Motif of Vision
Ben Okri utilizes vision as a recurring motif in “In the Shadow of War,” contrasting images of light, vision, and visibility with images of darkness (or shadow), blindness, and invisibility. Light, vision, and visibility function as metaphors for truth, knowledge, and understanding, while darkness, invisibility, and blindness function as metaphors for lack of knowledge, comprehension, or a clear perception of the truth.
Okri in “In the Shadow of War” represents the experience of war from the limited and uncomprehending perspective of a young child. The narrative is thus restricted to the sights, sounds, and smells that the boy perceives. In representing the boy’s limited understanding of what he sees in the wartorn world around him, Okri refrains from explaining to the reader the broader meaning or context of Omovo’s observations and perceptions. As a child, Omovo lives “in the shadow of war.” His lack of understanding of the war is indicated by the narrator’s statement that he “listened without comprehension to the day’s casualties” announced on the radio. Omovo’s understanding of the war is limited to his perceptions as a child.
“In the Shadow of War” opens with Omovo’s perspective as he gazes from the window balcony of his home, looking down onto the street. This thematically places Omovo in the position of an observer, who watches the world around him, as figures “appear” and “disappear” from his sight. For example, as the story opens, Omovo is waiting for the woman in the black veil to “appear” on his street, recalling that every day she has walked past his window then “disappeared” into the forest.
The title “In the Shadow of War” clues the reader into the story’s recurring motif of shadows, light, and darkness. This motif is emphasized when the radio announcer states that an eclipse of the moon will occur that night. An eclipse of the moon, or lunar eclipse, occurs when the Earth passes between the sun and the moon, and the shadow of the Earth blocks the sunlight from reaching the moon. This phenomenon causes the moon to go dark, from the perspective of a person looking up at the night sky from Earth. Hearing the announcement of the eclipse, Omovo’s father comments, “As if an eclipse will stop this war.” When Omovo asks his father what an eclipse is, his father responds enigmatically, “That’s when the world goes dark and strange things happen.” This statement could also describe the effect war has on a society. Metaphorically, one might say that war eclipses human understanding and human experience by casting a shadow over an entire society.
The motif of the shadow occurs again in reference to the black veil worn by the mysterious woman. The narrator explains the children’s superstitious belief that the woman in the black veil has no shadow. While to the children this suggests something supernatural and perhaps evil, it symbolically functions in the story to resonate with the motif of shadows and light. Omovo’s concern with watching and vision is again indicated when he follows the woman in...
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Issues of Morality
In the Spring 1990 issue of World Literature Today, Michael Thorpe notes that in Stars of the New Curfew, Okri “probe[s] unsparingly the self-inflicted wounds of ‘freedom.’” In this statement, Thorpe refers to the irony that in the wake of colonial independence, Nigeria found itself embroiled in a violent civil war. Instead of fulfilling the promise of freedom in a united state of empowerment, Nigerians turned on themselves and were bitterly divided in a bloody, three-year conflict.
Thorpe continues by noting that in the wartime worlds depicted in Stars of the New Curfew, “No virtues have scope to thrive, whether love, loyalty, or integrity.” Indeed, love, loyalty, and integrity are often compromised by war, and Okri skillfully exposes this fact throughout his works of short fiction. In The Encyclopedia of Post-Colonial Literatures in English, Bruce King states that the “underlying theme [of Okri’s work] is the failure to find love and caring relationships in a society that has become brutalized through the harshness needed to survive.” King concludes with the observation that Okri also expresses what he perceives to be a “lack of communal morality” in Nigeria “through images of excrement, disease, and poverty, spiritual disorder finding its physical counterpart in filth, stink, clogged sewage, electricity failures, and rotting bodies.” Social and familial relationships, communal morality, as well as the need to survive, are all explored in “In the Shadow of War.” More specifically, Okri uses this story to examine the ways in which families and society grapple with the issues of morality, humanity, selflessness, and selfpreservation against the backdrop of war.
In the beginning of the story, Omovo’s father tells him that during eclipses “strange things happen.” Okri suggests that the same can be said of war, by naming the story “In the Shadow of War,” thus creating a parallel between an eclipse, during which “the world goes dark,” and shadows. Omovo’s father warns him that “the dead start to walk about and sing,” two events not normally associated with the dead. Likewise, during wartime, people do not always act as they normally might. It is likely not a coincidence then that Omovo faces his most challenging moment while hidden “in the shadow of a tree.” From this shaded vantage point, Omovo must decide if he should attempt to help the veiled woman and expose himself as a friend of the “enemy” or if he should remain hidden. In the shadow, Omovo is symbolically encased in the shadow of war, or the place where his behavior may be inconsistent with what it would be during non-wartime situations. In this one scene, Okri reveals how, in the shadow of war, individuals may sometimes place their own safety above their moral convictions about violence.
