Historical Detection in Waterland and Anthills of the Savannah

Kate Cook, English 27, Brown University, 1997

Drawing attention to the strength of natural history, Crick points to human nature as the impetus for events. Indeed, sexual curiosity illuminates the complex of history; that is, it is propelled by a need to know, a thirst for why, and sexual exploration cannot be completely controlled. When as a teenager, his girlfriend -- now wife -- Mary Medford becomes pregnant, she has a dangerous abortion that leaves her unable ever to have children. This event explains, in part, why thirty years later, his wife Mary has kidnapped a baby from a grocery story and as a result she must live in a mental hospital. Mary, who since the abortion has repressed her human need to know, has gone insane. This same event, Mary's abortion, leads Crick to make a career of curiosity -- of studying stories in an effort to make sense of his world. Thus, for Crick history becomes a defense from fear, a protection. Furthermore, Swift's narrative suggests that once we stop looking to stories and asking why, we can no longer function in modern society; that is, we lose sense of reality. Paradoxically, for the most part fairytales and impartial truths constitute this reality.

Anthills of the Savannah, offers an alternative function of history and storytelling. For Achebe, telling stories provides a necessary means to ensure a successful future for the mythical postcolonial country of Kanga (which resembles Achebe's Nigeria in many ways). Indeed, Achebe employs a narrative structure that implicitly affirms the politics of gathering information and recording so-called truths, for three narrators share their own interpretations of the same -- yet inevitably different -- story. Thus, in Anthills of the Savannah, the detective work involves a weighing of evidence and testimony, much like the act of careful historical detection. Both texts construct an experiential reading. However, whereas Swift presents history as a mystery that Crick assembles for his students and more importantly for himself, Achebe positions the reader to experience and judge the crafted threads of events directly. By employing multiple narrators Achebe posits history as always already a multiplicity of stories. Similar to Swift's approach, Achebe's technique reaffirms his metanarrative on history; that is, engaged in the act of detection, the reader of both texts soon realizes that history is more complicated than a simple acquisition of information and past occurrences. Furthermore, in a postcolonial context, notions of history and the future become particularly complex, and romanticized ideas of the past as better somehow or notions of the future as progressive prove myths.

Anthills of the Savannah describes the Kangan struggle for a successful form of postcolonial self-government through the experiences of three friends -- Chris, Ikem and Beatrice -- intricately involved in the Kangan government. The corruption and elitism exercised under the current presidency, infiltrates even the well-meaning narrators' lives in unintended forms. As the novel progresses, the three narrators who rhetorically champion political change and social equality realize their own elitist positions as well-educated middle-class citizens. Both the readers and the narrators must look to the past to explain the perceived fraction of the Here and Now. Like Mary's pregnancy, an emblem of something that went wrong (an event intertwined and contingent on all other events) for example, Anthills of the Savannah begins with Chris looking for a particular origin or symbol of what went wrong:

For, if I am right, then looking back on the last two years it should be possible to point to a specific and decisive event and say: it was at such and such a point that everything went wrong and the rules were suspended. But I have not found such a moment or such a cause although I have sought hard and long for it. . .But the real question which I have often asked myself is why then do I go on with it now that I can see. I don't know. Simple inertia, maybe. Or perhaps sheer curiosity: to see where it will all. . . . well, end. (2)

Clearly, Chris cannot locate a singular cause of history or exact beginning to the story(s), for there are none. Significantly, not until the close of the novel does Chris realize his mistaken understanding of history, but in his final moment before death, Chris mocks his foolish conceit and hubris when referring to the three green bottles in Beatrice's house that are destined to fall, which represent Sam, Ikem and himself.

Postcolonial Web Africa OV Nigeria OV Anthills OV Waterland