had no other means of expressing his utter rejection of everything that colonialism had wrought will be packaged for distant strangers whom he cannot imagine, and in the process he will be more effectively suffocated than by the noose.” (Kortenaar, “Arrow of God” 469)
However, with the end of the novel, Achebe has also put the act of writing into an ironical situation. Both the DC and Achebe are writing in the same language but the difference is that while the DC’s writing is aimed at reducing the history of Umuofia into a few pages of his book, Achebe has already presented the vastness and greatness of the Ibos’ cultural and moral values to the world. Simon Gikandi says: “The ultimate irony of his novel is that although the Commissioner has the final word in the fictional text, Achebe – the African writer who has appropriated a Western narrative practice – writes the colonizer’s words and hence commemorates an African culture which the colonizer thought he had written out of existence.” (50) The omniscient narrator has already revealed the Ibos’ experiences and views which the readers would not find in the DC’s book. Thus Achebe as a storyteller tells the truth and conveys his message to the readers.
But Achebe does not stop just at countering the narratives of the storyteller and the writer, rather he shows his awareness regarding the change of times and African realities and accordingly makes his storytelling adapt to the new situations. The backdrop of Arrow of God makes Achebe change his narrative strategy as the novel deals with new situations caused by the firm establishment of the British colonial rule in Iboland. Here, the storyteller is not an individual telling the story with assurance and authority. Rather he shifts from one point-of-view to another that highlights the hazardous task of the storyteller to show the ambiguities and confusions characteristic of the nebulous times portrayed in the novel. In presenting him as a narrator who is himself facing crisis in imparting meaning and truth to the story, Achebe is putting him in an objective distance to avoid misrepresentation.
The narrative process in Arrow of God, unlike that in Things Fall Apart, is not generated by any sense of a past tradition with stable systems of meaning; rather, a continuous crisis of meaning and authority becomes the precondition for narration. Things Fall Apart opened with the celebration of a tradition that authorizes cultural meanings (the founding of the community and the rise of its cultural hero); Arrow of God begins in medias res, in a social hiatus when there is genuine confusion about community values and meanings. (Gikandi 60)
On the one hand, the omniscient narrator rejects the sense of totality and order by rotating between points-of-view, but, on the other hand, does not deprive the readers from realizing that the historic period is such that fails to provide stable meanings to things.
Portraying a period when people are struggling to cope with the changing situation around them, Achebe shows how the situation does not allow them to have stable perspectives upon different matters. In fact, throughout the novel, the readers remain conscious that there is no dominant perspective in Arrow of God; the narrative shifts its locus of meaning between different contesting communities (Umuaro, Okperi, the colonial government office) and individuals (Ezeulu, Nwaka, Winterbottom etc.). . . . Indeed, the key to understanding Arrow of God, from a narrative perspective at least, is the reader’s realization that meanings which characters assumed were fixed are quite unstable and there is no longer a narrative sequence that confirms what we thought was true. (Gikandi. 63-64)
Thus the instability of the times is expressed through the instability of the narrative perspective. With this Achebe draws attention to the fact that colonialism has broken the traditional sense of meanings constructed by the community to maintain order and stability. The omniscient narrator of Arrow of God is continuously undermining readers’ understanding of truth by shifting the sources of meanings to diverse contradictory narratives. For example, regarding the land dispute between Umuaro and Okperi, the source of truth and knowledge changes position. While the readers may side with Ezeulu who holds that the plot of land belongs to Okperi depending on the words of his father (ancestor, a great source of truth for the Ibos), the narrative suddenly takes side with Nwaka who goes even beyond the knowledge of the forefathers and establishes that the land belongs to Umuaro and therefore war is inevitable.
Later on, a war actually breaks out between Umuaro and Okperi but for a different reason. Akukalia, along with two companions, goes to Okperi as the emissaries of Umuaro to find out if Okperi chooses war or peace regarding the plot of land. But in the house of the host in Okperi, when Akukalia demands that people should come to hear the message, he feels extremely insulted at a certain comment made by the host Ebo; out of anger, Akukalia breaks the ikenga of the host who, seeing the sacrilege of his god, kills Akukalia with his gun. Now, while the people of Umuaro understand the gravity of the crime committed by Akukalia and admit that such a crime is unforgivable and therefore, the matter should be dropped, Nwaka, later on, succeeds in convincing his people that Akukalia’s murder must be avenged. A war erupts and a number of men from both villages are killed until the District officer, Captain Winterbottom intervenes and takes all the guns in his custody. While the reason of the war is quite clear, it is defined from a different perspective by Captain Winterbottom in front of another officer, Mr. Clarke:
This war started because a man from Umuaro went to visit a friend in Okperi one fine morning and after he’d had one or two gallons of palm wine – it’s quite incredible how much of that dreadful staff they can tuck away – anyhow, this man from Umuaro having drunk his friend’s palm wine reached for his ikenga and split it in two . . . The outraged host reached for his gun and blew the other fellow’s head off. And so a regular war developed between the two villages, until I stepped in. (38)
This observation not only contradicts the reality, but it also serves another important purpose. The arrogance of the colonial officer, with his “I know my natives” attitude is visible in these words. This is another narrative about the same event. Making an outsider interpret the same incident from a completely different way is Achebe’s strategy to show that while the Ibos are divided by internal conflicts, an outsider takes the chance to pass judgement on them. Thus the truth is distorted and presented from a different perspective.
