In the Shadow of War

by Ben Okri

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Motif of Vision

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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 the black veil into the woods, hurrying after her in order to “keep the woman in view.” The black veil worn by the woman connects the story’s motifs of darkness and shadow, as it conceals her face for most of the story, in effect keeping her face in shadow.

The actions of the woman with the veil are further described in terms of shadows, darkness, and invisibility. Omovo sees the woman enter a cave in the woods where “shadowy figures moved about in the half-light.” After the woman leaves the cave, where she has...

(This entire section contains 1271 words.)

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apparently brought food to the starving people living there, Omovo follows her to a dark, muddy river. The dark, muddy water of the river suggests the obscured and muddied perceptions of Omovo’s level of understanding of the war at this point. Omovo’s visual perceptions are further described by the impression that the woman “moved as if an invisible force were trying to blow her away.” From Omovo’s perspective, “invisible forces” seem to be determining the course of events, because he lacks a full understanding of the circumstances of war that affect the woman’s actions.

When he realizes that the soldiers are following the woman too, Omovo hides in the shadow of a tree. The soldiers stop the woman and one of them removes the dark veil from her head and throws it to the ground, revealing that her head and face have been mutilated. At this point, after the woman’s veil is removed, Omovo’s perception of the bodies floating in the river suddenly changes. Whereas he thought he had seen the carcasses of dead animals in the river, he now realizes that they are the corpses of men. The removal of the veil, and the revelation that the woman has been mutilated, probably in the course of the war, occurs along with the removal of the veil or shadow of incomprehension that shrouds Omovo’s perceptions of the war. Thus, at the moment when the veil is removed from the woman’s head, Omovo sees the contents of the river clearly for the first time. He further notices that the eyes of the corpses are bloated. This detail describing the misshapen eyes of the corpses conveys the notion that war destroys the human capacity for clarity of vision and distorts human perceptions of the world around them.

After Omovo experiences this brief moment of clarity, when the veil is lifted from his perception, he runs out of his hiding place in the shadow of a tree and runs into the woods “through a mist which seemed to have risen from the rocks.” As he runs, he notices an owl staring at him, and then he trips and blacks out after his head hits the ground. Mist obscures the ability to see clearly, and so suggests that Omovo’s moment of clarity and understanding will be once again obscured. The owl staring at him represents his moment of clarity about war, for the owl is able to see at night—that is, symbolically, to see clearly the truth of war that is normally hidden in the shadow and darkness of ignorance. The owl thus symbolizes the true perception of war that has been revealed to Omovo by the removal of the veil from the woman’s face. Just as the veil has been removed, revealing the ravages of war on the woman’s face, so metaphorically the veil, or shadow, of ignorance has been removed from Omovo’s eyes, and the true horror of war is revealed to him.

When Omovo regains consciousness after falling and blacking out in the forest, he is in his home and it is dark. He at first thinks that he has gone blind. When he goes to the balcony and is able to look out he is “full of wonder that his sight had returned.” Omovo’s adventure, as related in “In the Shadow of War,” takes him through an allegorical journey from a level of ignorance and incomprehension of the realities of war to a moment of revelation in which he perceives the true nature of war with a new level of clarity. Omovo thus passes through a symbolic experience of blindness and restored vision that parallels his original blindness to the horrors of war and sudden vision of the true nature of war and the human devastation it causes.

Source: Liz Brent, Critical Essay on “In the Shadow of War,” in Short Stories for Students, Gale, 2005.

Issues of Morality

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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.

Although these linkages exist, they can be read as tenuous. Okri makes these parallels apparent and yet understated in an effort to make more than one reading of the story possible. On the one hand, the story can be read in such a way that the father supports the soldiers’ activities. This reading is supported by the fact that he asks Omovo to thank the soldiers for bringing him back from the forest and that he smiles “apologetically” at them for his son’s behavior. Another interpretation of this same scene, however, is that Omovo’s father is actually protecting his son by carrying him back to bed. If one favors the second reading, then Omovo’s father’s actions, though they seem on the surface to be disloyal to his family, are actually quite loyal. He protects his son from the danger of appearing to be loyal to the Biafran side of the war. Ironically, Okri uses the relationship between the soldiers and Omovo’s father to suggest that to befriend people who murder humanitarians can in some ways be seen as justifiable and thus moral during war.

