Style, Structure, and Story in Hove and Achebe

Gregory Gipson, English 27, Brown University, Autumn 1997

Bones is almost completely opposite to Achebe's Anthills of the Savannah in its narrative style; while relying on multiple narrators, it uses language, with the heightened resonance of poetry, and the characters themselves, to explore the very same debate from another direction. So it is that "Marita, she tells stories as easily as she breathes" (Hove, 70), and "words with strength do not suffer the night's dew. They remain on their legs even after a storm has passed" (Hove, 33). Just as important as the language are the characters themselves, who are not of the educated class of Ikem, Chris, and Beatrice, but farm workers; and laborers' concerns are very different from those of the ruling class. Thus while Ikem can worry in "Kangan" about how to "partake of this source of stability and meaning," the "dispossessed of this country, with the bruised heart that throbs painfully at the core of the nation's being" (Achebe, 130-1), Marita is concerned only with finding her son, Chisaga only with sex, and Janifa only with Marita and the support she provides. These divergent persepectives drive the books by different routes to the same mountain peak.

The characters differ by class, but it is language and style that point this out so clearly; Achebe's narrators are educated, literate, and thoughtful. Ikem can wonder if "renouncing my own experience, needs, and knowledge" (Achebe, 131), would help him help the poor of his country, but it takes an elder of his own people to point out that "the story is chief among his fellows" (Achebe, 114). Consistently, Achebe's characters find themselves cut off from all but each other by their education and literacy. But though Beatrice declares that "I was alone in mine [own world]," it does not "bother me at all then, my aloneness, nor has it done since" (Achebe, 79). This recognition of aloneness is the first, gentle hint of a forceful probing to come.

If Achebe's narrators are educated, literate, and thoughtful, Hove's are barely schooled, intermittently literate, and instinctual. In Bones, however, it is their words alone which give the reader their status: the novel is narrated almost entirely in the first person, and from the first line it is clear that though the words are written on a page, they were not typed by the narrators the story is a spoken-word epic. Indeed, Janifa is the only one who demonstrates an ability to read (Hove, 1), but on the farm where she and the others live and work, this skill is not often in demand. From the beginning, then, Bones is an attempt at hybridization, fully conscious that "words have weight" (Hove, 33), and attempting to return them that power.

It has been said that literacy demands privacy, demands a private (mental) space in which to read and interpret. An oral culture, by contrast, does not understand privacy in even nearly the same terms (Prof. George Landow, discussion 10/14/97). Thus a literate culture is one inhabited by individuals; and oral one dominated by the power of community. Ergo, a dichotomy between oral and written culture necessarily becomes a dichotomy between community and individual. It is this last dichotomy that Achebe and Hove are really probing, this last that is most important.

Both writers are very obviously conscious of the power of words, Hove by his language and attempts at orality, and Achebe, once again, by his dialogue, as when that aforementioned elder continues his speech to Ikem, explaining why the story is chief:

The same reason I think that our people sometimes will give the name Nkolika to their daughters -- Recalling-Is-Greatest. Why? Because it is only the story can continue beyond the war and the warrior. . . It is the story that saves our progeny from blundering like blind beggars into the spikes of the cactus fence. . .it is the story that owns us and directs us. It is the thing that makes us different from the cattle; it is the mark on the face that sets one people apart from their neighbors. (Achebe, 114)

Obviously there are many dimensions to this statement; for the present discussion, however, it is crucial to note that the man talks about "our progeny," and "one people," and in fact that the pronoun "I" appears exactly once in his whole speech. This old man does not read and feels no need to; he speaks with the knowledge that "every chest has its own size," and "such chests usually are full of words so that when they tell stories, they tell them so well that anybody can believe them" (Hove, 60). Ikem later proves the point: his speech at the university, in which he relates the story the old man told him (and in which the narrative shifts to third-person, so that Ikem speaks only by his quoted dialogue) is what finally makes him dangerous not his printed editorials, but his spoken words make him a target for arrest and murder, his spoken words incite the students to action, his spoken words exert the most power. And when Ikem is killed, it is only the community of poor and barely-if-at-all literate people of Kangan that is protects Chris; indeed he dies, ennobled at last, only because he acts out of compassion to save a girl from rape. Only orality, and therefore community, accomplishes anything in the novel, discovers joy. If the novel ends on an incongruously high note, given that all the male characters have died violently, it is because Elewa's baby is named, at Beatrice's instigation, by all the assembled company, in contrast to custom and in accordance with the fellowship of the group:

Now all eyes turned to Beatrice. She had picked up the baby again, but instead of handing her to the old man who had set down his glass once more to receive it she said:

"This baby has already received its name. She is called Amaechina."