This distortion or misrepresentation of reality makes the last part of Things Fall Apart relevant for discussion here. Things Fall Apart ends with the District Commissioner’s decision to devote ‘a reasonable paragraph’ on the ‘undignified’ death of Okonkwo. He is shown contemplating how and where he will place Okonkwo’s story in his book. That the story of Okonkwo is going to be distorted and misrepresented in its written form is made clear when the DC decides to entitle his book The Pacification of the Primitive Tribes of the Lower Niger. With this, Achebe stresses the fact that Okonkwo’s tale can be understood only by the people of his community, not by the educated and literate colonial official. Therefore, it is inevitable that the story, written down as a part of a book by an outsider, will surely be misrepresented. The enforced judgement of the outsider on Okonkwo’s death opens up the way for future distortion of reality. Such distortion is further intensified in Arrow of God when the colonial rule is firmly settled among the natives. Now, colonial officials like Captain Winterbottom and Tony Clarke, who is shown to be reading The Pacification of the Primitive Tribes of the Lower Niger by George Allen, take guidance and gather information regarding the native people from such books. Their understanding of the life and culture of the people is based on a distorted reality represented in such books. Achebe emphasizes that the thoughtless and shallow judgement of the District officer on the Umuaro-Okperi war is just an example of the manner in which written documents have been playing a role in giving an arrogant and ‘all-knowing’ attitude to the colonizers.
Thus storytelling in Arrow of God constantly faces indeterminacy in establishing the truth. It remains unsettled whether Umuaro’s claim on the land is justified or not. Again, the narrator shows his indecisiveness by including various analyses for a single incident. For example, regarding Captain Winterbottom’s sudden illness, the narrator says: “Perhaps it was Captain Winterbottom’s rage and frenzy that brought it on; perhaps his steward was right about its cause [that he was attacked by Ezeulu’s magic]” (151). Again, regarding the cause of Ezeulu’s madness, the narrator proffers two explications: “Perhaps it was the constant, futile throbbing of these thoughts that finally left a crack in Ezeulu’s mind. Or perhaps his implacable assailant having stood over him for a while stepped on him as on an insect and crushed him under the heel in the dust.” (232)
Regarding Ezeulu’s role in the predicament of the village, the narrator seems perplexed. At one place, Ezeulu appears revengeful. Returning home from imprisonment, he plans for taking revenge on the villagers: “The rain was part of the suffering to which he had been exposed and for which he must exact fullest redress. The more he suffered now the greater would be the joy of revenge. His mind sought out new grievances to pile upon all the others.” (184) While Ezeulu appears a villain here, the narrator clarifies that the villagers have put Ezeulu in a spot as they did not clearly ask him to deny the summon from Captain Winterbottom. They were offended at Ezeulu testifying against them regarding the Umuaro-Okperi war five years back. They allowed him to go but did not consider the consequence of his absence from the village. One of them says:
“What we told him was to go and eat the yams and we would take the consequence. But he would not do it. Why? Because the six villages allowed the white man to take him away. That is the reason. He has been trying to see how he could punish Umuaro and now he has the chance. The house he has been planning to pull down has caught fire and saved him the labour.” (215)
In another place, Ezeulu appears to be an innocent victim torn between anger and sympathy for the clan:
…No one came near enough to him to see his anguish — and if they had seen it they would not have understood — they imagined that he sat in his hut gloating over the distress of Umuaro. But although he would not for any reason now see the present trend reversed he carried more punishment and more suffering than all his fellows . . . Beneath all anger in his mind lay a deeper compassion for Umuaro . . . (221)
Yet again the narrator makes it clear that the villagers had their own reason to ask
Ezeulu to respond the call. Ofoka tells Ezeulu after the latter returns from Okperi:
“I am one of those who said that we shall not come between you and the white man . . . It was because we were confused . . .The elders of Umuaro are confused. . . . First you, Ezeulu, told us five years ago that it was foolish to defy the white man. We did not listen to you . . . So we know you were right. But just as we were beginning to learn our lesson you turn round and tell us to go and challenge the white man. What did you expect us to do?” (190)
Thus it emerges that the narrator is unable to give a fixed analysis of events. The rotating points-of-view are a clear indication of the ambiguities of the time. Achebe successfully maneuvers the narration to suit the socio-cultural contexts of the novel.
No Longer at Ease also deals with dilemmas and perplexities of a different kind. It is a dilemma between tradition and modernity, old and new, morality and materialism. The specific historical time of the novel makes these perplexities more intensifying as the nation was going to be independent from the colonial rule.
The novel opens with the end of the story – a court case where Obi is convicted of accepting a bribe. Throughout, the third person narrator describes the story in flashbacks. With this Achebe marks a departure from the conventional way of storytelling that he has followed in Things Fall Apart and Arrow of God. In fact, the very different setting of the present novel necessitates new ways of storytelling. In this context, Simon Gikandi says that in No Longer at Ease, the backdrop of the novel i.e. eve of Nigeria’s independence is contemporaneous with the act of writing the novel. He says:
By the time the novel was published in 1960, the year of Nigerian independence, the discourse of national identity was still seeking forms through which to express itself; writing about the cultural and social pressures which young Nigerians encountered at the dawn of independence required multiple forms of experimentation with narrative techniques. (78-79)
As the historic time came up with new and complex issues, narratives dealing with these issues required new techniques.
At the very beginning, the narrator gives impression of the time as highly mechanical. When one of the counsels arrives late, the Judge reprimands him saying: “This court begins at nine o’clock. Why are you late?” The reply comes: “I am sorry, Your Honor, my car broke down on the way.” (1) With these utterances, the narrator clarifies that the story is set in a time when people’s lives are governed by mechanical items like the clock and the car. The narrator also gives a glimpse of the corrupt practices of the time. He says that the court room is jam-packed because nobody wants to miss the last day of the case and “some civil servants paid as much as ten shillings and sixpence to obtain a doctor’s certificate of illness for the day.” (2)
After giving sufficient information about the nature of the time, the narrator now proceeds to depict Obi’s story — how he dreamed of restoring his nation from corruption, how he failed to remain firm in his idealism and in what condition he felt compelled to take bribe. In narrating the story, the narrator maintains an objective distance and successfully conveys the message that though Obi is legally guilty, the readers should examine his case from the perspective of the contemporary social, cultural and political contexts. Therefore, the narrator does not allow the judge’s verdict to be the final one. The last paragraph bears much significance from the narrative point of the novel: “Everybody wondered why. The learned judge, as we have seen, could not comprehend how an educated young man and so and so forth. The British Council man, even the men of Umuofia, did not know. And we must presume that, in spite of his certitude, Mr. Green did not know either.” (194) The final scene of Obi breaking down and the audience finding no reason behind his act of corruption is a part of Achebe’s narrative strategy. With the word ‘we’, the narrator suggests that he has been telling the story only to his readers whom he expects to understand what others have not. The third person narrator has already told the story to the readers who are now to pass the final (not the legal) judgement on Obi – whether his weakness is in his being an African caught in the web of European lifestyle and outlook, or whether Obi fails because he is trapped in the historic moment of his country with its social, cultural, linguistic and economic complexities.
