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Chinua Achebe’s Anthills of the Savannah is a giant of the late eighties – nominated for the 1987 Booker Prize, it is a combination of several unflinching portraits of humanity and a demonstration of a power as a powder keg at a dangerously national scale. From coups to midnight getaways, it’s a landscape filled with tension, high-stakes drama and even a series of uncomfortable allusions to getting maimed by a stapler.
Set in the imaginary West African nation of Kangan, Anthills neatlyrides the boundary between alternative or subjunctive history and mainstream literary fiction. It explores the nature of setting long before the author ever describes any of its cities or wildernesses. And Kangan is interesting when we consider its makeup- and that interest is largely related to how it’s made up.
Many writers operate within idealised, even sometimes fictionalised versions of their localities: often, they’ll seek to immortalise their green spaces, wild hollows and childhood haunts in a way that grants them a longevity that modernity rarely seems to allow. Other times it may be the opposite, and they’ll create their fictions within a grimy shadowland rife with death and decay. It’s a natural idea, to set one’s work within a landscape that one understands intimately; equal parts homage and homecoming. We might look to Joyce’s Dublin, for example, the London of Sherlock Holmes, the looming legendarium of Oxford in everything from Brideshead Revisited to Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials. More rurally we’d think Houseman’s Shropshire, or perhaps Wordsworth’s lakes. These are landscapes we might find on maps, however fictionalised the narratives they appear in might be. Kangan, however, is different.
Kangan is a paracosm. It appears on no maps save for those that exist within its pages. Technically, Kangan is a heterocosm, a paracosm created for publication as opposed to part of childhood fantasy and make-believe, but it is a kind of paracosm nonetheless. It is something arcane and imagined, distant from reality, and has its own set of rules and inferences that mark it out as distinct from many normal narratives of setting.
The paracosm is an altogether different beast from the usual written landscape: it replaces or at least, obfuscates, real-world localities with a sense of the fictional. There have been famous ones- Emily and Anne Bronte’s islands of Gaaldine and Gondal where their melancholy fey flit across the moors, Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast novels, where ancient regimes are tumbled by disenfranchised kitchen-boys, and perhaps, most prominently, Thomas Hardy’s Wessex, where the pastoral anguish of living appears perfectly preserved between the green hills and little valleys of somewhere not wholly unlike the West Country. The paracosm is a created landscape, somewhere that requires its own gazetteer in the form of a fictionalised narrative, fleshed-out and real with books, customs, borders. Kangan is a rich, dense landscape of shifting peoples and localities, and it’s this stratified backdrop that amplifies Achebe’s narrative to such a powerful resonance.
Scratch a paracosm and you’ll likely find a real-world landscape beneath it. Hardy’s Wessex was born of the West Country; its Casterbridge, Dorchester, its Christminster, Oxford Town. Mortmere too was a university city, Cambridge, but this time populated by the shades created by a young Edward Upward and Christopher Isherwood. Even the rolling hills of The Shire in Tolkien’s Middle Earth high fantasy can, when excavated, be found to be cut from the same clay as the Worcestershire hills where he lived as a child. Kangan is undoubtedly modelled on a hybridity of West African countries and regimes- and certainly more some than others- and borrows from their cultures, customs and political landscapes. But like any paracosm, its true roots are less important than the actuality of the fictional land itself- Anthills of the Savannah needs no obvious handle on reality to hammer its point home, nor does it tread the boards and become a satire.
It begins in the city of Bassa, where the Sandhurst-educated Sam- or His Excellency to almost everybody else- takes power in a popular military coup to become de-facto leader and President of the Republic of Kangan. Achebe explores the roiling political situation through the lives and work of Sam’s closest friends Chris and Ikem, as well as their partners and co-workers in the government intelligentsia, and charts its downfall from populist movement to dictatorship. His Excellency’s premiership is uncomfortable, rife with corruption and teetering on the brink of despotism, and when he attempts to fight a plebiscite to declare himself president for the rest of his natural life there comes opposition from a drought-stricken region of the country: the Northern province of Abazon.