Okri continues to explore the issues of selfpreservation and morality through the connections he creates among the veiled woman, Omovo, and Biafra. At the outset, the veiled woman’s allegiance to the Biafran people is evident. In addition to being thought of as a spy by the soldiers, she is seen giving her basket of goods to “children with kwashiorkor stomachs.” The word kwashiorkor describes the distension of the stomach that results from severe malnutrition. During the civil war, this was a lifethreatening yet common experience for Biafran children. By the end of the story, readers do not know whether the woman is indeed a spy or simply a humanitarian. What is apparent, however, is her faithfulness to the Biafrans who are suffering as a result of the war, as well as her contentious anger toward the soldiers and, by extension, the Nigerian national cause for its part in the marginalization of the Biafran people. The veiled woman’s anger is clearest during the scene just prior to her death when, having had her veil torn off, she picks it up and then stops “in the attitude of kneeling, her head still bowed.” Her feigned deference lasts only shortly and is soon followed by a demonstration of pride and power. Okri writes, “she drew herself to her fullest height, and spat” in the soldier’s face. Okri complicates the character of the veiled woman by creating questions around whether she is a witch; however, although her identity is less than clear, readers never have any doubts about where she focuses her compassion and loyalty.

As someone who may be too young to have strong political affiliations, Omovo cannot neces sarily be said to be a Biafran supporter. Nevertheless, Okri writes Omovo as sympathetic to and seemingly aligned with the veiled woman. The linkages between the two are both overt and symbolic. On the overt side, Omovo’s loyalty to the veiled woman is clearest when he lies to the soldiers about never having seen her, despite the fact that he had been watching her pass by his house at the same time for a week. Okri makes another one of the more obvious connections between the two when Omovo follows the veiled woman and the soldiers into the forest. He writes:

When they got into the forest the men stopped following the woman, and took a different route. They seemed to know what they were doing. Omovo hurried to keep the woman in view. He followed her through dense vegetation.

Despite the perception that the soldiers know what they are doing, Omovo elects to follow the veiled woman’s path into the forest. This suggests an allegiance to her rather than to the soldiers. One of the perhaps less obvious parallels between Omovo and the veiled woman surrounds their identities. Because she wears a black veil, the woman has an obscured identity. She cannot be easily recognized. In a different but somewhat similar vein, Omovo also has an obscured identity. Instead of telling the soldiers his real name when they ask him, Omovo tells them that his name is “Heclipse.”

The connections between the black veil and the name Heclipse as well as the characters that these images represent continue. Both a veil and an eclipse create a shadow or darkness. In the Nigerian flag, which consists of a central, vertical white band flanked on the left and right by two vertical green bands, the color white symbolizes national unity. In that a veil and an eclipse are associated with darkness, or the opposite of white, both Omovo and the veiled woman can be symbolically linked to the concept of disunity, which in this case refers to the formation of a new Republic of Biafra. At the same time, if light can be read as a symbol of truth, then Omovo’s and the veiled woman’s actions can be associated with the obstruction of truth. Just as Omovo is not always honest, the veiled woman appears to withhold information from the soldiers when they confront her in the forest. She refuses to tell them where “the others” are. Whether “the others” are the Biafra soldiers or the women and children with whom she left her basket, readers do not know. Regardless, the woman remains silent. Ironically, Omovo and the veiled woman’s shared dishonesty can be seen as admirable. Both Omovo and the veiled woman make decisions that compromise their own safety in an effort to ensure the safety of others. If one reads this story altruistically, this loyalty can be seen as loyalty to fellow human beings who are suffering because of the politics and injustices of war.