The specific mention of Mr. Green in the last paragraph is significant. Mr. Green, Obi’s boss, is presented as the stereotypical colonialist voice passing judgements on Africans. He is the modern incarnation of the colonizer who wants to perpetuate his rule over Africans. Therefore, Mr. Green cannot grasp the truth that Nigeria is going to be independent shortly, as, for him, “The African is corrupt through and through . . . he has been sapped mentally and physically. We have bought him western education. But what use is it to him?” (3-4) After narrating Obi’s story and pointing at the reasons of his downfall, the narrator is sure that people like Mr. Green would never be able to understand Obi’s dilemma. It is beyond Mr. Green’s comprehension that Obi stands for the “universal dilemma of colonial human beings” (Babalola 144) suffering a crisis of identity, finding themselves in the crossroads of cultures.
From the universal dilemma, there is no escape for Obi and numerous others like him. Therefore, though the story comes to an end, the tragedy does not; instead the open-endedness of the novel suggests that the tragedy and the tragic fate of Obi would be the lot of all Africans. The narrator has already offered an explanation for such an end. As he does not show any way out of the dilemma, he has justified the end beforehand:
Yes. Real tragedy is never resolved. It goes on hopelessly forever. Conventional tragedy is too easy. The hero dies and we feel the purging of the emotions. A real tragedy takes place in a corner, in an untidy spot, to quote W.H.Auden. The rest of the world is unaware of it. Like the man in A Handful of Dust who reads Dickens to Mr. Todd. There is no release for him. When the story ends he is still reading. There is no purging of the emotions for us because we are not there. (45-46)
In fact, Obi’s tragedy takes place deep inside his mind and the audience in the courtroom remains unaware of it.
The third person omniscient narrator of No Longer at Ease can be likened to that of Things Fall Apart as both the novels tell the story of a human being trapped in the collision between African and European values. Both the narrators give sufficient information about the prevalent socio-cultural conditions of the times and the reason behind the fall of the heroes. In depicting the real story, both the narrators are successful. Richard Begam draws attention to the similarity between the endings of the two novels. The fact that Obi is the grandson of Ogbuefi Okonkwo, the hero of Things Fall Apart and son of Nwoye or Isaac Okonkwo also links the two stories on a symbolic level. Begum says that Obi’s story is actually a continuation of the tragedy started with Okonkwo’s death:
The fall of Okonkwo’s machete is replaced by the fall of the judge’s gavel, as we are transported from a heroic to a legalistic world . . . The very structure of No Longer at Ease indicates, then, that Okonkwo’s story has not reached its end, that the tragic destiny it implies continues to be lived out . . . It is therefore not surprising that in moving from the first novel to the second, we observe Okonkwo’s traditional tragedy transform itself into Obi’s modern tragedy, as the heroic gives way to the ironic.
Thus it is a triumph in Achebe’s part that he maintains a similarity between the storytelling of Things Fall Apart and No Longer at Ease clearly demonstrating that though the two novels are set in two different historical periods, both the novels tell the tragedies of two heroes fallen in similar dilemmas.
Achebe’s subtle strategy of storytelling is again apparent in his next novel A Man of the People. Here Achebe shifts his focus from the African-European binary to his own countrymen; here he shows how colonial violence is replaced by the evils of the local politicians and ministers. A Man of the People deals not only with the lawlessness and corruption in political circles, but also highlights the moral degradation of the people in general. As Achebe is critical in examining the society of a post-independence period, he does not allow the narrator to escape from his critical outlook. Therefore, the narrator of A Man of the People fails to claim authority and power over the narrative as he himself is a part of the society which has lost moral values.
Instead of using a third person narrator as he did in his preceding novels, Achebe in A Man of the People shifts to first person narration entrusted to the protagonist Odili Samalu. The prevailing degradation in the moral order of the society makes Achebe examine the time from an ironical standpoint. Therefore, he does not show even the narrator as a reliable and righteous person. The lack of a moral order is reflected in the narrator. The narrator-hero is projected as a mirror where the society can see its deformations. Another reason which makes the narrator’s position all the more problematic is that the story is unfolded in retrospection; the experiencing self is not narrating the story in the time of the experience and therefore the narrating self is more knowledgeable than the experiencing one. As experiencing happens prior to narration, there occurs a constant intrusion of the narrating self into the experiencing self which ultimately makes the whole narration ironical. Odili himself admits the difficulty of such an act:
The difficulty of writing this kind of story is that the writer is armed with all kinds of hindsight which he did not have when the original events were happening . . . I can only hope that being aware of this danger I have successfully kept it at bay. As far as humanly possible I shall try not to jump ahead of the story. (24)
Thus irony is embedded in the narration. Moreover, while Achebe is looking at the society through Odili’s eyes, the latter is in constant critical gaze of the former. And Achebe shapes the language accordingly. Simon Gikandi rightly observes when he says:
If Achebe resorts to the kind of radical and disjunctive ironies which permeate A Man of the People to underscore the instability of the postcolonial situation, his use of Odili as the ironic narrator further undermines the process by which readers try to create meanings in the indeterminate politics of the African state after independence. (119)
So when Odili tries to be authoritative in narrating the events, he fails to maintain stability; resultantly his narration loses authority. Therefore, Odili as narrator is a highly effective device for the novelist to expose the gap between the ideal and reality. For example, when Odili is watching the villagers’ enthusiasm to welcome Chief Nanga, he describes:
As I stood in one corner of that vast tumult waiting for the arrival of the Minister I felt intense bitterness welling up in my mouth. Here were silly, ignorant villagers dancing themselves lame and waiting to blow off their gunpowder in the honour of one of those who had started the country off down the slopes of inflation. I wished for a miracle, far a voice of thunder, to hush this ridiculous festival and tell the poor contemptible people one or two truths. (2)
Odili calls the villagers ‘silly’, ‘ignorant’ and ‘contemptible’ and the whole function ‘a ridiculous festival’, but he cannot hide his elation when the minister, contrary to his expectation, recognizes him to be his ex-student. He suddenly forgets all his bitter feelings for the minister and feels himself a hero. Quite shamelessly he admits: “I knew I ought to be angry with myself but I wasn’t. I found myself wondering whether – perhaps – I had been applying to politics stringent standards that didn’t belong to it.” (9) Odili is captivated to see Nanga’s glamour and he keeps admiring the corrupt minister in the following days until he is cheated in the case of Elsie, his girl friend.
