In Anthills of the Savannah, Chinua Achebe has depicted the social and political disorientation in the post-independence African society. He has portrayed a realistic picture of African society by utilizing various themes and tools of narrative strategies in Anthills of the Savannah.
What are Narrative Strategies?
“Narrative strategies are the techniques that writers utilize to tell the story”
The writers specifically use these techniques to write a story in an efficient manner that would appeal to the reader. The narrative strategies include plot, narrative structure, point of view, characterization, symbolism, flashbacks, imagery, stream of consciousness, diction etc.
All these strategies demonstrate how the writer has communicated his message to the audience. Chinua Achebe has used all the narrative strategies so proficiently in Anthills of the Savannah. Sometimes, the reader finds them more interesting than the content itself.
Narrative strategies in Anthills of the Savannah
Narrative strategies that are effectually and intricately used by the Chinua Achebe in Anthills of the Savannah are given below:
- Narrative Structure
Now let us discuss and analyze all the narrative strategies embedded in the construction of Anthills of the Savannah.
“Plot refers to the mechanics of storytelling — the way in which the events are arranged in the novel. It is the entire framework upon which the novel is built up”.
The novel tells us the story of three friends; namely Sam, Chris and Ikem torn between their friendship and political responsibilities in the fictional nation of Kangan. The has used a non-linear plot movement to tell the story. Initially the plot moves forward in sequence till chapter VII. Chapter VIII breaks the flow and loops back to the sixth chapter. Here Beatrice attends a private dinner party arranged by the President. Similarly, chapter IX takes us back to the third chapter where Ikem is going to the Presidential Palace. After the tenth chapter, the story returns back to chapter V where the main characters of the novel are in Mad Medico’s house. So, the novel shifts between present and past. This severely uneven plot sequence permits the reader to obtain a multi-dimensional viewpoint of the action.
Beginning, Middle and End
As the novel starts, we see that Achebe has provided no proper beginning to the novel. The novel opens as if in the middle of the action. The conversation between the President, Sam, and Minister of Information, Chris, is going on in a cabinet meeting. As the plot moves forward, the reader gets background information about the characters and the story. This proves Achebe’s skill of manipulating the plot as an effective narrative strategy to catch and interlock the reader’s interest.
The dramatic tension in the novel reaches up to its extreme level with Ikem’s assassination by the regime. Moreover, the novel reaches its climax with Sam’s downfall and Chris’s murder. After the climax comes denouement in the last chapter. Here Beatrice arranges a non-traditional naming ceremony for Elewa and Ikem’s child.
Among all the narrative strategies that Achebe employs in writing Anthills of the Savannah, the narrative structure is the most characteristic one.
“The narrative structure is a technique that writers employ to organize the story for conveying information in such a way that the readers get fully involved and attain understating of the matters in a comprehensive, intricate, and fascinating way”
Multiple Narrators of the Story
The novel on the whole consists of 18 chapters. The story is expressed from multiple view-points switching between 1st person and omniscient narrative techniques. The chapters are divided haphazardly between four narrating agents. They include three first-person narrators, Chris, Ikem, and Beatrice, and an omniscient narrator who controls the narration in the second part of the novel. Through this narrative technique, the writer has rejected a cyclopean view of things. He has given the readers a multi-dimensional view so that they can be able to see things from multiple angles. Through this narrative strategy, Achebe gives us subjective as well as objective views of things.
Chris narrates the first chapter of Anthills of the Savannah, entitled “First witness — Christopher Oriko’‘. In the next two chapters, an omniscient narrator’s voice replaces Chris’s narration. Moreover, In chapter IV, Ikem Osodi takes the charge from the omniscient narrator and brings into view his own demonstration. After that, Chris replaces Ikem’s narrative voice in chapter V. Beatrice narrates Chapter VI and after that the voice is solely of the omniscient narrator.
Protagonists as Untrustworthy Narrators
All the three first-person narrators have their own weaknesses which keep them from being a competent spokesperson for the African people.
Chris, the ‘first witness’ appears as an embodiment of coolness and detachment. He lacks interest in state affairs and the other things around him. It would be better if we call him an observer rather than a participant. This clearly disqualifies him from the category of a competent and trustworthy narrator in the novel.
The second ‘witness’ Ikem Osodi is an agitating narrator. He has a tendency to detach himself from what he talks about. He is passionate as well as problematic. At one point, he proclaims to be a defender of the deprived and the oppressed. While at another we see him in an argument with taxi drivers.