Through the development of these main characters, Okri aptly points out that war has an impact not only upon the soldiers who occupy the front lines but on society at large, including children. When Okri writes that Omovo calls himself Heclipse, he figuratively suggests that Omovo himself is an eclipse, or that which darkens the world in shadow. Taken a step further, this symbolism suggests that as the one who creates the shadow of war, Omovo is complicit in creating the moral dilemma in which he finds himself. This is perhaps what Thorpe means by the “self inflicted wounds of freedom.” In the newly independent and war torn Nigeria, the cost of freedom for Biafrans, as well as for those caught in the crossfire of the conflict, was their own morality. Yet, in an ironic twist, Okri suggests that perhaps such lack of morality is in fact the very basis of that freedom. In the context of war, siding with murderers and being dishonest proves to have moral currency. Ironically, in the case of war, it is sometimes true that acting in less than moral ways is the most moral thing one can do. It is in such moral ambiguity that people free themselves from the destructive nature of violence and war. As symbolized by his upstairs perch in the window, Omovo, like the veiled woman and perhaps like his father, observe the world from a moral high ground. In the end, Okri thus asserts that both the selfishness and selflessness of these characters express moral positions that demonstrate an admirable concern for family and humanity at large.

Source: Dustie Robeson, Critical Essay on “In the Shadow of War,” in Short Stories for Students, Gale, 2005.

Transformative Powers of Light and Shadow

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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 ground.” And although the children persist in throwing things at her, as she passes by, Omovo observes that “she didn’t quicken her pace, and didn’t look back.” Omovo is to discover the magic of the eclipse, which, through shifting light and shadows has transformative powers. For instance, the light reveals that the “spy that helps our enemies” is merely an old woman, a balding and beaten woman.

Similarly, enemies initially Omovo perceives to be “shadowy figures” moving about “in the halflight of the cave, appear in the light to be children with kwashiorkor stomachs and women wearing rags. In the changing light of the riverbed, Omovo also witnesses canoes changing to swollen dead animals, and eventually, to discarded bodies: “The lights change over the forest and for the first time Omovo saw that the dead animals on the river were the corpses of grown men.” He is not a witness to supernatural events, rather, his attempts to focus in on or adjust to the changing light reveal the carnage at the riverbank. The woman is not an enemy, she is one of many victims.

Perception, the ability to see, is a precious commodity. At the story’s climax, Omovo is alarmed by the loss of his vision. He is literally terrified by the darkness of his own home. In the story, “He found his way to the balcony, full of wonder that his sight had returned.” When he approaches his father, Omovo is overcome with delirium and “frantically” attempts to tell his father what the soldiers had heard. Omovo challenges, he questions, he tries to make sense of the unspeakable horrors he has witnessed. His father simply carries him away. At this point it could be argued that the reader really “sees” the implications of wartime for Omovo and his father. The kind of censorship that leads to his father’s ultimate conformity is not only implied, it is profoundly understood. The climax is not dictated by the events in the forest. The terror is not so much what is revealed by the light, visions of eerie grotesques floating in the river, or the leveling of a pistol at the stomach of a badly beaten woman, but what lurks in the shadows of the collective conscience.

In her work on Okri, Felicia Alu Moh discusses the short story’s economy of form in relation to Okri’s work. Because the short story is used to relay Okri’s childhood experiences, the economy of the genre leaves no room for bias. The events are witnessed without judgment, magnifying the horror. Characters are undeveloped, their actions impulsive rather than explained. Moh builds on her assessment of Okri’s chosen literary medium, asserting that by the very nature of its form, the short story reveals a sense of urgency on the part of the writer to record an event, feeling, phenomenon, or slice of life. Consequently, says Moh, the subject matters of the West African short stories are most often “urbanity, war (especially the Nigerian Civil war), conflict and cultural assertion, coupe d’etat and the world of children.” Okri relies heavily on the issues of urbanity and the Nigerian Civil War to flesh out his work.