Abazon acts as a site and symbol of resistance throughout the novel. When fleeing the events of the book’s culmination, Chris travels from his home in Bassa through the parched Northern landscape and describes in detail the sights he sees from the bus as it weaves through the wilderness. Bassa is described as a metropolis, thriving and divided, captured on the cusp of political turmoil:
“All around the parked cars young sellers of second-hand clothes displayed their articles on wooden clothes-horses. From time to time there would be a sharp stampede at some secret signal for the approach of a policeman or the Market Master, for none of these boisterous hawkers apparently had any right whatsoever to display their goods at that section of the market. It was a great shock to me then when that army car drove up furiously and went into reverse… and backed at speed into a young man and his clothes.”
The city is the seat of political power, the main focus of the narrative until the very end, and it often changes swiftly to reflect the oscillating power shifts of the collapsing regime. In it, conflict is portrayed as driven by human action, and the movements of its inhabitants change the landscape of the city as it exists within the novel.
Conflict in Abazon, however, is seminal. It is not characterised by the same rapidly-shifting, roiling tensions of Bassa but by a different, less overt kind of violence: as Chris describes at the beginning of the sixteenth chapter,
“Then it was a province of unspecified and generalised disaffection to the regime. One could indeed call it natural guerrilla country, not of course in the literal sense of suggesting planned and armed struggle which would be extravagantly far-fetched as yet, but in the limited but important meaning of a place where, to borrow the watchword of a civil service poster, you could count on having your secrets kept secret.”
Abazon stands as a site of resistance to the regime for several of the novel’s protagonists, and creates a powerful counterpoint to the bureaucracy of the city and the heady haze of politics and policy that characterises it. The region is remote, different, and ostensibly more dangerous than Bassa has ever been, and it functions as a natural opposition to the modernity of the city and its corridors of power. Bassa is rarely described as having anything in terms of natural imagery or plant life save for, perhaps, the manicured lawns of the government estates; yet Abazon is rife with a distinct rurality, punctuated by flora and fauna that mark it out as separate, something other and unnatural within the confines of the narrative. It is this marked difference, this separateness that underpins Abazon’s status as anti, something that His Excellency’s bureaucracy hasn’t managed to permeate, even though the land itself is drought-stricken and perilously inhospitable at times.
The journey to Abazon takes place on ‘The Great North Road’; a single winding thoroughfare that leads to the north through a lush country that seems at odds with the stress and fear of Chris’ flight from Bassa. He watches as the vista turns pastoral, a “…wide expanse of grass-covered landscape with its plains and valleys and hills dotted around with small picturebook trees of every imaginable tree-shape, and every colour of green”, seeing the “giant forests of iroko and mahogany and other hardwoods”, the “flowering trees like flames-of-the-forest”, and reflects that his flight from danger is beginning to take on the image of a picnic. Bassa’s intrigue is unknown here, and Chris’ wild country, although picturesque, isn’t the land he is used to.
As he thunders northward, the quality of the Great North Road degrades rapidly and he notices the “sharp edges of washed-out bitumen” as the bus pitches wildly from side to side. Achebe’s sense of symbolism is potent here, and as he implies that this is no longer the neat, relatively safe and managed city that his viewpoint character has spent the past ten years in. We now understand something fundamental about Chris’ katabasis journey: this is a wilderness in combat with the arcing road, taking back the piece of land as it rallies against encroaching modernity and the landscape connection with the south. They are opposite, diametrical oppositions, meeting in a volatile liminality, and this tension rides even higher as the bus makes its way into Abazon proper.
Gone are the verdant fields. Instead, there is a primordial landscape rolling on behind the windows that is much less homely than the greenery of his early journey. The lands of South Abazon are airless and waterless, yet Achebe still describes them in terms of their natural landscape as opposed to the human-centric descriptive passages we might witness in the city of Bassa.
