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The Politics of Interpretation: The Novels of Chinua Achebe

Kofi Owusu

MFS Modern Fiction Studies, Volume 37, Number 3, Fall 1991, pp. 459-470
(Article)

Published by Johns Hopkins University Press


DOI: https://doi.org/10.1353/mfs.0.0668

For additional information about this article


https://muse.jhu.edu/article/243384

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ESSAYS ON CHINUA ACHEBE
THE POLITICS OF INTERPRETATION:
THE NOVELS OF CHINUA ACHEBE

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Kofi Owusu

With varying degrees of emphasis, all of Chinua Achebe's novels to


date explore the use and abuse of power by those who wield it. In Things
Fall Apart, for example, Okonkwo exercises absolute power in his household
through a combination of implacable will and brute force. It is both ironic
and psychologically convincing that the tyrant at home finds the impact
of the white man's religion and military power sufficiently oppressive and
disruptive of traditional norms to make him want to take up arms to defend
himself and his clan. The protagonist who will not bend is, in the end,
broken by antagonistic forces far greater than he. Okonkwo's grandson,
Obi, faces different choices and challenges in No Longer at Ease. On the
eve of Nigeria's political independence, Obi finds himself thrust into a
position of power and responsibility. He is a member of the new elite,
senior Civil Servants who are taking over positions hitherto reserved for
Europeans. Will Obi abuse his newly-acquired power? Will he, for
example, take advantage of a young woman before recommending her
to the Scholarship Board? Is he going to take bribes for services rendered?
These are some of the questions that engage the reader's attention as
Obi's story unfolds.

Modern Fiction Studies, Volume 37, Number 3, Autumn 1991. Copyright by Purdue Research Founda-
tion. All rights to reproduction in any form reserved.

459
In the opening chapter of Achebe's third novel, Arrow of God, we find
the Chief Priest, Ezeulu, considering "the immensity of his power over
the years and the crops and, therefore, over the people [of Umuaro]"
(3). When the Chief Priest tests the limits of that power, he learns that
"no man however great [is] greater than his people" (230). The abuse
of a people's trust and the misuse of power lead to a coup in the next
novel, A Man of the People. And in his latest novel, Anthills of the Savannah,
Achebe suggests that postcolonial military dictatorships have the unen-
viable reputation for institutionalizing the abuse of power. Thus far, I
have been treading on familiar ground. References to the downfall of a
proud man (Okonkwo), a corruptible Civil Servant (Obi), a headstrong
Chief Priest (Ezeulu), a demagogue (Nanga), or a dictator (His Excellency)
feature prominently in books and essays on Achebe's "understanding of
the complexity of historical processes" (Ravenscroft, qtd. in McEwan 31),
his "theme . . . of tradition versus change" (Palmer 64), "the vivid pic-
ture" the novelist is said to provide "of I[g]bo society" (Carroll 36), and
the sensitive artist's indictment of postcolonial excesses. This paper focuses
attention on what has not always been obvious to criticsthat Achebe's
concern with the question of power, his fascination with both tradition
and change, and his rendition of religious and cultural conflicts have never
been divorced from his keen interest in the politics of literary interpreta-
tion. We note, in this connection, that Achebe's interest in interpretation
is shared by the older generation of African writers (like WoIe Soyinka,
with particular reference to The Interpreters) as well as the younger genera-
tion (like Ben Okri, author of The Landscapes Within).
A dramatic confrontation in the Twenty-Second chapter of Things Fall
Apart yields inferences that are relevant to our discussion. At an annual
ceremony held in honor of the earth goddess, Enoch, an overzealous con-
vert to the Christian faith, commits "one of the greatest crimes a man
could commit" against the clan, namely, "to unmask an egwugwu [a titl-
ed elder who impersonates an ancestral spirit] in public" (171). Having
reduced Enoch's "compound ... to a desolate heap" (173), a group of
egwugwu proceeds to the church to confront the Reverend James Smith
and his interpreter, Okeke:
Ajofia . . . the leading egwugwu of Umuofia . . . addressed Mr. Smith . . .
"Tell the white man that we will not do him any harm," he said to the
interpreter. . . . "But this shrine which he built must be destroyed. ... It has
bred untold abominations and we have come to put an end to it. . . ."
Mr. Smith said to his interpreter: "Tell them to go away from here. This
is the house of God and I will not live to see it desecrated."
Okeke interpreted wisely to the . . . leaders of Umuofia: "The white man
says he is happy you have come to him with your grievances, like friends. He
will be happy if you leave the matter in his hands." (174-175)