Okri explores Omovo’s individual dilemma around the issues of survival and morality in a broader social context through the character development of Omovo’s father, the soldiers, and the veiled woman. He does so by setting up oppositional relationships within the story that mirror the social divisions that occurred during the civil war between Biafra sympathizers and those who supported the national Nigerian position. Symbolically, the soldiers and Omovo’s father represent the Nigerian national side of the war, whereas Omovo and the veiled woman represent the Biafran side.
The associations between Omovo’s father, the soldiers, and the Nigerian national cause are quite clear. As soldiers, the three village newcomers obviously are representative of and are fighting for the reunification of Nigeria. Their primary occupation is to prevent the successful separation of the nation’s three easternmost states. Though Omovo’s father never clearly states his political position, Okri draws subtle likenesses between him and the soldiers that create a link between these patriarchal authority figures. For example, Omovo’s father drinks “a libation” before going to work, just as the soldiers, who are presumably always on duty, order “a calabash of palm-wine” at the “palm-frond bar.” Physically, Omovo’s father wears a “shabby coat that he had long outgrown,” while one of the soldiers has “buttocks so big they had begun to split his pants.” In addition, like Omovo’s father, the soldiers try to give Omovo ten kobo. Omovo seems equally displeased with his father and the soldiers throughout the story. In the beginning, Okri writes that Omovo is “irritated with his father,” and he seems to display equal annoyance with the soldiers when he lies to them and rejects their bribe. Further, with both the soldiers and his father, Omovo demonstrates disobedience. He turns the radio back on when his father leaves for work, even though his father had told him to turn it off because “it’s bad for a child to listen to news of war.” And later, despite the soldier’s instruction, Omovo fails to alert the threesome about seeing the veiled woman.
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Transformative Powers of Light and Shadow
The title of Ben Okri’s childhood recollection of a war-torn Nigeria, “In the Shadow of War,” is reflective of the climate he describes, a nation whose collective conscience is overshadowed by the carnage and violence of conflict. Okri uses the events of an eclipse to flesh out his work. Through shifting shape and changing shadow, Okri reveals first hand the power of war to gravely impact the conscience of an entire nation.
At the outset of the story, Omovo asks his father what an eclipse is. He tells him that it is “When the world goes dark and strange things happen.” Omovo wishes to know what to expect; in response his father claims, “The dead start to walk around and sing.” The eclipse in Okri’s work...
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Themes of Violence and Torment
Where there is no order, “reality” is anarchy and constant fear of life. Ben Okri’s six stories are all quest narratives, one a quest through horrors “to find where you can be happy,” but its end is death. Another captures a compulsive aimlessness of these antiquests: a bodiless voice warns the seeker, naïvely “fired by memories of ancient heroes,” “Your thoughts are merely the footsteps of you tramping round the disaster area of your own mind.”
Okri’s settings are Nigerian—Lagos, a provincial capital, the village-dotted bush—but could belong to many another tormented country of tropical Africa; the mode of apprehension is hallucination, dream, and nightmare. In this, though not in language, one...
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In the penultimate story in this collection there is a perfunctory act of love between a would-be pop star and his reluctant girlfriend. He is trying to break down the girl’s inner resistance: ‘“It’s good to be alive,” he said with a sentimental quaver in his voice. “Who disputed it?” “No one.”’
Casual readers of this second volume of stories in three years might be excused for thinking that if anyone disputed the general joyousness of existence, it was Ben Okri. When his last volume. Incidents at the Shrine, appeared in 1986 some of its less perceptive reviewers observed that Okri seemed to possess a nose for squalor as sharp as a retriever’s nose for game. If this was true of...
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Beneath the Waves
Ben Okri, another Nigerian, has also written about his homeland. Stars of the New Curfew, his latest collection of short stories, contains some of his finest writing to date. The biblical cadences of his earlier work suggested that he was aspiring to some quality just beyond his grasp. He appears now to have come into his own stylistically and creatively. There is a simplicity and clarity that give his his modern-day fables the resonance of myth. Greek myth or African myth, it hardly seems to matter.
Okri is a story-teller who, unlike Saro-Wiwa, can express the intricacies of emotional conflict and the drama of life without Nigerian Bigmanism—the compulsion to wear his learning on his sleeve. His work will...
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