Questioning Literature

Gregory Gipson, English 27, Brown University, Autumn 1997

Chinua Achebe's Anthills of the Savannah and Chenjerai Hove's Bones, two books radically different in style and language, have important thematic similarities despite their remarkably disparate modes. Achebe writes with a mostly straightforward narrative style, switching viewpoints and shifting about in time, but always using concrete details and powerful characters to move the story. Bones, by contrast, makes the style a character unto itself, using dream- and myth-inflected imagery and multiple (spoken) narrations to tell a less sweeping, and equally powerful, story. Yet each novel thematizes the debate (among many others) between the value of an oral culture opposed to a literate one and the necessary extension of that debate to one of community in opposition to individuality as the basis of a culture's social interaction. Anthills of the Savannah does so by raising the questions explicitly in the text, through the voices of different characters, while Bones, as befits its murkier style and structure, does so both by the novel's very form and the events of the story, events whose details are so wholly subjective that they remain intentionally ambiguous in their significance.

That the novels vary so widely in language and structure is at least partly the result of their origins: Anthills is set in the African nation of Kangan, a fictional counterpart of Nigeria, and Bones takes place in Zimbabwe during the second Chimurenga, or liberation war, which resulted in freedom from British rule in 1980. Each author is writing about his native country, and those nations' political history informs the novels constantly. In Achebe's book one has a sense of suppressed violence, a constant tension arising from the people's willingness to laugh "so blatantly at their own humiliation and murder," (Achebe, 37) while apparently failing to see the fact of oppression. Ikem acts as the voice of the awakened sleeper, an educated man troubled by his privilege, much as, one can imagine, Achebe himself, like other writers and intellectuals, might feel about their ambiguous presence in the country of their birth, writing for audiences mostly across the Atlantic. By contrast, in Bones, the violence is constant and almost unnoticed, so ubiquitous does it become. From the casual cruelty of Manyepo, the British overseer of the commercial farm at the heart of the novel, to Chisaga's rape of Janifa, violence is everywhere, though very often viewed only peripherally, after the fact, and with little sense of upset from the narrators. This violence sets a mood of conflict within each novel, and this mood colors every aspect of reading. It is the pervasive sense of violence that asserts the other conflicts, as if tearing through a curtain or leaping through a window. And unsurprisingly, the chief differences between these conflicts' expression lies in the differences of style and narrative between the two works.

Achebe takes great pains to establish real characters, with a strong ethos and credible actions. He succeeds partly by the use of multiple narratiors and varying tone, so that the reader can gain a sense of each character's past, motivations, and manner of thinking. Thus, a chapter narrated by Chris, the Commisioner for Information within the Kangan government, is imbued with a certain resigned cynicism and disgust, whereas a following chapter narrated by Ikem, a crusading newspaper editor, is colored more by a sense of melancholy and cautious hope. For Chris, locked into the machine of politics, sufficient rebellion lies in "silently rebuffing" (Achebe, 8) the imbecility of his fellow ministers, while in deed making no waves, as when His Excellency, the military dictator of Kangan, rises at the end of a meeting, and Chris, with every other minister, creates a noise in "scrambling to our feet [that] would have befitted a knee-sore congregation rising rowdily from the prayers of a garrulous priest" (Achebe, 7). Ikem, in contrast, is constantly beset by worries of class inequities and social justice:

Isn't the great thing about a VIP that his share of good things is always 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?. . . How does the poor man retain his calm in the face of such provocation? (Achebe, 37)

And Beatrice, Beatrice will rise above either, but that is still to come. For now the important point is that each character in Achebe's novel has a distinct voice and set of concerns, and it is through those voices that Anthills of the Savannah explores the questions of literacy and its concomitant privilege in Africa, community and its role in a culture which no longer seems to have a place for it.

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