- Anthills of the Savannah by Chinua Achebe
Heinemann, 233 pp, £10.95, September 1987, ISBN 0 434 00604 1
- Familiar Wars by Julietta Harvey
Joseph, 251 pp, £10.95, August 1987, ISBN 0 7181 2823 0
- Lenin: The Novel by Alan Brien
Secker, 703 pp, £11.95, October 1987, ISBN 0 436 06840 0
Chinua Achebe’s masterly novel concerns three powerful Africans. They are drawn on the dust-cover as three green bottles, from the English song: ‘If one green bottle should accident’ly fall ...’ One is the President of an African state, generally known as His Excellency, though his old schoolmates remember him as Sam. Another is Ikem Osidi, editor of the National Gazette, a fiery journalist and admired poet. At school, Ikem was considered ‘the brightest’, but Sam was the cricket captain and the ‘social paragon’. Sam went to Sandhurst and achieved the Presidency through a military coup. The third schoolfellow holds a rank midway between Ikem and His Excellency. This is Chris Oriko, former editor of the National Gazette, now promoted as the Honourable Commissioner for information, meeting His Excellency frequently and sometimes being ordered to pass on instructions to the recalcitrant Ikem. The three have known one another for twenty-five years, from the day when they ‘first met as new boys of 13 or 14 at Lord Lugard College’. Nigeria is suggested by the name of Lugard, but Achebe has set his story in an imaginary state, called Kangan, smaller than Nigeria. There is a general feeling that these three schoolfellows ought not to be working closely together, resenting one another. Lord Lugard boys should be lonely leaders, living in isolation like District Commissioners, educating or governing the common people.
Another detail to be noticed on the dust-cover is the slightly misleading biography of the author. Chinua Achebe’s academic successes are noted, his professorships in Africa and the United States – and they are said to have followed ‘a brief career in broadcasting’. If we look at his comparable novel of 1966, A Man of the People, we find a different emphasis in the biography: ‘Since 1954 he has worked for the Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation and he is now Director of External Broadcasting’ – and since then he has held high office in one of Nigeria’s political parties. When Achebe writes about men of power – Presidents, ministers, civil servants, police chiefs – he knows what he is talking about. He is something like Conor Cruise O’Brien in this respect, better informed about government than most novelists and professors.
Anthills of the Savannah is comparable with A Man of the People partly because it concerns a statesman under the scornful gaze of a well-educated aide – who is perhaps not so much ‘a man of the people’ as his master is. His Excellency fears he might be overthrown, with the people mocking him. He has held a referendum on the question: should he be appointed ‘President-for-Life’? The people of the province of Abazon did not vote for this proposal, and they have suffered for it: public works in their province have slowed down and teachers are not sent to their schools. In Africa, as elsewhere, it is possible for whole regions to be punished in this way. His Excellency tells Chris Oriko that he never wanted to be Life President: ‘I didn’t and you know I didn’t but the moment it was decided upon you had a clear responsibility, you and Ikem, to see it succeed. You chose not to.’ Ikem is particularly to blame, for he is a son of Abazon, to be considered their spokesman in the capital: he could have swayed their vote.
Vol. 9 No. 19 · 29 October 1987
From Julietta Harvey
SIR: Your issue of 15 October reviewed my novel Familiar Wars. I hope I may be allowed to correct two points of fact. The merchant Gregoris does not ‘sell his shop to pay for Eleni’s voyage to America’: he sells his home to save his shop. This is crucial in a novel about the psychology of the shopkeeper and the refugee. The wars are seen through the eyes, not of a woman or women, but of a child, to whom all invading armies, whether enemies or allies, are threatening, fascinating and obscene. She may, indeed, not know what the war is about, or – in the intimate daily tangle of a civil war – who the real enemy is. Her failure to show ‘a grasp of public affairs’ may perhaps be important in a novel which looks at how the violence of war moves into the home and, seductively, into a young imagination.
Vol. 9 No. 20 · 12 November 1987
From Alan Brien
SIR: A pity you could not have dished out my first novel, a fictional diary of Lenin’s life from adolescence to terminal illness, to someone with just a little more knowledge of the period and the persons described than D.A.N. Jones (LRB, 15 October). I’m afraid I find it hard to take seriously the judgment of a critic who regrets that my ‘enormous, fact-studded’ tome is not accompanied by some neater work rehearsing Lenin’s career such as, he suggests. To the Finland Station. For Edmund Wilson’s ‘enormous, fact-studded’ tome runs to almost five hundred pages and examines the theory and practice of socialism from 1725 to 1917. It has 30 chapters, and only four deal with Lenin. Could it be that, nevertheless, these 75 pages would provide the ‘neat résumé’ David Jones requires? Unlikely. Wilson only takes Lenin up to his return to Petrograd in April 1917, ending his résumé six months before the Revolution and the founding of Soviet power. He is left virtually unknown to the world outside.
Jones compares my historical adventure tale, meant to appeal to those (like me) who love The Three Musketeers and Robert Graves’s Claudius memoirs, to Hazlitt’s Life of Napoleon. I know as little about this biography as Jones appears to know about To the Finland Station. However, I have consulted Michael Foot, who assures me it is a marvellous work. Henceforth, I shall stick to that opinion. I dare say Hazlitt and I will survive the oddly dyspeptic and distempered disapproval of Jones, the freelance journalist from West London.
From D.A.N. Jones
SIR: I noticed with regret Julietta Harvey’s two complaints (Letters, 29 October) about my review of her novel, Familiar Wars. On her first ‘point of fact’ about the plot I am at fault. The father of the girl Eleni sold his home, not his shop, and I recognise now that this could be seen as an important point about shopkeepers. I made a careless slip. Her second point I regard as a matter of opinion. I suggested that in her book ‘terrible events are … seen through the dreamy eyes of girls,’ who were undergoing (in Mrs Harvey’s words) ‘feminine sensations’. Mrs Harvey argues that ‘the wars are seen through the eyes not of a woman or women but of a child’, with a ‘young imagination’. The girl Eleni makes her appearance one-third of the way through the book. In the last third of the book she seems to be 16-18 (I am only guessing: the reader is not told, but given clues). I saw the girl as ‘feminine’ rather than as ‘a child’. It depends what you mean by ‘girl’. Eleni’s is not the only consciousness in the book. To me all the consciousnesses seemed feminine, including that of Eleni’s father, with his ‘Smyrniot womanishness’, to use Mrs Harvey’s words. Readers of this novel may decide whether the predominant viewpoint is feminine or childlike. It would be odd to describe it as boyish.
Vol. 9 No. 21 · 26 November 1987
From D.A.N. Jones
SIR: I am glad that my review has introduced Alan Brien to Hazlitt’s life of Napoleon (Letters, 26 November). When he has finished reading Michael Foot’s well-thumbed edition, he will want to compare Walter Scott’s biography of the same hero (9 vols, 1827). He must also read two fictionalised studies of Stalin, Koba by Raymond Williams (1966) and Joseph by Mervyn Jones (1970) – and perhaps he will recognise that such books are often more fun to write than to read.