Chigozie Obioma’s debut novel is many things: part coming of age, part fable and part social commentary. But the unifying theme in all these strands is how every turn is relentlessly and seductively dark. It’s set in Akure, a town in South-West Nigeria, during the nation’s troubled 90s.
Obioma’s detailing of Akure reminds one of Malgudi. That’s a wrong reminder but a reader from Madras can’t really help being wrong in this case. There are ordinary neighbors, pastors and friends in a struggling 3rd world society. Except, this town is real. It’s dangerous. Its citizens are far more sinister and the author has no pretense of gentility. But there are boys.
Benjamin recalls the story of his childhood; narrating it as a 9 year old. He and his 3 older brothers are extremely close to each other. Their middle class parents in a poor country want them to escape that cycle of mediocrity. They are loving and occasionally show that by whipping their boys’ behinds for disobedience; they believe a Western education for their children will make them great men. Men who are lawyers, doctors, engineers and pilots.
When Father, always referred as that with a capital F, gets transferred to a different city by his employer the boys get adventurous under a lenient mother. How familiar is that to a middle class reader in India! They go fishing in the river Omi-Ala behind the Mother’s back. A river that sounds like most rivers that pass through large Indian cities: what’s become an open drain. The 6 weeks they fish make them come into contact with the chaos and uncertainty of life. It changes their lives in horrific ways.
Obioma, to be sure, is an MFA minted in America. But the strength of his plot is a clear indication that lives elsewhere, that aren’t comfortable and white, still have arresting novelty as a possibility. The story has heavy Biblical undertones; but unlike that of the other famous MFA mint, Paul Harding, the prose doesn’t. It’s not spare though; the description of Abulu the madman’s bodily odor as a mix of uncleaned fecal matter and semen is uncomfortably vivid. The other aspect about the writing is that the most shocking aspects are quickly glossed over; it takes a while for the reader to register the scale of madness. Abulu for instance rapes his own mother and has sex with a woman who just died in a traffic accident on the streets of Akure. His penis comes repeatedly for attention; that seems suggestive of larger themes. It’s a bit difficult to get all the allusions if you did not grow up in Nigeria and are not Christian. But they still work in whatever layer you understand this work. Remarkably, Obioma manages to bring the distance and perspective of his now adult narrator whenever necessary without disturbing the conceit of the real narrator being 9 years old.
Indian writing in English is rarely any good; at least I haven’t enjoyed reading or have wanted to read one in a long while. While writing in English out of Nigeria, Zimbabwe and Somalia all seem wonderful explorations of troubled lives in struggling societies. Especially ones that seem quite similar to our own in their anxieties and structural bleakness.