Again, the fact that Odili’s loyalty to his ideals can easily be disrupted by the charisma of a corrupt minister is very clear when he, lying on the cosy double bed in the luxurious suit of Nanga’s mansion, begins to analyse the minister’s position sympathetically:
A man who has just come in from the rain and dried his body and put on dry clothes is more reluctant to go out again than another who had been indoors all the time. The trouble with our new nation – as I saw it then lying on that bed – was that none of us had been indoors long enough to be able to say “To hell with it”. Then a handful of us . . . had scrambled for the one shelter our former rulers left, and had taken it over and barricaded themselves in. (37)
Odili thus thinks deeply about the temptation of power and privilege. But his shift from the first-person to third-person pronoun in the last sentence cannot be ignored. It clearly suggests the instability of his insight and the confusing status of his loyalties.
Regarding his relationship with Elsie, Odili’s values are doubtful. With slight excitement, he says: “Elsie was, and for that matter still is, the only girl I met and slept with the same day – in fact within an hour.” (24) But he fails to conceal his shallow emotions regarding her: “Despite this rather precipitous beginning Elsie and I became very good and steady friends. I can’t pretend that I ever thought of marriage . . . Elsie was such a beautiful, happy girl and she made no demands whatever.” (25) His unreliability is revealed when, in spite of being casual in the relation, he feels so much offended with Nanga taking advantage of Elsie that he leaves Nanga’s house immediately during the night.
When Odili decides to join the new political party, he wants to hide his real intension i.e. to take revenge upon Chief Nanga on purely personal ground. And his language reconfirms his unreliable nature. For example, when he says – “I must say that I was immediately taken with the idea of the Common People’s Convention. Apart from everything else it would add a second string to my bow when I came to deal with Nanga”, (79) Odili’s words prove how he can be captured by the excitement of a moment by joining the party immediately as it stands in opposition to Nanga. Adding a second string to his bow is Odili’s way of preparing himself for the fight against Nanga. His joining in the political party is a means of strengthening his motivation for fighting against Nanga as his personal grudge is not a sufficient cause for a fight in which the whole nation is involved.
During the election campaign, Max was trying to make people aware of the government’s corrupt practices. To stress his point, Max gives evidences of some of the ministers who have risen from rags to riches. When Odili sees many people in the audience laughing to hear Max, he thinks: “But it was the laughter of resignation to misfortune. No one among them swore vengeance; no one shook with rage or showed any sign of fight.” (125) Odili uses strong phrases to express his embarrassment, but his words are confusing because in his own case, he has shown a purely personal reason to stand against Nanga. Therefore, phrases like ‘vengeance’ and ‘rage’ appear quite superficial. No public cause inspires him; he is shaken with rage only when his pride on his manhood is hurt by Nanga. His joining politics is purely accidental.
The failure of Odili as a narrator is a projection of Achebe’s own anger and indignation towards the moral degradation and rampant corruption of post-independence Nigeria. The narrator is a reflection of the society which has lost its own definition.
Thus the narrator of A Man of the People stands for the moral issues of the time.
In Achebe’s last novel Anthills of the Savannah Achebe emphasizes the idea of story and storytelling. In fact Anthills of the Savannah is marked by Achebe’s serious engagement with story as the truth and the storyteller as the carrier of the truth. Through Anthills of the Savannah Achebe stresses that in the oral tradition of Africa, storytelling has been a way of circulating cultural values, codes of conduct, moral lessons etc. among the members of the society and transmitting the same to the posterity. Being a communal and participatory activity, storytelling is based on the principle of mutual hospitality, wherewith it favors encounter and mutual understanding among different peoples . . . The common characteristic of storytelling shared by all cultures and languages consists in the fact of its being an end in itself, of its being founded uniquely in the pleasure of invoking the other, of involving and listening to the other. This characteristic distinguishes storytelling as we understand it from the type of narrativity that serves power: the power of control and punishment (the story told to the magistrate or police officer), the power of information (journalistic chronicles) . . . (Petrilli and Ponzio 98-99)
While passing down knowledge, history and experiences through the stories, the storyteller not only entertains, inspires and educates the audience, but also allows them to participate in his delineation of the story. For the continual transformation of stories from generation to generation, stories can never be frozen or fixed. In this process, the moral of the story remains the same with newer elements added to it. The storyteller, with all his skills and arts, is instrumental in passing down the moral of the story to the next generation. Therefore, “story-telling – like all cultural production – is a means through which the community is constructed. Through stories, groups and societies create, recreate, and alter social identities, power relations, knowledge, memory, and emotion.” (Senehi 97) In the oral tradition of Africa, story carries concepts like truth, propriety, wisdom etc. that guide the society for a righteous life.