The egwugwu do not "leave the matter in [Mr. Smith's] hands"; they
destroy his church. Critics of African literature have reminded us again
460 MODERN FICTION STUDIES
and again that such incidents bring cultural and religious conflicts to a
head, but literary criticism should and need not end (t)here.
Achebe utilizes the missionary's exploration of uncharted territory as
a metaphor for his own attempt to write a different kind of fiction. Both
the missionary and the novelist rely on the mediation of interpreters and
count on their audience's willful suspension of disbelief. In the missionary's
encounter with the egwugwu, we learn that Okeke's role as interpreter
is seen in terms of a mediator and a text-maker. Okeke does not just
translate; he interprets "wisely," and his wise interpretation creates a
secondary text very much his own. The text of the missionary, James
Smith, is what Okeke, the interpreter, says it is. Indeed, without the in-
terpreter's secondary text, the primary text of either the egwugwu or
Reverend Smith is mute. It is also implied that the interpreter's media-
tion saves the Reverend from paying too high a price for his candor.
Intertwining the surface details of what we have come to refer to routinely
as cultural and religious conflicts in the Achebe world is a barely disguised
drama in which the missionary, whose faith enjoins him to believe what
he has not seen, plays the part of a writer of imaginative literature, the
interpreter plays his namesake, the critic, while the candidate for conver-
sion assumes the role of reader. It has always been clear to Achebe that
what is called "literature," what gets taught in literature courses the world
over, is fundamentally what criticsthe privileged community of interpre-
terscare to sponsor. Equally aware of the sort of criticism accorded
African writers,1 Achebe had hoped that critics of his first novel and of
the subsequent ones would not take their cue from a colonial District
Commissioner's anthropological interest in "primitive tribes."
In the concluding chapter of Things Fall Apart, the District
Commissioner and his entourage are led by Obierika to "the tree from
which Okonkwo's body was dangling":
"Perhaps your men can help us bring him down and bury him," said
Obierika. . . .
The District Commissioner changed instantaneously. The resolute ad-
ministrator in him gave way to the student of primitive customs.
"Why can't you take him down yourselves?" he asked.
"It is against our custom," said one of the men. (190)

The pages of African literature criticism are, unfortunately, littered with


instantaneous transformations from "resolute [critics] . . . to . . . student[s]
of primitive customs." Significantly, the fictional District Commissioner
plans on writing a book:
Every day brought him some new material. The story of this man [Okonkwo]
who had killed a messenger and hanged himself would make interesting reading.

'"We are not opposed to criticism," writes Achebe in Morning Yet On Creation Day,
' 'but we are getting a little weary of . . . the special types of criticism which have been
designed for us by people whose knowledge of us is very limited" (61).
OWUSU 461
One could . . . write a whole chapter on him. . . . He had already chosen the
title of the book, after much thought: The Pacification of the Primitive Tribes of the
Lower Niger. (191)
And with that Achebe concludes Things Fall Apart. This first novel, then,
anticipates a book that arises out of the novel and, in part, retraces the
novel's storyline ("a whole chapter" could be written on Okonkwo). But
this book's journalistic mode ("every day brought [the author] some new
material"), pronounced anthropological bias (the author is a "student
of primitive customs"), viewpoint, and proprietary air ("The Pacification
of Primitive Tribes . . .") are at odds with Achebe's (re)creation of Igbo
society. The District Commissioner is prone to falsifying events he hardly
understands, while Achebe provides the illusion of reality carefully studied.
In this way, the novelist incorporates into his action and plot, first, what
Things Fall Apart is not and, second, the mistaken readings it can do without.
The implications of the foregoing for the interpretation of Achebe's
and, by extension, Africanfiction are brought to the fore in the second
novel.
In No Longer at Ease, Achebe presents the reader with a portrait of
the critic as a student of literature. Brought up on Shakespeare and T.
S. Eliot (2O)2 among others, Obi is a graduate in English who read
"Conrad . . . for his degree" (103). He feels extremely comfortable talk-
ing to the Chairman of the Public Service Commission on "modern
poetry," "the modern novel," and, specifically, on novelists ranging "from
Graham Greene to Tutuola" (42-43). It is not surprising, therefore, that
Obi brings the sensibility of a student of literature to bear on the action
of No Longer At Ease. When the traders with whom Obi is traveling to
Umuofia