The short story, the medium Okri chooses for recalling his childhood experiences in a war torn Nigeria, exposes the cultural malaise of which he so adamantly speaks. In a lecture entitled “The True Issue of this Century Is Not Terrorism, or Religion. It Is Freedom. We Need to De-Censor Our Minds,” Okri speaks of the censorship of self. Specifically, “In the Shadow of War,” examined in relation to Okri’s own writings, draws some rather striking parallels, illuminating the ramifications of absorbing, without thought, the terrors of war. Self-censorship, says Okri, renders humankind easily manipulated and bullied. Failing to question the atrocities surrounding our circumstances, then, means that “we collude in the great outrages and follies and injustices of our age” when we do not actively refute our tendencies to censor “our own minds, our fears, our doubts, our anxieties.”

Silent consent has consequences, says Okri, who asserts “our children are horrified to learn that we were present and adult and alive when unacceptable outrages against humanity are perpetrated under our very noses, and we did nothing. And so we implicate whole generations; and, in extreme cases, a whole nation.” Consequently, the stifling of thoughts, of the impulse to translate our sense of outrage into action, become part of a matrix of selfcensorship:

When we do not let ourselves think the thought which our flesh recoils from, when we do not let conscience speak that which the heart screams as unacceptable, when we give ourselves many excellent reasons for refusing to participate in some way in this grand drama of our interconnected lives, then we are victims of censorship within.

The end result of self-censorship for Okri is a bland existence. Potential lies dormant; emptiness prevails. Self-censorship results in a nation devoid of creativity, dreams, or genius. Consider the backdrop of Okri’s story—it is characterized by an oppressive heat, flies, and zombie-like villagers. Life drones on: “The heat was stupefying. Noises dimmed and lost their edges. The villagers stumbled about their various tasks as if they were sleepwalking.” The reader observes evidence of another Nigeria, as Omovo follows the mysterious woman past a crumbling cement factory, unfinished estates “with their flaking ostentatious signboards and their collapsing fences,” and a skeleton of a large animal under a tree. The war has stymied the growth of Omovo’s country, an eclipse overshadowing a sleeping nation. Omovo’s father also discounts the fact that there are soldiers and, as the reader comes to discover, extreme violence in their midst. “Turn off the radio. It’s bad for a child to listen to news of war.” The rationale for this command stands in stark contrast to what horrors await Omovo at the river. It is nonsensical.

So too is his father’s response to Omovo’s hysteria over the events at the river. Omovo dares to rise above the din of his everyday existence. By following the shadowy figure of the woman rather than share the information of her whereabouts with the soldiers, he chooses to question the chaos around him rather than comply with it and witnesses the murder not of a spy but of a humanitarian among his own people. Consequently, the horror of finding his father drinking with men who, moments ago, have murdered an innocent woman overwhelms him. To compound matters, his father responds to Omovo’s terror by asserting only that his son has been “saved” by the soldiers, then by whisking Omovo away to bed before he can mention the bloody episode.

Omovo is discounted, treated as if the entire episode was a dream, and is returned to a world of shifting shadows. His father is pressed to discount the horrors witnessed by his son, engaging in censorship without guile, in order to protect Omovo, but, in doing so, he succumbs to the weight of oppressive forces which serve to psychically destroy him. The scene is anticlimactic, the real criminals vindicated of what is probably one of many horrific war crimes. “In the Shadow of War,” matters of conscience, or consciousness, ultimately determine the legacy one leaves behind.

Source: Laura Carter, Critical Essay on “In the Shadow of War,” in Short Stories for Students, Gale, 2005.

Themes of Violence and Torment

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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 have scope to thrive, whether love, loyalty, or integrity; suffering “hardens you,” does not ennoble. A talking dead man’s verdict is the ultimate aphoristic judgment: “First they [sh——t] on us. Now we [sh——t] on ourselves.” So Okri continues, as in Incidents at the Shrine (1987), to probe unsparingly the self-inflicted wounds of “freedom.” (It must be added that, in the standard English narrative, alert editing should have removed some occasional lapses of usage or grammar, such as “Her eyes glowed like that of a cat.”)

Source: Michael Thorpe, Review of Stars of the New Curfew, in World Literature Today, Vol. 64, No. 2, Spring 1990, p. 349.