Anthills of the Savannah is set in an imaginary West African country namely Kangan and most of the action takes place in the capital of the country, Bassa. Though Achebe depicts the story of a modern post colonial era, his endeavour throughout the novel is to re-establish the dignity and to prove the relevance and importance of African oral culture in the present scenario. While he is pointing out the faults and problems of the time, he is also prescribing a remedy – restoring Africa’s age old traditional wisdom and applying them to solve the problems of the country. Achebe emphasises the importance of story by linking the narrative of the novel with the practice of storytelling. But Achebe’s presentation is not straight forward; he combines oral cultural elements with sophisticated narrative techniques by introducing multiple narrators and making them the storytellers. Short-listed for the Booker Prize in 1987, Anthills of the Savannah brings elements of African oral culture and modern literary devices together to project a highly disturbed juncture of Nigerian history.
Unlike Achebe’s preceding novels, the narration in Anthills of the Savannah is done both by first person narrators and a third person omniscient narrator. The story of the country is told by three protagonists — Christopher Oriko, the Commissioner for Information; Ikem Osodi, a poet and the editor of the government owned newspaper, National Gazette, and Beatrice Okoh, Senior Assistant Secretary to the Minister of Finance in the Kangan Government. The third person omniscient narrator takes over the narration from time to time. Chris’ and Ikem’s roles as narrators end as Beatrice starts narrating. After that it is only Beatrice and the third person narrator that share the task of telling the story. “The narratives are spoken by various voices: Chris, Ikem, Beatrice, and an unnamed omniscience. Each voice presents its own way of telling the narrative, thereby establishing its uniqueness and looking at various ways of dealing with the text.” (Kanaganayakam 44) Through multiple narrators, Achebe examines how the story of contemporary postcolonial reality of Africa should be told and what role the modern storyteller should play in ensuring a better future for the people. With complicated narrative devices, history is viewed from diverse angles.
Making Chris, Ikem and Beatrice — who are either directly or indirectly associated with the administration headed by Sam — tell the story, Achebe aims to go back to the past to understand the predicament of the present. Through the narration of Chris and Ikem, readers are informed about the past life of Sam and are given sufficient clues to understand Sam’s ruthless dictatorship in the present. While Chris, positioned as the ‘First Witness’ and Ikem, as the ‘Second Witness’ do not abstain from being subjective in their narrations, Beatrice seems to maintain an objective distance in rendering the story. Not branded as a witness, Beatrice plays the role of the central consciousness of the story after the narrations of Chris and Ikem end. Again, the third person omniscient narrator gives a detached and neutral rendering of the story.
The complicated nature of the socio-cultural and political issues that the novel explores calls for the use of complex and sophisticated narrative techniques which can perhaps be echoed in words that Ezeule speaks in Arrow of God: “The world is like a Mask dancing. If you want to see it well you do not stand in one place.”(47) Addressing the issue from different perspectives and defining it from different angles, Achebe thus emphasises the relevance of the wisdom of African traditional beliefs in the modern postcolonial era. In his own words:
What I’m doing is trying to see it from different angles like in the proverb about the masquerade. Africa is the masquerade and you don’t stand in one place to see it, you move around the arena and take different perspectives. I’m against those who see Africa as a one-issue case. It’s a case of a multiplicity of issues, and you can take them one at a time. (Personal Interview by Chris Searle, 60-61)
Thus the narrative passes from one narrator to another, and in the process, Achebe brings his readers closer to African ways of seeing and experiencing.
Apart from the omniscient narrator, the characters that take part in the storytelling, Chris, Ikem and Beatrice, all belong to the elite class and tell the African story from their own perspectives depending on their intention and ideology. But there are many different stories that do not come into the surface. Sam is not given the status of a storyteller, but he continues his own story by suppressing the stories of others. Moreover, the stories of the downtrodden people make their presence felt throughout the narrative. It becomes clear that the nation cannot move forward ignoring their stories. All the stories told by men, women, the oppressors and the oppressed ultimately glorify one thing: the story. Achebe emphasises that the story is more important than the storyteller as it is the story that would survive till the end of time and inspire all the future generations to learn from it. Achebe makes one of his characters reveal the traditional value of stories:
It is the story, not the others, that saves our progeny from blundering like blind beggars into the spikes of the cactus fence. The story is our escort, without it, we are blind. Does the blind man own his escort? No, neither do we the story; rather it is the story that owns us and directs us. It is the thing that makes us different from cattle . . . (114)
Stories told by different tellers and stories which remain latent (stories of the downtrodden who are not given the position of a narrator) in the narrative serve the purpose of directing the future generations to follow the right path and preventing them from committing mistakes.
Though both Chris and Ikem have great resentment about Sam’s administrative strategies and are harsh critics of the same, they carry on their activities differently. In their struggle against Sam, Chris and Ikem are not united. Their two different paths are manifested in their two different ways of storytelling. The following discussion will clarify this point.
As a storyteller, Chris, the Commissioner of Information of Kangan, is detached; he is more preoccupied to find out the logic behind Sam’s transformation from a decent fellow in his earlier days to the present ruthless dictator. Quite incapable of restraining his childhood friend Sam from marching forward in his unscrupulous activities, Chris prefers to play the role of an observer defining the outward behaviour of Sam and offering clinical analysis. During the Cabinet Meeting, Chris, confronting Sam’s wrath, tries to “point to a specific and decisive event and say: it was at such and such a point that everything went wrong and the rules were suspended.” (2) Chris’ inability to understand the situation and find out a solution establishes him as “the voice of common sense looking somewhat sceptically, even cynically, at the contradictions of the present from the point of view of one who belongs to the establishment. His is the voice of the critic who chooses not to become an exile.” (Kanaganayakam 44) Chris’ character reflects Achebe’s criticism of people who, in spite of having adequate knowledge of the state of affairs, fail to actively participate in the revolutionary process in the postcolonial era. With ironic gaze, Chris is busy making farcical entries – the Commissioner for Education disappearing “onto his hole, as some animals and insects do, backwards”, drawing “his upper arms tight to his sides as though to diminish his bulk” (3); Sam “drabbing his eyes with a handkerchief still neatly folded” (6), leaning back “calmly on his swivel chair in order to search under the table for the court shoes he always kicks off at the beginning of our meeting.” (7) As a storyteller, Chris shows his detachment when he says: “I have always been in the middle. Neither as bright as Ikem and not such a social success as Sam. I have always been the lucky one, in a way.” (60) So being in the middle and therefore lucky, Chris keeps himself mentally detached from the reality and maintains a distance from which he can observe the physical movements of people. His objective detachment makes him cynical regarding the Presidential Retreat:
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. The cathedrals of Europe, the Taj Mahal of India, the pyramids of Ezypt and the stone towers of Zimbabwe were all raised on the backs of serfs, starving peasants and slaves. Our present rulers in Africa are in every sense late-flowering medieval monarchs. . . (67-68)
Chris’ words make it clear that he lacks an urge to fight against Sam’s corrupt activities; he confines himself only within observing and commenting on the state of affairs.