burst into song again . . . Obi . . . tried to translate it into English, and for the
first time its real meaning dawned on him. . . .

2Achebe goes to great lengths to suggest that his protagonist, Obi, functions within
a literary (con)text. The novel's title and epigraph are taken from T. S. Eliot's "The Journey
of the Magi": "We returned to our places, these Kingdoms, / But no longer at ease here,
in the old dispensation. . . ." ([6]). Obi is cast in the mold of a Magi-figure singled out
of the privileged "caste" of aspiring scholars from the EastEastern Nigeria, that isto
undertake a journey to the West and return bearing the gift of education for Nigeria, the
infant-nation. Obi also feels a certain emotional affinity with Shakespeare's Hamlet. When
he asks the rhetorical question "What was Hitler to me or I to Hitler?" (41), he provides
a variation on Hamlet's "What's Hecuba to him, or he to Hecuba, / That he should weep
for her?" {Hamlet II.ii. 752). Hamlet and Obi both feel "no longer at ease" in societies
that are corrupt and corrupting. Thus, Achebe, the novelist-as-teacher, "teaches" the reader
that Okonkwo's grandson, Obi, may be recognizable on the pavements of the Lagos of
the 1950s, but he belongs primarily to literature. For a discussion of how Hamlet's functional
madness can be related to Ayi Kwei Armah's craft, see my "Armah's F-R-A-G-M-E-N-T-S."

462 MODERN FICTION STUDIES


On the face of it there was no kind of logic or meaning [to] the song. But
as Obi turned it round and round in his mind, he was struck by the wealth of
association that even such a [seemingly] mediocre song could have. ... In short
. . . , thought Obi, the burden of the song was "the world turned upside down."
He was pleased with his exegesis and began to search in his mind for other songs
that could be given the same treatment. (49-50)
"The wealth of association," "the burden of the song," and "exegesis"
belong to the register of critical discourse. The simple diction and struc-
ture of the traders' song, like those o- No Longer at Ease, are, upon closer
examination, anything but "mediocre." In both song (intratext) and novel
(metatext), careful reading (turning them "round and round in [one's]
mind") is rewarded with a better-than-usual appreciation of "logic,"
"meaning," and "wealth of association."
Obi's education and orientation force him to attempt to "examine
critically . . . the mainspring of his actions" (146; emphasis added) and
enable him to experience the aesthetic pleasure that comes with being
"struck by the wealth of association" that what, on the surface, seems
to be no more than "a mediocre song," could have. No Longer at Ease
suggests that the critic who examines the action of Achebe's texts "critical-
ly" and more often than Obi does "the mainspring of his actions" would,
"in doing so, . . . [uncover] a good deal" (146) beyond the author's well-
documented accessibility and deceptive simplicity.
It seems to me that when critics and reviewers of Achebe's first two
novels opted for anthropological reductionism at the expense of literary
criticism, they were, in effect, contributing to the serialized publication
of The Pacification of the Primitive Tribes of the Lower Niger. Indeed, by the
time we got to Arrow of God, The Pacification of the Primitive Tribes . . . had
already been "published" in book form and was being passed from reader
to reader. Since this book is anything but criticism, it is appropriately
issued in the fictional world of Achebe's third novel: "Tony Clarke . . .
was now reading the final chapter of The Pacification of the Primitive Tribes
of the Lower Niger, by George Allen, which Captain Winterbottom had
lent him" (32).
In his fourth novel, A Man of the People, Achebe substitutes the omni-
scient third-person narrator of the preceding novels with the limited point
of view of a youthful and fallible narrator. Odili Samalu, the narrator,
is an idealist who fails to live up to his idealism. The author's narrative
technique allows for the interplay of different, even conflicting, viewpoints.
Since conflicting opinions are made to reflect conflicting interests and
ideologies, the violent overthrow of the government in power is set in
motion by activating circumstances integral to the novel's plot. But the
illusion of reality has been read as reality itself and the coup at the end
of A Man of the People, in particular, is usually interpreted as Mr. Chinua
Achebe's direct intervention in the ongoing political affairs of Nigeria, West

