This splendid short novel demonstrates Achebe's continuing ability to depict the challenges posed to African societies by modernism and Western influence. It details the plight of three educated, upper-class Africans attempting to survive in an atmosphere of political oppression and cultural confusion. Set in the fictional African country of Kangan, it is clearly patterned after Achebe's native Nigeria, though one can also see elements of Liberia and Ghana.
This was the first Achebe novel I had read since his classic Things Fall Apart. At first, I thought that Anthills suffered in comparison with that masterpiece, arguably the best known and most influential African novel. After finishing the book, though, I realized that Achebe had very deftly returned to and updated the themes raised in that book.
His protagonists are Ikem, a courageous and opinionated newspaper editor; Chris, his friend and predecessor as editor, now the somewhat-reluctant Commissioner of Information in a military-led government; and Beatrice, a brilliant, beautiful mid-level civil servant, also Chris's lover. Each studied abroad and is comfortable tossing off literary references and cultural cues from the West. At the same time, each is proud of and clearly shaped by his/her African heritage.
Kangan is ruled by a smart but narrow-minded military officer who rose to power following a coup. "His Excellency" is also coincidentally and not at all implausibly an acquaintance of all three main characters, bringing a very personal dynamic to the struggles they face as Ikem sharpens his already bitter criticism of the government, to the professional discomfort of Chris and the personal alarm of Beatrice.
I found the first half of the book a little hard to get through at times. The prose is often overwrought and the narrator changes from chapter to chapter, making it difficult to follow. Further complicating things is the frequent use of West African dialect, especially in dialogue between the lead characers and their less-westernized compatriots. While this brings a ring of authenticity to the work, it also requires close attention by non-African readers to divine the literal meaning of the deceptively familiar words. As the novel progresses, though, the confusing switch-off of narrators ends, the prose becomes sharper, and the storyline clearer.
Achebe sprinkles humor liberally throughout the book. The characters serve up a steady stream of clever, expressive African aphorisms. The most memorable of these are delivered by a tribal elder from Abazon in an impromptu tribute to Ikem. Achebe also paints vivid and funny accounts of a monstrous traffic jam, a confrontation with soldiers at a checkpoint, and an up-country bustrip. those who have spent any significant time on the continent will nod their heads and chuckle at these uniquely African scenes.
As in Things Fall Apart, the insidious influence of the West is depicted mostly indirectly. While there are no major European characters, the cynicism of Western expatriates and the cluelessness of Western journalists are reflected quite well in two minor characters, a British doctor who administers the local hospital and a visiting American reporter. More often, though, the specter of Western influence hovers in the background. One sees it in the alienation of the lead characters from their roots, most vividly in Beatrice's reminisces of her village childhood and university days in Britain.
In the end, Achebe seems not so much to be blaming the West for Africa's problems as pointing out the ways in which, years after independence -- and even longer since things first "fell apart" -- African societies continue to struggle with the legacy of colonialism. The villains are not Europeans but the opportunistic soldiers, politicians, and businesspersons who came to power afer the departure of the colonists.
Achebe's perceptiveness and skillful sketches of characters make this an important work, a period piece as representative of contemporary, post-independence Africa as Things Fall Apart was of colonial Africa.