Powerful People

D.A.N. Jones

  • 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.

A delegation of Abazon peasants comes to the capital, hoping to make peace with His Excellency: they invite Ikem to their meeting and an elder says that they did not vote for the Life-Presidency because they had Ikem Osidi in the capital ‘and he is there as our ear and eyes ... Osidi will come or he will write it in his paper and our sons will read it and know that it is true. But he did not come and he did not write it in his paper.’ This eloquent elder goes on: ‘I have never read what they say he writes because I do not know ABC.’ He describes ‘the people who were running in and out and telling us to vote yes.’ They said that His Excellency ‘did not want to rule for ever but he was being forced. Who is forcing him? I asked. The people, they replied. That means us? I asked, and their eyes shifted from side to side. And I knew finally that cunning had entered the matter.’ He concludes with a proverbial anecdote about a tortoise and leopard, which impresses the poetic Ikem.

The elder talks English in the manner of country people in West Africa – though I suppose we should assume that he is talking to Ikem in their own African tongue. Anyway this is one of the three kinds of English spoken by Africans in this novel. Another kind is spoken by Ikem when he contentiously addresses some university students who think themselves left-wing.

‘Now what about students? I regret to say that students are in my humble opinion the cream of parasites.’ Redoubled laughter. ‘The other day, did not students on National Service raze to the ground a new maternity block built by peasants? Why? They were protesting against their posting to a remote rural station without electricity and running water. Did you not read about it?’ The laughter had died all of a sudden.

Ikem concludes his speech with the Abazon elder’s tale of the leopard and the tortoise – His Excellency and the people.

Chris Oriko and his girlfriend Beatrice (a civil servant with a first-class honours degree from the University of London) talk the same kind of English as Ikem, with slangy puns and word-play. Ikem’s girlfriend, Elewa, talks pidgin: ‘I no shy but I no sabi book.’ Her graduate friends can talk this language when they try: ‘You no sabi book but you sabi plenty thing wey pass book, my dear girl.’ This third kind of English is very important in the novel. Women say of Ikem that he respects three kinds of women – the peasants, the market-women and the highly educated, the speakers of the three kinds of English.

As a consequence of his speech to the students, misreported in the press, Ikem eventually loses his editorship and falls into the hands of the Police. Chris Oriko is under suspicion and makes a run for it, into the north, assisted by a student who has kept more ‘in touch with the people’ than Chris has. This student, Emanuel, has arranged for a false story to be published in the National Gazette, asserting that Chris has escaped to England. ‘Of course, it would not have happened under your editorship or Ikem’s,’ he says, half-mockingly. ‘Thank you, Emmanuel,’ laughs Chris. ‘Such gallantry!’ But now they must talk differently, for they are pretending to be ‘of the people’. Chris characteristically notes that the country restaurants all have signboards featuring ‘the word decent, variously spelt’: they eat at a place called ‘Very Desent Restorant’. He also notices the bus-driver’s horrid curse against a policeman: ‘Make your mother hair catch fire.’ Chris must learn to talk pidgin fluently. After they manage to evade an inquisitive soldier, Emanuel tells him: ‘Make I tell you why he stop us? Na because of how you de walk as to say you fear to kill ant for road. Nex time make you march for ground with bold face as to say your father na him get main road.’

In the capital, policemen have stormed the rebellious university ‘and settled into a fearful orgy of revenge, compounding an ancient sex-feud with today’s war of the classes’. A more sympathetic policeman calls on Beatrice, talking in the proverbial style of the peasants as he searches for Chris: ‘A man whose horse is missing will look everywhere even in the roof.’ When she gets a mysterious phone-call – ‘I know where the horse is. But I don’t want to find him. Get him moved’ – Beatrice knows it is from the friendly policeman. By the end of the story all three green bottles have fallen from their high places: one of them was heard by an adherent to have said ‘The last grin ...’, with a brave smile, but Beatrice knows that it must have been ‘the last green ...’ She says: ‘It was a terrible bitter joke. The bottles are up there on the wall hanging by a hair’s breadth, yet looking down pompously on the world,’ and yet the world belongs to the people, ‘not to any little caucus, no matter how talented.’ She says this at a party, a naming ceremony for the baby child of Ikem and Elewa – a party which concludes the story, like the genial, reconciling komos that concludes Aristophanes’s sharp comedies: she is reconciled even with her maidservant, a dispiritingly evangelical Christian.

Familiar Wars is set in Julietta Harvey’s native Greece, in places where crowds gather to express their point of view. Though the women of Thessaloniki seem far less involved than West African women in matters of state and motives for warfare, the atmosphere might be easily recognised by Achebe, whose Africans chant against atrocities: ‘God will not allow!’ Just so, Mrs Harvey’s Greeks chorus in protest when a mother ties her daughter to a tree: ‘God doesn’t allow people to do this to their children!’ The ill-treated girl is also denied a school education by her mother, but she escapes by marrying Gregoris, a dealer in women’s clothing. He is a refugee from Smyrna, where Turks massacred Greeks in 1922 – and readers need to know that Smyrna was an ancient Greek city, quite near Troy and said to be Homer’s birthplace: it is now the Turkish city of Izmir. In Thessaloniki, where Mrs Harvey grew up, the Smyrna refugees are considered exotic. Gregoris is said to have ‘that Smyrniot womanishness and wiliness’. He fills his daughters’ heads with Homeric legends, particularly the tale of Medea, the murderous mother. The youngest daughter, Eleni, knows she is named after Helen of Troy. In her daydreams Homeric gods mingle with the horsemen of Kemal Ataturk. Allah eats pilaf on the summit of Mount Ida.

