Thursday, August 29, 2013

And yet he can't have it...

He stumbled upon what he thought he would never find. Just by sheer chance, and voila, it was there. Slowly but surely, he realized that this was it. He had had it a while back, but it faded away. He didn’t like the experience. So, he thought, to hell with it. I’ve had it, I didn’t like it, and I don’t think I want to have it again. And he lived life mechanically in this way, keeping it at bay, his life having no meaning, no fulfillment, and nothing to fill the yawning void he felt but tried to ignore.

But this was it. He tried to fight it, to ignore it, but couldn’t. He became sucked in it, consumed by it. He thought about it all the time. He was charmed, it brought wonder to his soul, and trepidation at the same time. Happiness he had never known before, yet anxiety lurked. The delight came with fear and apprehension; the enchantment came with hesitation. He was confused and nervous, but blissful in its presence. He had a taste of it, and now couldn’t step back. He tried, but simply couldn’t. He saw the implausibility of it, yet couldn’t do anything about it. He had vague ideas about making the ultimate leap when the time came: he could do anything to make it work. This, I got to have it.

And yet he can’t. It sends him left, right, back and forth, it has a certain power over him, yet he can’t have it. It dawns on him: it can be a cruel world, in the most subtle and intangible of ways. There are not that many like it in the world; it’s what he has always longed for in the secrecy of his thoughts and dreams and fantasies. It’s right here within his reach, yet not quite. He can see it; he can feel it, can hear it, can even touch it and smell it.

But he can’t have it.

He knows the end is near. He sees it. A decision has to be made. He shies away from it, not having the courage to make it. He can’t let go, wouldn’t let go, because it’s difficult: it’s what he has always wanted! Yet he knows he has to move on, because the other one most definitely is moving on in capitulating recognition, tugging the “it” along with ironic resolve. He wonders at this ability that is elusive to him. How can it be so?

Because the other one knows it can’t work. He sees the point, but has a problem with it. Why can’t they just make certain sacrifices and have it? Why can’t he just make the leap and have it? He shakes his head now in fervent consternation. It is the same God that we turn to for God’s sake! In his own way and in the other one’s own way, it is to the same God! He can’t fathom these artificial distinctions we have against our names. He marvels at the categorizations and classifications and identifications of society. He is in this; the other is in that; so it can’t work. Just like that – a dead finality delivered subtly and cruelly; an inevitable expectation, like of the sun rising tomorrow from the East and not from the West. Any other way is an undesirable disruption of the natural order.

He will move on. The scar will heal. Perhaps he will even encounter another acceptable “it”, one that will conform. He will suppress himself, he will live as expected. He will train his eyes not to tell of a life denied; his voice will learn to feign a cheer where there is none; his heart will mellow at an “it” not quite like this.

In time’s fullness, he will remember it. He will look at his offspring, and those of his offspring, and wonder how it could have been. He will know, even if it were to return, he still he can’t have it.

Or can he?

Picture credit:

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Anthills of the Savannah

We all have small embarrassments in our lives. Among many others, one in mine has for a long time been not having read the late (God bless his soul) Chinua Achebe’s Anthills of the Savannah, a finalist of the Booker Prize in 1987, and very often quoted in flattering light. Having finally read this book, I have one less reason to be shamefaced, and one more reason to hold Achebe in high esteem.

In Anthills of the Savannah, Achebe expertly employs satire to tell a story of friendship, betrayal, power, social injustice, and simple humanity. Set in a fictional country of Kangan and in the era of coups d’etat in Africa, the book is a searing social and political commentary that is as relevant now as it was in 1987.

Three friends find themselves on different ends of the political spectrum following a coup in newly independent Kangan. Sam, an army commander, suddenly finds himself as “His Excellency the Head of State”. He is anxious to assert his authority, and his efforts to declare himself “President-for-life” through a referendum two years back faced some resistance from Abazon, an impoverished northern region of Kangan. Christopher Oriko, or simply Chris, is his Commissioner for Information. Chris tries to put some reason in Sam to attend to Abazon’s concerns and to avoid political repression. Ikem, on the other hand, is an independent minded critic, a thorn in Sam’s government. He is the editor of Kangan’s National Gazette and a true man of the people, hailing from Abazon. All three attended a military school in Britain, Kangan’s former colonial power, where they became friends.

As can be discerned, the scene is set for a political confrontation where personal friendships count for little in the struggle for the preservation of power. Achebe adeptly illustrates the maxim that power corrupts, and that in politics, nothing is what it seems, as Sam, in the process of hounding his perceived enemies, quite unexpectedly finds himself overthrown by a seemingly innocuous member of his inner circle. In a strange, ironic turn of events typical of Achebe’s genius, all three friends suffer the same, equalizing fate.

Achebe’s use of satire makes the book much easier to read in view of the heavy task it sets out to achieve – a political and social commentary of the dark ages of Africa’s post-colonial history. From the very first page one is arrested by the startling, comical satire that evokes laughter yet rings remarkably real. For instance, through Chris, we see the utter fear of His Excellency among his own Commissioners, a fertile ground for sycophancy, as follows:

“On my right sat the Honourable Commissioner for Education. He is by far the most frightened of the lot. As soon as he had sniffed peril in the air he had begun to disappear into his hole, as some animals and insects do, backwards. Instinctively he had gathered his papers together and was in the very act of lifting the file cover over them and dragging them into his hole after him when his entire body suddenly went rigid. Stronger alarms from deeper recesses of instinct may have alerted him to the similarity between his impending act and a slamming of the door in the face of His Excellency. A fantastic thing happened then. He drops the file cover in such panic that everyone now turns to him and sees him perform the strangest act of all: the scattering again of his Council Papers in panic atonement and restitution for the sacrilege he has come so close to committing.”

Through Ikem, his girlfriend Elewa, and Chris’s girlfriend Beatrice, Achebe alerts us to a character trait that appears simple and commonplace and yet often overlooked – that of getting along with people, or simply, the capacity for “human contact across station and class”. For instance, Ikem, despite being the editor of the National Gazette, drives himself in an old car instead of being chauffeur driven in a Mercedes. In fact, in a traffic snarl-up he gives as good as he gets in a tussle for space with taxi drivers, who later realize who he is and seek him out to apologize. While ironically pointing out that common folk expect Ikem to be driven in a fancy car due to his status in society, they acknowledge that he is a man of the people. Achebe captures the contradiction:

“…How does one begin to explain the downtrodden drivers’ wistful preference for a leader driving not like themselves in a battered and spluttering vehicle but differently, stylishly in a Mercedes and better still with another downtrodden person like themselves for a chauffeur? …An insistence by the oppressed that his oppression be performed in style!”

For Chris, it is a different matter altogether. He notices Beatrice and Elewa’s abilities to mingle with ordinary people despite their social status. For him, it does not come naturally, as is shown during his escape to Abazon from Sam’s hounding. He nearly gets caught as he struggles to make the leap from his status as Commissioner for Information to the necessary cover of common people.

Through Chris’s journey to Abazon, Achebe tackles social injustice as he describes vividly the progressive deterioration of living conditions from the affluent Bassa, Kangan’s capital. He arrives in Abazon to find the region utterly devastated by years of drought, neglect, and isolation. This again is something that resonates across African countries. He arrives there to raucous celebrations following news of Sam’s overthrow. Against this backdrop of celebrations, Achebe churns another twist in his tale as Chris bizarrely completes his journey to humanity.

Anthills of the Savannah is as powerful as can be expected of any of Achebe’s books. One however needs plenty of patience through his circuitous language and at times complex stories within the story. It is well worth more than just one read.