Themes and Meanings (Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition)
Human survival lies at the heart of this hypnotic story. Okri has been the recipient of many awards, including the Booker Prize for his 1991 novel, The Famished Road, about the exploits of Azaro, a spirit-child, who in the Yoruba tradition of Nigeria exists between life and death in the throes of war.
Similarly, “In the Shadow of War,” from his second collection of short stories, Stars of the New Curfew (1988), Okri presents war through the eyes of Omovo, a young Nigerian boy, who while not a spirit-child, enters a sort of spirit world where the people might, or might not, be alive. This much-anthologized short story deals with the devastating impact of war on everyday people. The Nigerian Civil War, first as insubstantial as the radio waves transmitted by a sleepy radio announcer, becomes deadly real to the young boy, as the author details the abuses, the hunger, violence, and disease that result from the political disaster and are witnessed by the innocent youngster.
The mysterious veiled woman is important to Omovo. Early in the story, there is no sign of a mother in the boy’s home, and it seems natural that the child would wait willingly every day for the veiled woman to appear. Could it be his mother is dead? Is this why he follows the woman so easily into the forest? Two of the soldiers are intimidated by her and cry out “witch,” and her ravaged appearance suggests she hovers between life and death. Possibly,...
(The entire section is 264 words.)
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One of the overriding themes in “In the Shadow of War” is truth and the absence of it. On more than one occasion, Omovo is dishonest. First, he does not tell the soldiers his real name. Second, he lies when he tells them that he has not seen the woman in the veil. The fact that Omovo has the propensity to lie and that his initial perceptions are sometimes proved wrong, as with the corpses that he at first believes are capsized canoes, makes it possible to read his account of the events in the forest as somehow less than true. Another way to read Omovo’s dishonesty, however, is that he is acting morally by protecting the woman in the veil. The narrator in the story makes the claim that Omovo is listening to things on the radio about the war that he does not necessarily understand; however, Omovo’s dishonesty suggests that there are some aspects of war that are not lost on him. He seems to understand that telling the soldiers about the woman would place her in danger. By showing how telling a lie can be seen as a moral act, Okri points out one of the ways in which war creates ambiguities in issues of right and wrong.
The theme of honesty is first introduced in the story when Omovo’s father tells him that “Heclipses hate children. They eat them.” The father’s smile suggests that he does not intend for Omovo to believe this statement, which Omovo indeed does not. While this is a small, harmless untruth that can be read as a...
(The entire section is 1023 words.)