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...
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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...
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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 is a powerful metaphor that resonates throughout the story. The contrast between light and shadow that permeates Okri’s work plays tricks on Omovo’s perception of reality, giving the eclipse transformative powers. With this play of light and shadow is a discernable shifting. Omovo’s visual reality is not static; it is ever-changing, mirroring his father’s own words.
A cloaked figure passing by at a certain hour for the past seven days, in grey with a black veil covering her face, piques Omovo’s interest. In a short time this figure has reached mythic proportions, called an enemy by soldiers, viewed as supernatural by others. The neighborhood children claim “that she had no shadow . . . that her feet never touched the...
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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 is reminded of Tutuola, yet Okri’s fabular and allegorical journeys, three of which are excursions into the forest, are more patently linked with the life Africans endure and struggle through in the here and now. Everywhere images of sudden violence and random, cruel power erupt: the whip-flailing, gun-cradling soldier; the bloated, bodyguarded big men “who create our reality.” It is against these that the narrator of the long title story, himself “a salesman of nightmares,” finally turns after a quest for self-judgment and responsibility.
Through “Stars of the New Curfew” sounds the ironic refrain of the outlandish, derided Rastafarian (himself an impostor in a wig): “Africa, we counting on yuh!” No virtues...
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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 Incidents, it is even truer of this collection. Okri’s locale is the ghetto: that neutral, desolate terrain betwixt town and coun try in which the detritus of the new African societies so often winds up. His people are that detritus: the aspirant entrepreneurs, inspired con-men, drunkards and ne’er-do-wells of a paradise run to seed. His theme is their despair.
That is one way of describing Okri’s achievement, though not necessarily the correct one: the evocation of dereliction. But where such a reading falls down, and where all readers will fail to follow Okri if they happen to be deaf to his particular medley of tone, is in a failure to recognise that his perception of these people and of this terrain possesses in itself...
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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 probably be described as magic realism because, dealing with fable and the collision of dream and reality, he takes liberties with perceived notions of time and place. But he writes without self-indulgence and is concise without being arid. Each of his stories deals with an aspect of life in present-day Nigeria. Some are nostalgic in tone— distorted memories of the civil war, for example; others deal with power and the obsessions, prejudices, hopes and fears of simple, exploited folk. His heroes are market women, prostitutes, down-at-heel drunks like Marjomi, who has a rare blood type and survives by selling it with perilous frequency and using the money to pay for alcohol. Or like the salesman who peddles dangerous potions in the market...
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