Beatrice, the last of the first-person narrators, possesses more authority than Chris and Ikem as a storyteller. But she is also disqualified from the category of a competent narrator because she also has some weaknesses. Simon Gikandi, in his book Reading Chinua Achebe: Language and Ideology in Fiction, highlights her lack of self knowledge in the following words:
“Beatrice’s knowledge and success as a student and government official has been achieved through the repression of the traditions and legends of her people. She is educated in schools which had no place for her bearers and the divinities with whom they had involved evolved. So, she comes to barely knowing who she was”.Gikandi, S. (1991). Reading Chinua Achebe: Language and Ideology in Fiction. James Currey Publishers.
Now there comes a big question in our mind about her, that is, If she is uprooted from her own tradition and culture, how can she be considered a competent storyteller for her own people?
The Omniscient Narrator
The omniscient narrator also flops to be an authentic narrator. This is because a trustworthy and competent narrator reserves himself from the events he is narrating. But the novel’s omniscient narrator continually amalgamates his voice with that of the characters. Let’s have a look at the omniscient narrator’s description of Ikem’s conflict with a taxi driver in chapter III of the novel:
“In all known such encounters in the past between taxi and private drivers the taxi always won, it’s a decisive weapon, the certainty that the owner-driver sooner concedes his place than risk a dent on his smooth, precious carapace. But today for the first time in the traffic history of this land, a taxi driver had met more than his match. This crazy owner-driver adversary failed altogether to live by the norms of his kind”.Achebe, C. (1987). Anthills of the Savannah. (2nd ed.). William Hienemann Ltd.
Though the above statement is the voice omniscient narrator, the spotlight here is actually Ikem. Hence, the narrative voice gets overlapped with that of the character.
Thus, the narrative technique in Anthills of the Savannah shows that Achebe rejects the notion of a single voice in narrating the stories of a nation. He prefers the story being told by numerous narrators rather than relying on a single one. In this way, Achebe conveys the message that Africa is the land of heterogeneous and multiple people characterized by notable differences and paradoxes instead of being homogenized into a single national voice.
Another narrative strategy utilized by Chinua Achebe in the writing of Anthills of the Savannah is a vibrant portrayal of the characters.
“Characterization refers to the development of the character throughout a story. A character may be round or flat. A flat character is a person who doesn’t change or develop throughout the course of a story while a round character is one that develops or undergoes a change in the text”
All the three major characters in the novel undergo a change from what they initially were and by doing so achieve emotional and psychological growth. This process of transformation is particularly profound in Chris.
At the beginning of the novel, we find Chris emotionally aloof from the national affairs. The main emotion that is noticeable in him is ‘pure, unadulterated indifference’. As the novel unfolds, however, he significantly comes out of his state of detachment when a series of incidents catapult him to openly object to injustice and tyranny. Though Ikem, Beatrice and Mad Medico frequently challenges his indifference but the turning point in his life is the assassination of Ikem. His defiance of Sam over Ikem’s matter proves that his self- established indifference has gone. Ikem’s murder finally opens his eyes to the corrupt nature of the regime he is serving.
Like Chris, Ikem Osodi also undergoes a drastic transformation and grows more and more radical in the course of the novel. At the beginning of the novel, though he is the battling editor of the National Gazette, yet he has a lot to learn. Despite his sympathy for the poor and oppressed, we see him wishing to get rid of his girlfriend, Elewa, in the middle of the night just because of his preference for being alone in his apartment. This incident bitterly unveils the selfishness of his character that doesn’t match with his assumed sympathy for the poor and needy. His crusading editorials vividly expose the intellectual egotism enclosed in the depths of his mind.
Beatrice’s participation in Ikem’s transformation
When Beatrice accuses Ikem of being gender prejudiced, he gets stunned. She tells him that, “he has no clear role for women in his political thinking”. This incident triggers a significant phase in his self-development. As he tells Beatrice, “your charge has forced me to sit down and contemplate the nature of oppression — how flexible it must learn to be, how many faces it must learn to wear if it is to succeed again and again”.
Role of Abazon Leader in Ikem’s Growth
Ikem’s further transforms when the delegates from Abazon, especially its leader, remind him of the special responsibilities imposed on writers as repositories of communal memory. After his suspension for writing an editorial on the delegation, Beatrice “had expected him to come in bristling with combativeness instead of which he seemed composed, even serene”. But the unusual calm with which he accepts his predicament clearly demonstrates his emotional as well as intellectual growth. His personal growth is further visible in his lecture at the University of Bassa. At that time, he pursues a more collaborative experience that he failed to get earlier. As he tells the audience gathered here, “Dialogues are infinitely more interesting than monologues”. Here it is clear that he first learns the things and then practically demonstrates them.
