So-Called Natural History in Waterland and Anthills of the Savannah

Kate Cook, English 27, Brown University, 1997

Achebe suggests that more than a mere ordering of things, storytelling must be recognized as a necessary and positive tool for social change. Indeed, Achebe's belief that storytelling is critical to Nigeria's future rings clear in the exchange among Ikem, one of the three narrators, and the elders from his village, Abazon. Suffering drought and poverty, the Abazon leaders have traveled to the capital in an effort to pressure the government for relief. Emphasizing the importance of the story, an old man, launches into a diatribe pronouncing, "The story is our escort; without it, we are blind. Does the blind man own his escort? No, neither do we the story; rather is the story that owns and directs us" (114). Therefore, the subject is constituted through stories, as stories mark differences in human experience. The old man continues to explain the story of a tortoise captured by a leopard; whereby the tortoise, just before its death, asks the leopard for a moment to scratch the sand vigorously in order to leave an impression of the struggle. In the tradition of African storytelling, Ikem then passes this story on to an audience of young students challenging Kanga's social and economic state. Again, merging technique and theme, Achebe affirms the need to (re)tell stories of the past in order to enter the future successfully.

This drive to leave an impression in the sand appears repeatedly in Waterland. Crick's grandfather, for example, whose unnatural love for his daughter insists on a child--a mark symbolizing his struggle against nature--produces Dick, Crick's mentally defective brother. And reaching even farther back, Crick traces to his ancestors feat of draining the Fens, reclaiming land. However, nothing triumphs over nature, and Crick describes his ancestors' understanding of their seemingly futile yet necessary effort to leave an impression on the Fens: "Because they did not forget, in their muddy labors, their swampy origins; that, however much you resist them, the waters will return; that the land sinks; silt collects; that something in nature wants to go back" (17). Water, a metaphor for change, cycles, life and destruction, a fluid without container, water cannot be completely controlled. Despite the draining of water from the Fens, the human attempts to create land, breweries and railroads, ultimately nothing will leave an impression in the sand except water. Like Swift, Achebe points to nature, to the anthills, as true historical artifact. In Ikem's "Hymn to the Sun" Achebe invokes the novel's title, suggesting that the anthills survive, "to tell the new grass of the savannah about last year's brush fires" (28).

How much, then, of history occurs as accident or entropic force? Like the British empire or Kanga's self-rule, Atkinson's brewery, or Mary's sexual curiosity, must every attempt to fashion human existence fade? For Swift, nature is victor, and even the act of telling stories affirms nature's triumph, as it is a peculiar human necessity to tell and take and make stories. Achebe suggests that whereas human triumphs over nature are always temporary, people must continually engage in the infinite task of making new stories by manipulating history. For example, subverting tradition in the name of tradition, Beatrice's naming ceremony functions as a prophesy for future Kangan society, and here Achebe describes the potential for a successful postcolonial nation . Realizing the intimacy between storytelling and the fractional yet powerful Here and Now, Achebe accesses the future. As Friedrich Nietzsche once wrote, "What is great in man is that he is a bridge and not a goal" (44). This being stated, under a bridge there must be water that will at some point destroy the human structure.

Postcolonial Web Africa OV Nigeria OV Anthills OV Waterland