- Knowledge and Power, the Story and the Storyteller:Achebe's Anthills of the Savannah
Many critical discussions of Chinua Achebe as storyteller center on the ways in which he deliberately draws upon an African oral tradition to enhance his efforts to depict different tensions—such as that between precolonial Ibo ways of thinking and Christian missionary notions, or between men and women, or between generations. Such critics point to Achebe's use of proverbs, different speech rhythms, and repetition,1 but they do not explicitly address in any detail the role of storytelling itself as a political or social act—as a demonstration of knowledge and an exercise of power—within the novels. Although each of Achebe's five novels demonstrates his own power as a storyteller and reveals his view of the complex and often problematic relation between knowledge, power, and storytelling, nowhere does Achebe more minutely examine the nature of that relation than in his latest novel, Anthills of the Savannah (1987). My endeavor in this paper is to examine both Achebe's storytelling and his view of the act of storytelling as manifested in his most recent novel to determine the ways in which power and knowledge impinge upon stories and their tellers. [End Page 493]
Unlike his previous novels, Anthills features characters who are concerned neither with negotiating a way between black society and white government (as in Things Fall Apart, No Longer at Ease, and Arrow of God) nor with making a direct transition from colonialism to self-government (as in Man of the People); instead, these characters are occupied with finding a way of establishing and maintaining a successful form of postcolonial self-government. Rather than trying to fill in the skeletal structure of government left by colonialism, they attempt to construct a new government out of their history, a contemporary African government. The relation between knowledge and power in Anthills, then, is particularly problematic, for the characters have a great deal of various kinds of knowledge, and they believe that they have a certain amount of power as well. But they recognize that the possession of that knowledge and power is not necessarily enough to ensure either their own well-being and survival or those of their society.2 They are almost perpetually in a state of confusion because the extent of their knowledge and power is always in question, not only in their own minds but in the minds of others as well. Thus the trope of storytelling and Achebe's own storytelling also demonstrate that confusion.3 Each of the main characters—Chris, Ikem, the president, and Beatrice—participates in the storytelling. Unlike the stories we find in the earlier novels, these stories are not seen as sources of solutions to problems; no one views them as coherent wholes that offer reassurance or advice. The stories in Anthills only suggest more questions for the characters. Thus the concept of knowledge is problematized; what makes for knowledge, how it is acquired, how it is or should be used—all are questions with which the characters, and Achebe himself, struggle throughout the novel.
Significantly, the limits and complexities of the power of storytelling and storytellers in Anthills may be, at least in part, attributed to the historical setting of the novel.4 The book's characters represent a generation [End Page 494] of Africans that has never experienced life without numerous uncertainties; unlike the characters in the earlier novels, the main characters in Anthills have not maintained close connections with a traditionally ordered society. Significantly, Anthills takes place during a time when colonialism is neither an impending threat nor a concrete presence; rather, colonialism is something of a haunting but distant memory, the remnant of a past the novel's leading characters would like to transcend but which has in some overt as well as covert ways influenced the concept of government current through most of the novel. But the early forms of precolonial government are also only a vague memory, like colonialism, influencing although not dominating newer constructions of institutional power. The characters know about the overthrow of different institutions of power, and consequently, they realize that power is...