Chris, remaining in a state of inertia, cannot fathom where the game of power would lead them; it is only when Ikem is arrested and killed by the army on Sam’s orders that Chris wakes up from his inertness and observes things in their true colour. Chris gradually discovers that “such an attitude, and such a position, are luxuries that the current society cannot afford or allow. There is no such thing as an impartial storyteller in this society, and Chris eventually realizes that he must take a stand.”
(Ikegami 499) Eventually he learns to be alert not only about his own safety but also about the necessity to inform people that Ikem’s death is not an accident but a cold-blooded murder. It is only when Chris can deceive the police officials under the guise of a small motor-car dealer while escaping to Abazon that he understands the frailty of appearances and realizes his own inability to see beyond the surface. Therefore, the journey to Abazon by bus is a journey of revelation. Viewing the changes in the condition of the road, from tarred to gravelled to dusty ones, of the dwelling houses, from cemented ones to muddy huts, Chris realizes the insignificance of the “cocktail circuits, those hollow rituals.” (189) Now, occupying a seat in the bus named Luxurious and undertaking the journey, he realizes that “Even the asphalt on which Luxurious sped towards the North told its own story of two countries.” (190) As the bus enters Abazon and the desolation of drought becomes visible, Chris can reinterpret Ikem’s poetry and find meaning in it:
As the bus plunged deeper into the burning desolation Chris reached into his bag and pulled out Ikem’s unsigned “Pillar of Fire: A Hymn to the Sun,” and began to read it slowly with fresh eyes . . . Perhaps it was seeing the anthills in the scorched landscape that set him off revealing in detail he had not before experienced how the searing accuracy of the poet’s eyes was primed not on fancy but fact. (194)
Achebe shows that the realization comes to Chris, but it is too late as his final step of protest and fight brings his death. So he fails to get the chance to go back and work on his realization. Achebe’s dexterity of narration becomes clear when the readers find a parallel between Chris’s fight before being shot with the tale of the leopard and the tortoise told by an elder from Abazon. The story finds resonance in Chris’s struggle in the sand with the police sergeant who tries to molest a woman. While the story of the tortoise glorifies the spirit of struggle, Chris exemplifies the same through his last fight before death. Though Chris fails as a storyteller, he leaves his own story behind to inspire the future generation to direct the nation.
As a storyteller, Ikem stands in marked contrast to Chris; Ikem’s storytelling provides what Chris’ cannot. While Chris is preoccupied with physical details, Ikem’s storytelling penetrates the surface and sees the truth. It is because he can find meaning in silences and absences that he claims to have understood the real mind of Sam better than Chris. It is the reason why he calls Sam’s couriers “mesmerised toadies in daily attendance.” Ikem, with his crusading editorials, attempts to make Sam “glimpse a little light now and again through chinks in his solid wall of court jesters.” (42) For him, people cannot win their fight against the corrupt administrators on the basis of facts as facts can be easily distorted. So he says that the best weapon for fighting is passion: “Passion is our hope and strength, a very present help in trouble.” (35)
That Ikem can see the reality under the surface is apparent in the episode of public execution. This public event which is a source of crude pleasure for the viewers is, for Ikem, a revelation of the perverted nature not only of the authorities but also of the people gathered there. Seeing the empty chairs reserved for the VIPs and the miserable condition of the viewers standing in the hot sun, Ikem says: “Isn’t the great thing about a VIP that his share of good things is always there waiting for him in abundance even while he relaxes in the coolness of home, and the poor man is out there in the sun pushing and shoving and roasting for his miserable crumbs?” (37) The seat assignment makes him think how the vast gap between the general people and the VIPs projects the continuation of neo-colonial practices, how the “craving for power and a desire to imitate the colonial master reinforce the suspicion that independence has been won only in principle and not in practice.” (Kanaganayakam 39) What shocks Ikem most is the loud laughter of the gathering who is taking pleasure out of the scene of execution of criminals. He does not see any passion against the authority which is fooling the people just by punishing petty criminals while real culprits escape scot free, “leaders who openly looted out treasury, whose effrontery soiled our national soul.” (39)
Regarding Beatrice with whom both Chris and Ikem share close relationships, their views vary. While for Chris she is the “perfect embodiment of my ideal woman, beautiful without being glamorous. Peaceful but very strong”, (58) it is Ikem who “came close to sensing the village priestess who will prophesy when her divinity rides her abandoning if need be her soup-pot on the fire . . .” (98) Ikem has the insight to know Beatrice more than she knows herself. It is because Ikem can to see beyond the factual details that he falls into the most dangerous trap that ultimately claims his life. When answering the question whether or not the President’s image should be imprinted on the national currency, Ikem shows his genuine nature when he replies: “My view is that any serving President foolish enough to lay his head on a coin should know he is inciting people to take it off; the head I mean.” (149) This provocative statement of Ikem finally brings forth his arrest and death.
Though Chris’ factual approach and Ikem’s passionate involvement give momentum to the whole plot, Achebe exhibits that the act of storytelling is not merely a “simple procedure of gathering and dispensing facts or of sharing and eliciting passion.” (Ikegami 499) Achebe declares through Chris’ words that: “We tend sometimes to forget that our story is only one of twenty million stories – one tiny synoptic account.”