“The only green things around now were the formidably spiked cactus serving as a shelter around desolate clusters of huts and, once in a while in the dusty fields, a fat-bottomed baoab tree so strange in appearance that one could easily believe the story that elephants looking for water when they still roamed these parts would pierce the crusty bark of the baoab with their tusk and suck the juices stored in the years of rain by the tree inside its monumental bole.”
There is a certain violence to it; the spiked cacti, the piercing tusks, and all bound about in a climate of natural decay- the elephants who had used to roam the lands there, the rains of yesteryear fermenting in the baoab’s bole. We see a fertile land decimated by drought, aggressively positioned as opposite to both the city and indeed, the green lands that came before it. Chris describes South Abazon as a “hungry desert” with a begging bowl, a “scorched landscape”, a land of “burning desolation”, and it exemplifies the binary landscapes that becomes apparent in the last few chapters of Anthills of the Savannah.
The northern lowlands are lush and fertile, whereas Abazon proper is parched and pockmarked. The two regions exist in opposition to each other, one the lush farms of Talbothays, one the starve-acre of Flintcombe Ash, to borrow from another literary paracosm – and yet divided as they are, they have more in common than the much more modern and manipulated cityscape of Bassa. They represent two faces of the same wilderness, and underpin the narrative with the idea of a binary- everywhere is either city, or other. Bassa’s rules and civilizations do not apply, and although they have different faces, the verdant hills and scorched scrubland are similarly juxtaposed to the true south where the plenty and power is. When the south meets the north- where the road meets the desert; where Chris gets involved in a disturbance and voices his government connections- conflict ensures; the road crumbles, and Chris is met with a final, fatal violence. The two directions cannot meet, can barely exist in the same world as each other, and Chris- Chris, native of the city, native of the south- simply cannot triumph in such a land. He dies, miles away from his home in the desert scrub that seemed at once an escape and a battle to him.
Such is, perhaps, the creative lure of the paracosm. Achebe holds up a mirror of his own making, and in it, creates a landscape of pure oppositions that a real-world landscape cannot provide nor sustain as the narrative travels through its geographies. The country of Kangan is divided into helpful, certain quadrants to the extent that even as Chris drives through from the green hillsides to the shattered landscape of South Abazon, he reflects that the arbitrary landscape boundaries drawn up by the British some half-century before “sometimes coincided so completely with reality”. And it’s skilfully created; a rich world of markets and palaces, tension and beauty, verdancy and famine, and it makes the underlying metaphors of the novel and its powerful take on neo-colonialism easy to discern although the world it describes is likely very different to one experienced by the more western parts of Achebe’s readership. The paracosm can be (although is not always) a Mondrian; boxed colours and straight lines that throw the narrative foreground into a sharp and vital relief. One land is green and hilly, one a metropolis, one a desert and one- North Abazon- still relatively unknown. This is why Kangan and its power struggles are such a visceral, potent setting that stays with the reader long after finishing Anthills of the Savannah: the different landscapes are signposts; their flora and fauna, perhaps lanterns to guide us through a volatile world of power and danger that we might find unfamiliar or uncomfortable.
The paracosm is a clever device. It affords absolute authorial mastery over the landscape of anything from a haiku to a seven-part family saga. It also means that a writer can obfuscate or reveal meaning as they choose, away from preconceived landscape connections that might drive a story beat awry as a reader relies on their own series of allusions. Anthills of the Savannah employs the technique in a tightly-structured, modern way, miles apart from Hardy’s sprawling Wessex or the grotesques that populate Peake’s castle Gormenghast, and creates a fantasy of realities that straddles the boundary of reality and fiction. It’s a compelling, driven narrative, and one of Achebe’s best- and it takes on a fresh and sombre significance when we consider the ways in which democracy appears under threat from coups and fake information far away from the imagined lands of Kangan, and real-word administrations that scramble for purchase much closer to home as they face down an uncertain future.