OWUSU 463
Africa. Depending on one's affiliations, Achebe is seen either as a prophet
of doom or a subversive political commentator. The novelist is discussed
in terms that make him anything but a novelist.3 Against such a
background, the need to reread and relearn Achebe appears to me to
be both necessary and overdue. In the rest of this paper, I will argue
that Anthills of the Savannah is a timely novel that facilitates the twin processes
of rereading and relearning Achebe.
Chinua Achebe returns to the question of power in his latest novel.
Nuruddin Farah, for example, sees a special link between A Man of the
People and Anthills of the Savannah. He says of the latter novel that we are
"back to where the story of A Man of the People was interrupted, in 1966,
by the army takeover of power in Nigeria. Only we are not in Nigeria,
but in a fictitious country called Kangan Republic" (1828). The minor
issue as to whether there is much, if anything, to choose between the
fictional "Nigeria" of A Man of the People and the equally fictional "Kangan
Republic" in Anthills need not detain us, but the suggestion that Anthills
takes us "back to where the story of A Man of the People was interrupted"
certainly needs qualification. The reader learns from Anthills that there
had been "nine years of civilian administration" (135) before Sam, the
Army Commander and current head of state, came to power through
a coup. In fact, at the beginning of the novel we are already three years
into Sam'sHis Excellency'srule. We learn through flashback that a

3"Sometimes," Achebe admits, "I want to say things and I can't wait until I've written
340 pages of fiction. The novel can deal with the direct statement, but I think it is better
to deal with it in essays. Many novelists . . . have come to this decision" (Moss 1677).
In The Trouble With Nigeria, Achebe makes his "direct statements]" about Nigeria in non-
fictional prose at once lucid and passionate: "The trouble with Nigeria is simply and squarely
a failure of leadership. . . . What I am saying is that Nigeria is not beyond change. I am
saying that Nigeria can change ... if she discovers leaders who have . . . ability and . . .
vision" (1). "What I am saying" underlines the mode of "direct statement." The "I"
is Achebe the essayist, the political commentator. Achebe, the novelist, allows himself the
luxury of ambiguity. This, for example, is how "the trouble with Nigeria" is handled in
A Man of the People:
We ignore man's basic nature if we say . . . that because a man like Nanga has risen over-
night from poverty and insignificance to his present opulence he could be persuaded without
much trouble to give it up . . . and return to his original state.
A man who has just come in from the rain and dried his body and put on dry clothes
is more reluctant to go out again than another who has been indoors all the time. The trouble
with our new nation . . . was that none of us had been indoors long enough to be able to
say "To hell with it." We had all been in the rain together until yesterday. Then a handful
of usthe smart and the lucky and hardly ever the besthad scrambled for the one shelter
our former rulers left, and had taken it over and barricaded themselves in. (34; emphasis added)
Here, in fiction, "the trouble with Nigeria," "our new nation," is rooted in "man's basic
nature" and compounded by chance ("the lucky and hardly ever the best . . ."). In this
way, a new nation's troubles are universalized. By the same token, an individual's problem
begins to have implications for every (wo)man who has "just come in from the [metaphoric
or symbolic] rain."

