Picks and Pans Review: Anthills of the Savannah

updated 03/21/1988 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 03/21/1988 AT 01:00 AM EST

by Chinua Achebe

After a silence of more than 20 years since his brazen novel A Man of the People, Nigerian author Achebe has written a book that asks the question: "What must a people do to appease an embittered history?" The answer Anthills seems to offer is "struggle." In this novel, history is metaphorically represented both by the story of the drought-stricken province of Abazon in a fictional African nation, and by a political struggle among friends. When the military leader of Kangan fails to win a statewide referendum making him ruler for life, he blames the loss on two former classmates, Chris Oriko, the commissioner for information, and Ikem Osodi, a poet and editor of the country's national newspaper. As information chief, Chris "owns all the words in this country—newspapers, radio and television stations"—but couldn't deliver Abazon's vote. Ikem, an influential native of the rebellious province, is guilty by association. For both men, the attempt to exonerate themselves is futile, even though they are in fact guiltless. Meanwhile, Achebe, in strokes that are at times too sweeping, renders an unsettling, ironic and provocative portrait of a dictator on the rise and a nation on the skids. Still there is hope, even compassion, in this strident novel. For example, a folk tale recited by an Abazon elder tells of a tortoise that, as it is about to be devoured by a leopard, throws sand all about to make it seem that at least it fought despite the odds. "That is all we are doing now," the old man tells an audience that has come to seek relief from the drought. "Struggling. Perhaps to no purpose except that those who come after us will be able to say: True, our fathers were defeated but they tried." Much of Anthills succeeds as a testament to such struggle, a testament to victims and to witnesses. (Achebe, of course, comes from a country with one of the most turbulent political histories in black Africa.) The only distraction—and that is slight—is that the novel's major characters are somehow less compelling than the situations they confront. (Doubleday, $16.95)

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