The three daughters have few interests – only men and getting married, dowries and clothes. They live through World War Two and the Greek Civil War, but they do not know what the wars are about, or who is winning. Eleni takes a fancy to a German soldier and, later, to English soldiers ‘with the same blond hair and blue eyes, angel-faced messengers from the West’. In the next war, guerrillas (perhaps from ELAS) enter Gregoris’s shop and hand over his stock of clothing to a crowd of excited women. The shop is ‘full of female bodies: powerful breasts and hips, fighting shoulders, mobile elbows, hungry faces, eyes looking for prey’. The guerrillas take Gregoris away, so his wife makes contact with her cousin Olga, a long-serving guerrilla leader dressed as a man, the only woman in the book with a grasp of public affairs. Olga restores Gregoris to his family: he has more troubles to face – ruined businesses, a Fascist son-in-law – but he survives, selling a shop to pay for Eleni’s voyage to America. Enthusiastically he tells her of all the good things about America (things nobody else much likes), mixed with his memories of Homeric myths. Throughout the book, terrible events are glimpsed through a pleasing haze, as seen through the dreamy eyes of girls conscious of handsome faces and pretty clothes – ‘feminine sensations mixed of rich colours, soft touches, ripples, curves and smiles’.

There are soft touches like that to lighten the load of Alan Brien’s enormous, fact-studded novel about Lenin’s life, from 1886 to 1923. Lenin describes a German carnival scene in 1901, choosing his words carefully, as if he were a theatre reviewer. In 1917 he swims in a Finnish lake and is confronted by an eel-like fish, five feet long, its teeth ‘as trim and regular and precise as a pig’s’. Lenin records this underwater encounter in the same thoughtful, word-choosing style, to conclude: ‘There came a strangely seductive wish to give in, give up, to let myself be towed back to its larder ... But no, no! The Revolution frustrated by some misshapen freak, half-snake, half-shark? Never!’ This aria is followed by a few notes, like those of a discursive essayist, about Sherlock Holmes and Alexandre Dumas. Next day a friend advises Lenin to avoid the lake: ‘Peasants have told me that it is famous as the haunt of a giant water-worm that has been known to drag down dogs, even deer.’ Lenin laughs at this ‘hayseed yarn’, although he knows it to be true: he says that ‘there are more frightful monsters waiting to eat us alive in Petersburg than in all your Finnish fairy-tales.’ This passage coincides with Lenin and his friends reading a deceitful story in a Petersburg newspaper about atrocities committed by ‘Bolshevik shock-troops, the Red Anarchists, a mob of work-shy labourers’ in league with German agents. They ask: ‘How can anyone believe that stuff?’ – and we think of the hayseed yarn about the Lake Monster. We might almost be persuaded here that Lenin: The Novel has some fictional structure.

It has almost none – because it is written in the form of a shapeless diary. The fictional Lenin’s essays in fine writing and general nattering are jumbled with dour, diary-like notes and abbreviations – ‘ProvGov no more than Petersburg office of Anglo-French enterprises & Co. Sole Soviet reps compromisers – Kerensky right-wing SR opportunist.’ A page of Lenin’s meditations will conclude: ‘Stop press: Trotsky and Parvus found guilty.’ To keep our bearings, while reading Brien, we need beside us some neat résumé of Lenin’s career, a book with clear political commitment, arranging known facts, like Edmund Wilson’s To the Finland Station. Brien’s book could not pass for a real-life diary: it would not fool even Lord Dacre. ‘My 11-year-old foster-nephew, a child prodigy adopted by Anna and Mark, and known as Gora, was at school.’ What diarist would write that? Why should Lenin tell himself that, in the middle of the October Revolution?

We could accept the artifice if Brien would stop trying to make it realistic, pretending that Lenin is lugging this wodge of incriminating paperwork growing like a snowball, from Simbirsk to Geneva, from Helsinki to Moscow. ‘I am drifting into one of my lectures,’ the diarist warns himself. ‘I make the habit of blotting out trivial information that clutters the brain,’ he congratulates himself – just before launching himself into a fresh flow of trivia. Hours of patient research have gone into this huge volume but it is, to my mind, like Hazlitt’s Life of Napoleon, an enormity of misapplied talent. However, in Maidstone Museum, there is a bust of Hazlitt, looking noble, on three books of carved stone, labelled ‘Napoleon’. It may be that an admiring sculptor will add a head of Alan Brien, looking like an Arab Lenin.