464 MODERN FICTION STUDIES


year after the coup, which translates into a couple of years before the
novel's chronological beginning, the head of state had asked that he be
elected President-For-Life in a popular referendum. To His Excellency's
chagrin, Abazn, one of the provinces of the republic, voted "No." What
Achebe does in Anthills, then, is to refer to a symbolic twelve-year time
span (nine years of civilian government followed by three years of military
rule), dramatize the incompetence of His Excellency's clownish twelve-
man cabinet, and focus attention on "the uneasy calm of the past twelve
months ... at last . . . speeding to a close" (150). Particular attention
is paid to the four-month period, August to November, during which
unease in the four Kangan provinces reaches dangerous proportions. The
stormy omen of Augustthis month is characterized by "a huge unseasonal
tropical storm" (85; my emphasis)foreshadows "the bloody events of
November" (202). And this anomic chain of events culminates in yet
another coup, engineered by General Ahmed Lango, in the novel's
penultimate chapter. "Penultimate chapter" recalls penultimate month
of the year ("the bloody events of November"): at this stage both the
year and the action of the novel are "speeding to a close." The novel's
concluding chapter is devoted to a child's naming ceremony. And so the
story of the new coup-leader's (mis)rule, like that of the military regime
at the end of A Man of the People, remains to be told. But Achebe suggests
that the particulars of either story can be deduced from His Excellency's
reign of terror. Through His Excellency's dictatorship, Achebe paints a
picture of the consequences of a coupany couplike Sam's, Ahmed
Lango's or the one in A Man of the People that turns out to be little more
than "another self-serving act in [a] continuing drama of pain and misery"
(Owusu, "Writers" 882).
There are probably as many perspectives on the story of pre- and
postcolonial Africa as there are storytellers and interpreters, but there are
no substitutes for good storytelling and responsible criticism. In dealing
with such issues, Achebe draws inspiration from "the bearded old man,"
an accomplished storyteller who represents the voice of tradition in Anthills:
"the power of his utterance," we are told, "[holds] everyone captive from
his very first words" (112). This old man shares his experience and in-
sights with aspiring storytellers and interpreters:

"Does the blind man own his escort? No, neither do we the story; rather it is
the story that owns us and directs us. . . ."
"So the arrogant fool who sits astride the story as though it were a bowl
of foo-foo set before him . . . understands little about the world. The story will
. . . swallow him first. ..."

"When we are young and without experience we all imagine that the story
of the land is easy [to tell], that every one of us can get up and tell it ... .
True, we all have our little scraps of tale bubbling in us. But what we tell is
like the middle of a mighty boa which a foolish forester mistakes for a tree trunk
and settles upon it to take his snuff." (114)
OWUSU 465
We note that the old man's account of the story and its telling merges
with a critique of the storyteller and storytelling. The storyteller or novelist
who, like an "arrogant fool," "sits astride [his] story," is being taught
to do better. The "forester" who mistakes "the middle of a mighty boa
. . . for a tree trunk" represents a novelist or critic who is both inex-
perienced and presumptuous. When a critic like John Callahan notes that
"[e]veryone has ... a story to tell, but not necessarily a narrative to
write[;] [t]he last depends on craft" (182), he echoes the old man's con-
tention that not everyone, certainly not the young and inexperienced, "can
get up and tell" "the story of the land." What the old man calls "ex-
perience" complements what Callahan refers to as "craft." Thus, when
Achebe charges his narrative with the old man's eloquence, he "reoralizes
the written word with the . . . immediacy of oral story-telling" (Callahan
190). The novelist, in effect, "declares allegiance to both language and
action, and calls for collaboration between writer, narrator, and reader,
between oral and literary techniques and traditions, between performance
and composition" (Callahan 184).
The "collaboration between writer, narrator, and reader, between
oral and literary techniques and traditions," is observable in Achebe's
novels since Things Fall Apart. We recall how in No Longer at Ease, for
example, a local song is made, first, to carry "the burden" of the novel's
concerns and, second, to sensitize readers to the novel's "wealth of associa-
tion." Twenty-seven years later, in Anthills, we observe how a traditional
storyteller's account and critique of storytelling bristle with apposite im-
plications for our appreciation of Achebe's novels. Moreover, the interplay
between the old man's (intra)text and Achebe's (meta)text demonstrates
the "collaboration between . . . oral and literary techniques and tradi-
tions" in an effort to remind the reader that fiction is, after all, a tissue
of "lies" given apparent reality by the manner of presentation ("the tell-
ing").4 The old man invokes Agwu, the local tutelary spirit of artists, the
better to make the point that the gifted storytellerAgwu's "disciple"
(115)is always conscious of the fictionality of his fiction and the supreme
importance of "the telling." Such a storyteller