(61) Among these twenty million stories, Achebe seems to particularly stress the story of Beatrice, a working woman living in Bassa. The significance of Beatrice lies in the fact that she is the only female character in all the five novels of Achebe who attempts to establish a clear role for women. Beatrice is a representative of those women who play a strong role in the political, social and cultural lives of the country.
A number of women writers accused Achebe of portraying female characters as inferior to male characters in his preceding novels, especially Things Fall Apart. Florence Stratton observes that in Things Fall Apart, women are “systematically excluded from the political, the economic, the judicial, and even the discoursal life of the community.” (25) Stratton also accuses that
Achebe himself generally avoids questioning the hierarchical nature of gender relations in Umoufia society, an indication of his attitude toward the status quo of male domination . . . As if to reflect their social insignificance, women are marginalized in the text. Achebe does not even bother to name Okonkwo’s wives until the narrative is well under way. (28-29)
Andrew Ame-Odindi Aba says: “Chinua Achebe gave his female personae less than a marginal place in the action of Things Fall Apart and Arrow of God . . . Achebe’s other women — Clara, in No longer at Ease; including Mrs. Nanga, Elsie and Edna in A Man of the People are mere fillers in the men’s divertissement and ego games.” (125) Thus Achebe’s treatment of women characters in his novels has been criticised by a number of women writers. But in Anthills of the Savannah, Achebe seems to make reparation of his treatment of women characters in his preceding novels by portraying Beatrice as a confident and capable woman.
The introduction of Beatrice as the storyteller does not fall in the same line with the other two narrators as Beatrice is not a ‘witness’. She intrudes into the narration all by herself and succeeds in keeping the attention of the readers glued to her till the end. She “functions more like a judge than a witness in the course of the story.” (Sougou 38) She takes up the task of storytelling only after Chris and Ikem finish theirs and establishes her story as the counter-narration against the male dominated narration of Chris and Ikem:
Through the character of Beatrice, Achebe draws attention to the chauvinism of the powerful male characters and points out that their fortunes do not constitute an adequate representation of the nation’s history . . . Beatrice is one of several characters who disturb the elite male characters’ autonomy over the narrative of Kangan’s fortune and enable issues such as gender difference to be raised. (McLeod 132)
Beatrice’s intrusion into the narration and her initiative to tell the story mark the urgency of the moment that shows the need of restoring the voices of the female members of the society and placing them side by side with male voices. With this, Achebe attempts to establish a balance so that the ills of the country can be understood better and a solution can be found.
The autobiographical details of Beatrice that are given authenticate her narration as insightful and impartial. Her childhood in an African village and her education among the English and the Jews impart to her personality a combination of the old and the new, the traditional and the modern. But the most important trait in her character is her role as the modern reincarnation of Idemili, the Daughter of the Almighty. Beatrice is a perfect balance of these two selves – the new modern woman and the mythic figure. She herself confirms about her dual identities when she makes a reference of Chielo of Things Fall Apart. Chielo, otherwise an ordinary village woman, turns into the priestess of the Hills and the Caves when she is ‘possessed’. Beatrice displays the sense of possession when she says: “As a matter of fact I do sometimes feel like Chielo in the novel, the priestess and prophetess of the Hills and the caves.” (105) According to the Encyclopedia of Religion “Spirit possession may be broadly defined as any altered or unusual state of consciousness and allied behaviour that is indigenously understood in terms of the influence of an alien spirit, demon, or deity. The possessed act as though another personality – a spirit or soul – has entered their body and taken control.” (Jones 8687) Beatrice is otherwise an independent city woman but in the moments of possession, she can foretell the future and the turns of events show that she is quite correct in her predictions.
The success of Beatrice as a storyteller does not only depend on her mythic identity but also on her ability to maintain a balance between her traditional and modern selves. Beatrice succeeds in maintaining a perfect balance between her modern and mythic identities, her traditional African past and Westernized present. In this respect, she proves to be more competent than Obi Okonkwo (No Longer at Ease) who fails miserably in his ‘in-between’ position. It is through Beatrice’s mouth that Achebe puts the most crucial question: “What must a people do to appease an embittered history?”
It is answered not with words but with meaningful actions. The naming ceremony of Ikem-Elewa’s daughter is presided over by Beatrice who brings African religious beliefs together with Christian rituals, combines the views of the old and the young, and breaks the boundaries of social classes. Here she appears as a priestess playing the role of a redeemer of past errors and preparing for a hopeful future.
Besides the storytellers mentioned so far, there is Sam who tells his story by controlling or denigrating other’s stories. From the very beginning, Sam is engaged in suppressing the reality. The difference between Sam and the other storytellers is that he tells his story with a gun in hand with which he tries not only to control other’s stories but also to demand complete obedience to his version of the story of Kangan.
Sam’s governance is a typical representation of military dictatorship where the dictators “try to stay in power simply to maintain their position in the government and society. They don’t intend to change things in their country. They simply hold on to their position, enjoying the power, status, and wealth it entails.” (Fandel 4) Sam believes that he can keep people in total subjugation by giving them an impression of his power. That is why he demands that he be called “His Excellency”. He is a master in using clichés like “I am still a soldier, not a politician”, “Soldiers are plain and blunt”, “I deal with facts not gossip” etc.
Sam’s attempts to dominate and control the freedom of expression is revealed when he gets Ikem arrested and killed for writing editorials against him. Ikem who wants to operate freely without any political interest, is brutally murdered on Sam’s orders.
One way in which dictators can silence their critics is by controlling the media . . . Dictators can stop the media from carrying a range of news so that the country’s citizens hear only the government’s viewpoints . . .