Incantatory Beauty

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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 nothing of the despairing. These stories are about despair, and for those unacquainted with such absolute destitution the encounter can be gruelling. In mood, however, they are closer to a series of concerto movements in which the bleak, upper tonalities are continually undermined and reproached by an impertinent ground bass, full of a sort of sombre jocularity. The squalor and hopelessness of the ghetto is here, but so is its capacity for improvisation, its mordant, facetious cunning. The title story has for its protagonist a vendor of powerdrugs, the havoc of which is strangely released into his own life and those of his townsmen. The transformations thus wrought in their circumstances approximate to a variety of nightmares, but they are also oddly, quirkily beautiful, like the incandescent colours of decay in the festering townscape in Okri’s earlier ‘Hidden History’. We are watching the mind turning inside out, but the revealed innards have something of the gaudy brilliance of a butterfly devoured by ants:

I saw the secrets of the town dancing in the street: young men with diseases that melted their faces, beautiful young girls with snakes coming out of their ears. I saw skeletons dancing with fat women. I passed the town’s graveyard and saw the dead rising and screaming for children.

The character is of course hallucinating, but the hallucination has in it nothing of the self-indulgence which might mark such an episode in a work by one of Okri’s European contemporaries. Such nightmares are the strange fruit of the ghetto itself, and part of its incantatory beauty. Okri is especially powerful at such moments. He is also particularly good at that syncretic progeny of African and European religion: the cultic efflorescence of the desperately believing mind. Nobody is quite as adept as he at capturing the spirit of the Nigerian urban occult: even Wole Soyinka, despite his interest, always seems to be looking down on it. Okri on the other hand seems to get right inside such ecstatic movements, and to come out on the other side having lost very little of his artistic composure.

What is the source of this particular strength? One is reminded of Okri’s antecedents. It is perhaps possible to speak of two schools of Nigerian fiction, one of which has for long been in the ascendent. The first, and most frequented, is the School of Achebe, the social realism which for thirty years has cauterised the social conditions of that unfortunate country while apparently doing very little to set it to rights. The second, unduly neglected, is the School of Tutuola, and it is to this that Okri belongs. This might seem an odd statement, for Okri is a quintessentially metropolitan—nay cosmopolitan— artist, while Amos Tutuola in the eyes of his more patronising readership is no more than a country bumpkin. But this is to take the surface as all. The excellence of Tutuola lies not in the hit-and-miss quality of his language—that rather is his downfall— but in his tapping of deep wells of mythic imagination which lie beneath the surface of modern life only to erupt at times of particular difficulty or stress, or at moments akin to the ecstatic.

It is with just such difficulty and stress, and with just such states of near-ecstasy that Okri presents us in his stories, where in consequence the wells of the mythic imagination are for ever breaking surface. Tutuola’s own roots lay in that master of Yoruba folklore, D O Fagunwa, and beyond him in centuries of inspired oral story telling. It is Okri’s strength that he is able to draw on such traditions without compromising anything of his fractious modernity. The effect can at times be chilling, but it can also be intoxicating.

It ought to be unnecessary to add that this is the equipment, and these are the talents of a major novelist. It is several years since Okri gave us a novel. Until he does so, he is a tiger crouching, much of his considerably quixotic power held in check. When eventually he elects to pounce, his leap will be magnificent. His audience awaits.

Source: Robert Fraser, “Incantatory Beauty,” in Third World Quarterly, Vol. 11, No. 2, April 1989, pp. 181–83.

Beneath the Waves

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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 place and is hounded from town to town by the clamouring voices of his victims. They are love stories because, despite the confusion and poverty of life they reveal, some rich power pervades them all. Soldiers, insane and cruel politicians, policemen, murderers and thieves exist in an elaborate spider’s web of fact and fantasy. This is a book on Nigerian life which perfectly captures the emotional temperature of that turbulent country, of a world in fact turned in upon itself and thriving against all the laws of reason. Ben Okri has created a style to match his subject and does it effortlessly well.

Source: Sylvester Ike Onwordi, “Beneath the Waves,” in Times Literary Supplement, August 5–11, 1988, p. 857.


Critical Overview