4Contrary to popular assumption, traditional storytellers in African societies are very


much interested in how a story is told. In most cases, the actual details (the what) of a given
cycle of stories are commonly known. In each instance of retelling, then, it is not what
a story is about, but the manner of presentation that sustains the audience's interest. To the
initiated storyteller among the Akan-speaking people of Ghana, for example, "storytelling"
is understood as a conjunction of the story and the telling with the former realizedliterally, given
the illusion of realityby the latter. Artistry in the narration of stories is as highly regarded
in Akan society as "the art of conversation" (TFA, 5; my emphasis) is in Okonkwo's society.
466 MODERN FICTION STUDIES
"is the liar who can sit under his thatch and see the moon hanging in the sky
outside .... His . . . eye will see every blow in a battle he never fought. So
fully is he owned by the telling that sometimes ... he will turn the marks left
on him by the chicken-pox and yaws he suffered in childhood into bullet scars . . . ."
"But the lies of [storytellers] . . . are lies that do no harm to anyone. They
float on . . . top of [the] story like the white bubbling at the pot-mouth of new
palm-wine. The true juice of the tree lies coiled up inside, waiting to strike."
(115; emphasis added)

In the weaving and interweaving of tissues of "lies" into a composite


text, the storyteller (the old man), like the novelist (Achebe), wins over
and sustains the listening or reading audience's interest through the tell-
ing, through, ultimately, how the story is told. Indeed, the telling may be
so compelling that the surface details of the fictionlike cultural and
religious conflict, coups, and so oncould, like "new palm-wine," have
an intoxicating effect on the average reader. Beyond those surface details
of topical interest, however, the "true juice of the [story] lies coiled up
inside, waiting to" yield its essence to the careful reader.
If Achebe taps into local tradition to underline how stories are told,
it is partly because he is interested in a balance that is consistently upset
in criticism. A couple of the curious developments in the interpretation
of the African novel to date are some critics' insistence on amputating
the how (form, style) from the what (content, substance) and privileging
the latter. Achebe has always had "a problem [with] drawing a line be-
tween form and content." "I don't think," he reminds us, "[that] you
can alter the content without altering the form" (in Egejuru, 106). This
point is important enough to be reiterated in Anthills: the novelist
dramatizes the inseparability of "style" and "substance" through the rela-
tionship between Ikem Osodi and Christopher Oriko.
As editor of the Gazette, Ikem brings a different style to bear on a
position that had been held by Chris. The latter reminds us that "there
is nothing concrete on which Ikem and I quarrel. What divides us is style
not substance. And that is absolutely unbridgeable" (108). The reader
learns soon enough that the supposed "unbridgeable" division between
style and substance is "strange," "silly," "futile," and "fanatical" (108).
Christopher Oriko recalls the late Christopher Okigbo. As Chris lay
dying on "the wild scrubland" of south Abazn, his young friend
Emmanuel cries " 'Please, sir, don't go!' . . . tears pouring down his
face" (200). That is fiction. In reality, Achebe notes in "Don't Let Him
Die: A Tribute to Christopher Okigbo" how he heard the announcement
of Okigbo's death on the radio while he was driving from Enugu to Ogidi.
"When I finally got . . . home and told my family," he writes, "my
three-year-old son screamed: 'Daddy, don't let him die!' He and
Christopher had been special pals" (116). "Please, sir, don't go!" is a
fictional variation on young Achebe's "Daddy, don't let him die!"
Christopher Okigbo is to the author's son what Christopher Oriko is to
OWUSU 467
Emmanuel. But we need to remind ourselves that Okigbo was a poet
who died in pursuit of his sociopolitical beliefs. As poet-activist, Ikem
Osodi reminds us of Christopher Okigbo's vocation. Described in Anthills