The old people were visibly stunned. The man recovered first and asked: "Who gave her the name?"

"All of us here," said Beatrice.

"All of you here," repeated the old man. "All of you here are her father?"

"Yes, and mother." (Achebe, 209)

Achebe's novel unequivocably thematizes community and orality as the good, strong, and necessary values to effect change and to live happily, proving his intent that "here is an adequate revolution for me to espouse to help my society regain belief in itself and to put away the complexes of the years of denigration and self-abasement" (source). Hove, on the other hand, is a bit more murky and ambiguous, like any poet worthy of the name.

Bones has no happy ending: Marita dies mysteriously, and Janifa ends in a mental hospital after being raped by Chisaga, who is not prosecuted, because, according to her own mother, "we like Chisaga very much. . . He is not a bad man" (93). Every character in the novel, save the Unknown Woman, suffers pain or death from acting out of individual desire: Marita by abandoning her husband and friend Janifa to search for her departed son, Chisaga by endless desiring of sex with Marita, transferred to Janifa, Janifa by her constant wish for Marita's presence, her inability to function without that woman. The Unknown Woman, who, by her lack of name is almost an archetype and certainly a mystery, dies trying to bury Marita in the traditional manner, acting out of a sense of friendship, of community. What sort of a point does any of this make? Is there in fact a theme, any sort of judgement at all? The answer to that question lies buried in the form of the novel.

Bones, being more poetically, more orally (if such can be said of any written text) written, than Anthills of the Savannah, makes much greater use of myth and proverb, as indeed, does an oral culture in general. As might be expected, it is this mythic quality which gives hint of an overriding theme in the book. In a section entitled "1897 My Bones Fall Apart," which not only is narrated by a nameless, omnipotent narrator, but carries connotation of an earlier revolt, the reader comes across two different and very powerful forces, made up of individuals acting in concert. The locusts are obvious allegories to the white man:

The locusts of disease will eat into the fields of our harvests until we remain like orphans in the land we inherited for our children whom we have inside us. . . The locust that our ancestor says we can eat comes alone and runs away when we run after it. (Hove, 44)

These locusts, while terrifying, are not the most powerful of all, however, for

My bones will rise with such power the graves will be too small to contain them. The ribs of the graves will break when my bones rise, and you stare in disbelief, not knowing if your hunger for war can stand up to it. Then the locusts will not be seen again and strangers will not think that he who accepts them is full of foolishness. . . (Hove, 50)

The power of the bones, the power of the locusts, springs from their unity -- not only their numbers, but their unity. After all is said and done, the death and misery which infect the book serve to "remind us of what it is to be powerless, or, indeed, to be powerful. . .in age when the worst can happen to both the weak and the strong in our societies made fragile by so many political and cultural forces" (source). By forcing the reader to confront this fragility, Hove demands that the search for solution continue; he is perhaps less hopeful than Achebe, but just as insistent, just as relentless, and just as potent.

Hove and Achebe, separate by geography, history, and style, do not seem so far removed in thought. Each forces the reader of his work to grapple with the same conflict of orality versus literacy, community versus individual, that so many African cultures have been drawn into by the forces of colonialism, and each one is at least hinting at his idea of the answer. Perhaps what is most amazing, however, is the ability of each man to weave such themes into fictions which, by their complexity and intelligence, truly deserve the title of "postcolonial literature," and which are not merely political tracts of merely rhetorical interest. Each probes the role of a writer in nations which have known writing for barely a century, and, most important of all, by his work, each man is speaking to his reader, so that, like Marita, he makes us "know that I do not have to understand all things" [emphasis added] (Hove, 60).


Achebe, Chinua. Anthills of the Savannah. Bantam Doubleday, New York NY, 1987.

Hove, Chenjerai. Bones. Heinemann, Portsmouth NH, 1988.

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Last Modified: 21 March, 2002