Dictators control the news . . . so that people never find out what is really happening in their country. (Hunter 24-25)
While Sam controls other’s voices and distorts other’s stories, he tries to establish his own version of the story. In order to conceal the fact that Ikem’s death is a pre-planned murder, Sam tries to mystify the event by carefully manipulating the news that reaches the public. First he incriminates Ikem by saying that Ikem master-minded the “dastardly plot”. Sam tries to prove that the charge against Ikem is true as the plot has been brought to light by “Investigations by top security officers” (155) who are undoubtedly efficient and flawless. Only after making Ikem appear like a criminal does Sam allow the news of Ikem’s subsequent arrest and deadly injury to be declared. The news says that Ikem has been “fatally wounded by gunshot” (156) as he “seized a gun from one of his escorts.” (155) While the first phrase makes it doubtful whether Ikem is dead or badly wounded, the second phrase proves that it is because Ikem refused to surrender before the country’s law and order by seizing the gun that he meets such a consequence. Later on, Chris can make out that “the government statement had deliberately chosen a phrase which was popularly misunderstood in order to diffuse the shock of the news by revealing its full extent only in stages.” (156) Thus as a dictator, Sam considers it vital that he “retains absolute control over the opinions people voice.” (Hunter 22)
In dealing with the delegation coming from Abazon, Sam takes utmost care to misrepresent the reality. He attempts to undermine the seriousness of the whole issue by using the term ‘problems’ instead of ‘complaints’ as the latter would make him liable to listen to them personally. He orders: “But whatever you do, make sure that nothing about petitions gets into the papers.” (17) When the six delegates from Abazon along with a number of Abazonians residing in Bassa fail to meet Sam, Ikem brings the issue into the National Gazette by writing a sharp editorial. In reaction, Sam immediately shows his monstrosity by getting the six leaders arrested and Ikem suspended. He distorts the facts by well chosen words. He calls them “agitators claiming to come from Abazon.” (132) By branding them as ‘agitators’, Sam at once makes them vulnerable to his punishment; again by saying that they ‘claim’ to represent Abazon, Sam strengthens his position that he is not liable to listen to people who might not belong to Kangan. By making their representation appear doubtful “he can claim not to have believed in their mission and in this case the burden of proof is on the delegates to show that they really represent the people they claim to represent.” (Okechukwu 129-130)
When Ikem openly reacts to the arrest and delivers an anti-government lecture in the University of Bassa, he is secretly arrested and killed. Sam’s activities prove that “Military dictatorship in Africa, like the colonisers before them, are usurpers of political power and use brutal oppression to hold on to it.” (Gadzekpo 30) Strategically, the whole story of arrest and murder is announced through radio and that too in a completely different way. While justifying the arrest of Ikem, the news announces that “the State Research Council has uncovered a plot by unpatriotic elements in Kangan working in concert with certain foreign adventurers to destabilize the lawful government of this country.” (155) While Sam’s use of the euphemistic term ‘State Research Council’ instead of ‘secret police’ is another of his linguistic tactics, he takes credit to ‘uncover a plot’ as if there is indeed a plot against Kangan. The most effective phrase is ‘certain foreign adventurers’ which immediately creates the impression that the ‘plot’ has been planned with the help of the enemies of the country who are mere ‘adventurers’ devoid of any serious purpose. “By dubbing these foreigners ‘adventurers’, Sam has separated them from other foreigners and implied that other foreigners are not bad for the state. Hence, he still assures the foreigners in Kangan of his friendship, and insures that these foreigners will support him.” (Okechukwu 130)
Though Sam imposes his own version of the story of Kangan by dominating and controlling other’s voices, he fails to continue his domination for long. Towards the end, it is informed that Sam has been kidnapped from his Palace, “tortured, shot in the head and buried under one foot of soil in the bush” (203) and thus his story is prevented to continue any further. While the stories of Chris, Ikem and Beatrice reflect the realities of Kangan, Sam’s story distorts the same. He fails to understand that truth cannot be hidden and that the storyteller is a mere instrument to pass on the truth. Thus Sam proves himself to be the fool who thinks that to tell the story is to control the story.
Thus, in Anthills of the Savannah, while Chris and Ikem tell the story of Kangan from their perspectives, and Sam controls others’ stories, Beatrice’s story brings their perspectives together adding a “gynocentric spiritual order.” Her story “allows the reader to participate imaginatively in the invention of a new Nigeria, which turns away from the Western model of political coercion and power-play towards a form of peaceful mythic redemption through feminine spirituality.” (Gobel 264) After Chris’ death, Beatrice, the last surviving storyteller, after a long span of “virtual silence” of bereavement, comes to realize how urgent it is to keep the story going, to inspire the future generations with the story of the past. She also realizes that the story of Kangan cannot be told alone; she must be accompanied by those who have also undergone the troubles of the time. Therefore, Beatrice assumes the role of the leader of a group of people from diverse social, religious and linguistic backgrounds in order to enable the troubled Kangan to look forward to a hopeful future. These “stragglers from a massacred army” include Agatha, Elewa, Emmanuel, Braimon, Aina, Adamma, and Captain Medani and with them Beatrice enters into a “defensive pact . . . that was to prove stronger than kindred.” The relation among these people is of course based on blood but it is “not, however, blood flowing safe and inviolate in its veins but blood casually split and profaned.” (202) All of them have witnessed the blood-bath of the recent times.
Thus Achebe in giving expression to the complexities of the time resorts to a complex storytelling process. In doing so, Achebe successfully conveys his central message — reality has many different shades and storytelling is crucial in establishing the truth and directing a right course of action in the future. Therefore, the three storytellers tell the story of Kangan from three different perspectives.
1. Achebe was always against the indiscriminate idealization of ‘Africanness’ professed by Negritude writers like Leopold Sedar Senghor and Aime Cesaire. He was not in favour of being proud of African identity without realizing its drawbacks. The philosophy of Negritude i.e. uncomplicated glorification of Africa has been criticised by writers like Wole Soyinka who attempted to dismiss the negritude movement by making a comment published in Times Magazine in 17th November, 1967: “A tiger does not proclaim its tigritude, he pounces.”
2. Edward Said, in Orientalism, talks of how Western people regard Orients as irrational, depraved (fallen), childlike etc. He says: “My contention is that Orientalism is fundamentally a political doctrine willed over the Orient because the Orient was weaker than the West, which elided the Orient’s difference with its weakness.” (40, 204)
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