as "a fine journalist," and "an even finer poet, . . . one of the finest
in the entire English language" (56-57), Ikem's commitment to his
sociopolitical vision demands of him the ultimate sacrificehis life.
Together, Christopher Oriko and Ikem Osodi personify different aspects
of the late Christopher Okigbo. The appearance of contradiction ("what
divides us is style not substance") is related to, and resolved in, the com-
plex character of a poet-activist-ancestor who admitted to having multiple
"selves." (In Morning Yet on Creation Day, Achebe quotes Okigbo as say-
ing " 'when I talk of looking inward ... I mean turning inward to
examine myselves' " [37; my emphasis].) Chris and Ikem are as much two
sides of the same person as style and substance are two sides of the same coin.
Anthills invites us to reread Achebe and the African novel to advan-
tage. It also suggests that the African woman should no longer be
marginalized in African writing. In an interview with Anna Rutherford,
Achebe draws attention to "radical new thinking" that he thinks is
necessary "in designing . . . [women's] new role" (4). To be sure, Achebe,
like most African male writers, has always dealt with "the woman issue,"
but what is discussed usually turns out to be a disembodied female essence
or principle that has little to do with women of flesh and blood, of mind
and voice. Things Fall Apart, for example, is a three-part novel that begins
and ends in Umuofia, the "fatherland." The intervening second part that
structurally holds the two other parts in place is set in Mbanta, the
"motherland." When Okonkwo commits "a crime against the earth god-
dess," he is banished to his motherland to learn to be humane so that
he can be wholly human. In this instance, as in other cases, "motherland"
and "earth goddess" tell us nothing about the lives, fears, hopes, and
aspirations of the African woman.
Achebe's "radical new thinking" on women is evident in Anthills.
Beatrice Okoh's role in this novel provides an ironic commentary on the
name that she is given at baptism, "NwanyibuifeA female is also
something" (79). Beatrice's passionate resentment of that name "[e]ven
as a child" is very much in character. The child turns out to be a latter-
day female graduate in English who is as dynamic, intelligent, honest,
self-supporting, and conscious of, as well as secure in, her identity as
her male predecessor in No Longer at Ease, Obi, is dull, corruptible, depen-
dent, and confused about his identity. Beatrice's leadership qualities and
resilience in the face of formidable odds are demonstrated when she loses
her friend, Ikem, and later her lover, Chris.
The naming ceremony for Elewa's (and the late Ikem's) daughter
is held in Beatrice Okoh's flat, and, contrary to the dictates of tradition,
it is Beatrice who presides over the ceremony and names the child:

468 MODERN FICTION STUDIES


"In our traditional society," [said] Beatrice, "the father named the child.
But the man who should have done it today is absent. . . . What does a man
know about a child anyway that he should presume to give it a name[?]" ....
"So I think our tradition is faulty here. It is really safest to ask the mother what
her child is or means or should be called. So Elewa should really be holding Ama
and telling us what she is." (206)
Beatrice's actions and comments exemplify "radical new thinking," the
baby girl with "a boy's name" "Amaechina . . . Ama for short"
(206)symbolizes a new beginning, and the bonding between Beatrice,
Elewa and Ama(echina) provides the focal point, for a new type of collec-
tive hero(ine) described as "All of Us" (211). In addition to the baby
girl, then, something "Beautiful" (216) is born at the end o- Anthills of
the Savannah.
This paper suggests that Achebe criticism and, by implication, criticism
of the African novel, demand reappraisal. If "radical new thinking" in-
forms the twin processes of rereading and relearning Achebe and the
African novel, then we will have simultaneously laid the foundation for
a better appreciation of African literature and set the stage for redefining
the role of women in that literature.

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