From the novel’s three main characters, it is Beatrice who undergoes an elongated journey to attain her real-self. Unlike Chris and Ikem, we find her being unaware of self-identity. As a result, she has to go through cultural, spiritual, emotional, and intellectual stages. She begins her journey of self-realization with the aim to resolve the problematic dualisms that overwhelm the various aspects of her life. As the novel goes on, she learns the hidden aspects of her personality previously curbed by Christianity and western education. Moreover, she re-establishes the connection with her tradition and answers the priestly calling.
By nature, we perceive Beatrice as a strong, peaceful and determined girl. In his first meeting with Beatrice, Chris describes her as “peaceful but very strong. Very, very strong”. With the course of the novel, this trait of her personality becomes much more remarkable. In the end when Chris and Ikem die, it is Beatrice who ensures that their memories will never fade. She also performs the naming ceremony of IKem and Elewa’s child, a ritual customarily performed by men only. Thus, at the end of her journey, she eventually becomes “a captain whose leadership was sharpened more and more by sensitivity to the peculiar needs of her company”.
Apart from these major characters, we also learn about Sam’s transformation. But his transformation is not like that of the other three main characters. It is neither healthy nor optimistic. The reader learns about his transformation from a friend into a brutal dictator by other characters.
Flashbacks are also one of the important narrative strategies that Achebe uses in the construction of Anthills of the Savannah.
“Flashback refers to a rapid and disturbing vivid memory of an event that actually occurred in the past”
Achebe makes copious use of flashbacks in telling the narrative. For instance, we learn about the childhood of Beatrice and her first meeting with Chris as well as her inquiry about Chris’s wife in a flashback in chapter IV. Similarly, in the same chapter, another flashback reveals Ikem’s realization of his gender prejudice after Beatrice accuses him of being “unclear and reactionary on the role of modern women in our society”.
Achebe further uses the flashback technique in Chapter VII when Beatrice retreats from the present and plunges into her personal history in order to explore the commonly acquired concerns focusing on the patriarchal evils and social conservatism. Hence, this narrative strategy enables the reader to get a more clear and wholesome view of the things.
Achebe also utilizes a literary strategy known as foreshadowing in Anthills of the Savannah. As the name suggests;
“It is a process through which the author creates dramatic tension in the text by hinting or suggesting that something is going to occur further along in the plot”
The disagreement of Chris in the very first chapter of the novel foreshadows his strong impending rebellion against Sam. In chapter IX, in the editorial conference, Ikem tells the story of his encounter with the traffic police. Here Ikem’s story foreshadows a sense of impending trouble. Beatrice’s strong-headedness and bravery foreshadow her leadership qualities that we perceive at the end of the novel. She is, undoubtedly, the one who carries the tradition further with a positive change. So, this narrative strategy gives a touch of suspense to the novel. The reader gets eager to know what will happen ahead in the novel.
Symbolism is a narrative strategy that enhances the writer’s aim of giving more than one meaning to the words or ideas.
“Symbols are objects, characters, figures or colors used to represent abstract ideas or concept”
Chinua Achebe has used the following symbols in narrating the story:
The Drought in Abazon
The drought in Abazon is symbolic. It symbolizes the lack of basic needs that are necessary for the survival of human beings. The people are deprived of their basic human rights and when they dare to raise their voice against the dictator’s inhuman act or don’t act in accordance with the demands of the dictator, they eventually become the target of his rage. This is because those who voice their opinion and criticize political regimes are seen as threats by the active government. Their obliteration becomes as inevitable as that of the rubble left by a terrible natural calamity in a country. Hence, the drought in Abazon symbolizes the denial of people’s basic fundamental social amenities at the hands of the dictator.
The Deaths of Chris, Ikem and Sam
The deaths occurring in the novel are also symbolic. Ikem’s death symbolizes that in a country ruled by a dictator, those who raise their voice against the cruel authorities by any means of communication are likely to be kept silent by force. The death of Chris has a religious connotation. According to the Christian belief, Jesus Christ died to save humanity from their sin. Similarly, we see that Chris also gives his life to save Adamma from the evil voluptuous nature of the police officer. In this sense, Chris becomes a symbol of the spiritual self of a man while Ikem symbolizes the physical and intellectual self.
On the other hand, Sam, the dictator, symbolizes the materialistic self of a man. By his death, the writer shows the demolition of brutal dictatorship and social unrest. His death further symbolizes the beginning of hope and peace after a long political and social disturbance. Thus, these characters represent the aspects of a single human being who possesses all these characteristics.
