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April 27, 2011

The Vicious Circle reads: Anthills of the Savannah by Chinua Achebe

We were concerned that Chinua Achebe’s Anthills of the Savannah might have broken The Vicious Circle Book Club. We speculated at links between the book’s difficulty, our historically low turn-out, and that the majority of us present hadn’t managed to get to the end. “I made the mistake,” said one of us, “of judging the book by its page count.” 216 pages had seemed like a breeze to those of us who read as easily as we walk, until we tried to actually read them. Things Fall Apart this book was not: the text was dense, full of rambling parables, conversations in which speakers were not located, narration that shifted between characters’ points of view and omniscience, the plot (and there really was one) was obfuscated, and those of us who’d finished the book were still confused.

But of course Chinua Achebe is not in the habit of writing bad books, and we reasoned that there was method in his method. How do we approach it? Were we failing to give the novel credit for its roots in an oral tradition? Were we slighting the novel for failing to impose the narrative shape dictated by the Western canon? Also, we reasoned, this was probably just not a great book club book– not to be read once breezily and discussed over wine (and here we discover a book club’s limitation, we imagine). What were we ever do with it?

Things we discussed: that page 40 really was the gateway to the book’s readability; that Elewa’s miraculous sexual position was implausible (or perhaps Elewa was particularly spry); that we liked the characters a lot; we cleared up what had happened between Beatrice and Sam at the party; that we liked the scene at the public execution; and we really liked Beatrice’s character. We spoiled the ending too. And suspected that the book’s haphazard structure is a statement about the perilous nature of any political structure in a dictatorship. We talked  how this book corresponds with current events in North Africa and the Middle East. We compared Sam to Hosni Mubarak. The ideas of dictatorships– one characters statement that if Kangan had at least been a real dictatorship, then things actually might have got done. And the inevitability of what befalls the main characters in the end– that they were tragic heroes. But then the obfuscated plot plays out strangely against that inevitability of fate. In another form, this book could have been a John LaCarre novel.

Then we talked about how the book outwardly suggested that race was no longer an issue in the nation of Kangan, but inwardly was saying otherwise– that the post-colonial government had merely appropriated colonial structures. That the powerful characters were all powerful due to their colonial ties and Western education. That the book is also about class, religion, and sex. About the way that women are left to pick up the pieces in the end, Ikem’s revelation about women being the last resort, but how the last resort is always too late. (And his ideas about an embracing of contradiction being the beginning of true strength). And inevitability again– women are left to pick up the pieces here, but there are signs of change. The new baby who is named not by the patriarch, and who is given a boy’s name even though she is a girl. And then how everybody celebrates by singing the maid’s religious song, which none of us got our heads around, but alas.

So we were relieved to discover that The Vicious Circle wasn’t broken after all, and that there is a lot a book club can do with a book like this. That all of us came away with a deeper understanding of the novel due to insights from other readers, with this puzzle of a book closer to being solved. And then we drank more wine, and ate more lasagna, and some of us today are sorry that we didn’t help ourselves to a second slice of chocolate cake.

One thought on “The Vicious Circle reads: Anthills of the Savannah by Chinua Achebe”

  1. ifeanyi chukwurah says:

    Untill the westerner world starts seeing the african literature by attempting to see through the writers eyes,then alot will be learn from africa.

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