Thursday, April 28, 2011

#38 - Anthills of the Savannah

Because we had been reading a lot of Can Lit in our book club, and a lot of short stories to boot, I put forth Chinua Achebe's Anthills of the Savannah as our April selection. Over the years, my post-colonial reading has declined dramatically, and it was one of the goals of having an Around the World in 52 Books challenge -- to end up reading more non-Canadian fiction. Alas, it was probably a good thing that I decided to actually make dinner for The Vicious Circle Book Club, if only so they'd forgive me for choosing such a dense, complex novel.

It took me six tries just to get passed the first few chapters, and we decided as a club that once you got to page 40, the book became readable, and you were somewhat home free. With respect to construction, it's the most post-modern novel I've read in a long time: perspective switches from first, to third, from character to character, and the narrative often circles around events, moving back and forth in time, just assuming the reader will keep up. Here's where we bring out that old po-co staple -- that a lot of African fiction follows more oral than narrative traditions, but I'm not sure I'd make the sweeping generalization that Achebe was setting out to prove that -- maybe it more like he was trying to reflect the impossibility of telling a story, a straight forward, this happened, and then this happened, and then this happened, kind of story, when your world is in utter chaos.

Set in the fictional West African nation, Kangon, three old school friends, Sam, Chris and Ikem, Western-educated men living among the upper echelons of society, must redefine their relationships now that Sam has become His Excellency -- the country's dictator. As Chris, one of the main characters says, "I have thought of all of this as a game that began innocently enough and then went suddenly strange and poisonous." As the rest of the novel unravels, the story is strong: Sam wants to stay in power, and even though there's an uprising "in the north" against him (which is a product of deep misunderstanding and miscommunication), lifelong friends Chris and Ikem, now the Minister for Information and the editor of the national newspaper respectively, bear the brunt of Sam's fall from grace and are fired, forced into hiding and fighting for their lives.

Because characters are "witnesses," the novel changes form on the drop of a hat -- you can be in the first person with Chris in a meeting, then be reading some whimsical treatise by Ikem, listening to Beatrice, Chris's girlfriend, speak pidgin English with Elewa, Ikem's girlfriend, and then be in the middle of some strange scene involving non-doctors and other visiting dignitaries from all of their time in London. Structurally, narratively, the novel makes little sense, but the story is so powerful and the writing so excellent that instead of writing the book off as "bad" per se, I spent a long time trying to unravel why Achebe chose to tell it this way.

There are moments of pure grief in this novel. Acts of senseless violence, struggles that seem utterly relevant now, especially in light of what's happening in the Middle East and in Northern Africa. There's also an element of futility to the story, and the strength, the power in the continuation of life comes from the female characters. This was not something that went unnoticed by our book club -- we all really loved the character of Beatrice, and I even went so far as to suggest that I probably would have found the novel easier if the entire book was written from her point of view. But easy isn't the point, life itself isn't easy, and living in a nation that's having violent growing pains isn't a story that can be told in traditional ways. In a sense, Achebe's novel proves that our "canon," the Western tradition, isn't necessarily up to scratch when it comes to the complex and difficult "isms" surrounding the characters in this novel. I could think about it for weeks and not unpack it completely. And, if I were still in school, I think I'd be very happy to write a long, complex paper about it.

Kerry does an awesome job of recounting our discussion from the other night.

What's Up Next: I'm devouring The Elegance of the Hedgehog. It's delicious and delightful and utterly engaging. I'm almost through and I only started last night! And then I've got a long list of library books AND a beautiful friend who knows me so well sent me Roddy Doyle's latest book of short stories -- I couldn't resist, I've already read the first 5 pages and can't wait to read the rest. I adore him. So, I've abandoned Off the Shelf for now, but only because I needed a break. I was reading far, far too many mediocre books (with the exception of Julian Barnes, natch) and needed a breather. But I will go back. I am determined to read every single damn book that's perched there, just to say that I did. Stubborn, yes. I know.

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