Elite Smirks and Populist Chuckles

Sage Wilson '98, English 27 (1997)

The American publishers of Anthills of the Savannah proudly emblazon several endorsements of the novel on its back cover, among them one from The New York Review of Books which declares that Anthills "resounds with big African laughter." Although perhaps of marketing value, this statement is simply wrong. Achebe certainly employs humor, but his style can hardly be reduced to a humor somehow essentially African. To the contrary, laughter in Anthills is not a simple or universal thing: it gets provoked by specific events, withheld for specific purpose, even employed for specific gain. Laughter functions as a tool here, humor as a technique; neither offered as a deep truth of African nature. In fact, for the bulk of the novel, Achebe's style of humor amounts to more of an elite smirk than the deep hearty populist chuckle suggested by "big African laughter."

The concept of the smirk is important here, because it names a distinctly bittersweet and sometimes mocking style of humor, a style perfectly suited to the postcolonial specificity of Achebe's Kangan: members of the elite smirk because nothing changes and progress so often turns back on itself. Thus the smirk entails a smile and a sigh at the same time, amounts to amusement as a coping strategy. In Anthills, then, or more specifically in its smirking, the smile serves as a mask of sorts, as a displacement of small, specific pain and frustration rather than a sign of big African laughter and fun.

Ken Saro-Wiwa's short story "Home, Sweet Home" smirks in a fashion similar to that of Anthills of the Savannah. The narrator, a college student returning to teach in the village school of her native Dukana, at first expresses mostly a disdain for home. But of course, she still loves Dukana (even if she has grown beyond it), because, after all, "home is home." Although tautological, this saying perfectly captures her knowledge that life cannot be any other way, perfectly captures the "call of nativity" which joins the narrator and her town "inextricably, a bond which neither education nor distance nor time could destroy" (7). But the experiences of a well-travelled and well-educated woman like the narrator inflect this bond with a certain wry smile, a certain smirkiness which comes out at moments such as when she remarks that "I must have dozed off because when I opened my eyes, ŒProgres' had screeched to a stop" (5). Here again, we find something far more complex than "big African laughter." Instead, we see complicated African specificity, a nuanced web of feelings produced by the tension between the narrator's specific personality and the specific quirks of her hometown.

Buchi Emecheta's Slave Girl provides a striking contrast to the smirking of Anthills of the Savannah and "Home, Sweet Home." Emecheta writes in a solemn, pointed, at moments almost sermonizing style, and as a result, Slave Girl is utterly without laughter. At the root of this lack lies the fact that the slave girl of the title, Ojebeta, never returns home. Through slavery, she loses home for good, and with it goes both the joy of her childhood and her potential for a smirky adulthood. She does not have a home, so she cannot have a love-hate relationship with it, cannot feel simultaneously disdainful and rooted, trapped and contented. For Ojebeta, home is just a memory, just a loss of an identity no slave can retain, just a pain whose redemption becomes a far-away dream (72).

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Last Modified: 14 March 2002