The New-born Baby
Elewa’s new born baby-girl at the end of the novel is a symbol of hope, optimism and rejuvenation not only for Beatrice and Elewa but also for the people of Kangan.
Multiple First-Person Narrative
Achebe’s adoption of multiple first-person narrative is symbolic in that it rejects the authority of a single person as being the spokesperson for the nation. Since he may have his weaknesses so how can he be the detached and just ruler. It also denies the post-independence government, composed of the British educated elite, the only voice of the nation.
Kangan symbolizes Africa itself. The whole political unrest and corruption that has vividly shown and criticized in the novel mirror symbolizes the incidents happening at that time in Nigeria.
Another narrative strategy that we find in Anthills of the Savannah is the stunning representation of imagery.
“Imagery refers to the visually descriptive or figurative language in a literary work”
Imagery of sun
The novel is replete with the imagery of Sun and water. In fact, the sun is a recurrent image. Achebe describes Sam’s sudden friendliness as “the fiery sun retires temporarily behind a cloud”. Ikem’s ‘Hymn to the Sun’ depicts the sun as an extension of divine retribution whose impact on the earth is disastrous. Both these attributes of the sun as an unchecked power as well as an environmental disaster assemble in the Abazon elder’s speech when he says, “all the water-bore holes they are digging in your area are to be closed so that you will know what it means to offend the Sun”.
Imagery of Water
Through the imagery of Sun, Achebe highlights the oppressive nature of dominant rulers, usually men, who have reverted from their actual role of giving life and instead are taking everything from the people of Africa.
Water is another prominent image in the novel. Frequently manifested as rainfall and rivers, the novel’s water imagery seems to pacify the severity of the Sun. Achebe displays Beatrice, the novel’s most redemptive character, as a priestess of Idemili, a lake goddess even though she is afraid of rain. Where the sun represents males, water symbolizes females in the novel.
The third major image in the novel is that of Darkness. Sometimes represented as night or as lack of vision, darkness is an existential reality prevailing the entire novel.
Anthills of the Savannah
The title of the novel is also symbolic. Anthills, the ant colonies, symbolize strength and protection. Just as the anthills are home for many ants, Kangan in the novel is the home of many Africans. If the people are determined, hardworking, and committed to the welfare of their home (just like ants), they will eventually build anthills where they will remain safe and secure for a long time.
Diction or Word Choice
The forceful diction of the novel is one of the sticking narrative strategies that Achebe uses to enhance the message of the novel.
“Diction is defined as the selection and utilization of words, phrases and proverbs in a literary work”
The novel’s diction abounds with the standard English, Pidgin English and African words, phrases and proverbs.
Pidgin English is a local African English. It is English which local people of Nigeria acquired during colonization from the British. It is not proper standard English but a kind of imitation of British English. In the novel, this English serves as a strong cultural and class semiotic. While standard English is the language of educated people and elite class in the novel, Pidgin English is spoken by taxi drivers, house-maids, cooks, police and those people whose social status is supposed to be lower than that of the educated or by those who are illiterate.
Pidgin English is also used by educated people to facilitate communication. For instance, Beatrice, who has received European education and is therefore able to speak standard English, uses Pidgin when communicating with her cook and Elewa, an uneducated girl. The novel’s diction shows Achebe’s genuine expertise in crafting English, an imperialistic language, to mirror African realities.
African words, Phrases & Proverbs
Achebe’s abundant use of African words, phrases and proverbs in the novel shows his sense of self-pride and appreciation of his own Native Culture. By using African proverbs in the novel, Achebe is breaking the western boundaries, and hence, giving the novel the sole authority of expanding African tradition through western literary medium.
According to Achebe, the nation’s valuable assets are not those who loathe traditions and blindly worship foreign culture, but those who inherit and disseminate traditional customs and values. Through the use of traditional proverbs by the Abazon leader, he shows his readers that before colonization they used to enjoy a rich culture. On the contrary, the Kangan rulers rarely use African proverbs as they are all western-educated and they esteem western culture much more than they do their own culture. Through the Abazon elder, Achebe clearly proclaims the worth of the storyteller in the edifice of a nation and a national identity. Good storytellers, according to Achebe, are those who can draw on the traditional African beliefs abound in proverbs.
All the narrative strategies that Achebe uses in Anthills of the Savannah play an important role in the novel. The novel, on the whole, revolves around the fact that when people become alienated from their own culture and tradition they lose their orientation and are left to stray in the land where there is supreme unjust authority. Thus, Achebe has depicted the power of ordinary people in the contribution of African society through the use of various narrative strategies in Anthills of the Savannah.