In the Shadow of War

by Ben Okri

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Style and Technique

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“In the Shadow of War,” like much of Okri’s work, contains a good deal of surrealist imagery and phantasmagoric happenings, which has led some critics to compare his works to those of Latin American writers Jorge Luis Borges, Isabel Allende, and Gabriel García Márquez, all known for their use of Magical Realism, which mingles realistic and fantastic details. This melding of worlds also defines Okri’s work. However, Okri argues that his stories realistically represent people’s consciousness of life in Nigeria, a country that is inhabited by three hundred different tribal groups and therefore at least this many belief systems. What seems surreal or fantastic to one group, Okri insists, will not seem so to another group.

The art of storytelling comes naturally to Nigerian people, Okri explains. As a child growing up in postcolonial Nigeria, stories were an intricate part of daily life and every aspect of culture. Parents and other authority figures, he remembers, would tell their children stories as parables to teach a moral or to manipulate them to do what they wanted. Likewise, children were encouraged to let their imaginations run wild and to invent stories.

Okri shifts between the material world and the world of spirits with seamless grace. Although the protagonist, Omovo, is grounded in reality in his solid village world—the radio plays; people shave, leave for work, carry briefcases, and catch buses—the boundaries between the real world and the ever-present spirit world remain blurred. In the otherworldly forest, Omovo fades in and out of wakefulness, sleep, delirium, and unconsciousness and, for a while, blindness. The faceless mysterious woman hidden behind a black veil, whom the village children believe to be a ghost, appears every afternoon and reputedly has no shadow, and her feet seem to glide, never touching the ground. This character and the wraithlike starving women in rags and their malnourished children in the forest contrast vividly with the real-world, fleshy soldiers, bursting out of their clothes and concerned with drinking palm wine.

Okri uses the setting to dissolve the solid world. Waves of heat permeate the village, and heat mists, the canopy of leaves, the half-light of the cave, the muddied river, and the darkening of the Moon constantly blur Omovo’s surroundings, so that nothing remains clear. The boy cannot tell the real world from the spirit realm. Flaking signboards, collapsing fences, and the skeletal remains of animals decry a worn, war-ravished world coming apart at the seams.

Okri also uses foreshadowing as a literary device to enable the reader to enter this shadowy otherworld without question or hesitation. At the beginning, the radio, covered with a cloth so it looks like a household fetish, takes on the role of mythic oracle when it presages an impending eclipse of the Moon. Because his father warns Omovo that the dead will walk and that the world will turn black, it is hardly surprising when the child happens across the ghostlike mysterious walking woman, who brings food to the starving refugees, and after he mistakenly believes he is blinded, the world turns black during Omovo’s sojourn into the forest.

Okri adds a touch of Christian symbolism to define Omovo’s character. The rooster’s crowing signals the betrayal of Christ by Peter in the Garden of Gethsemane, and Omovo’s refusal of money from the soldiers to spy on the mysterious woman casts him in a positive light, unlike the biblical Judas who took the Roman’s bribe of silver.

Historical Context

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Okri and Nigeria Okri was born in Nigeria and spent much of his childhood as...

(This entire section contains 654 words.)

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well as his adult life living in England. Despite his predominantly western residency, Okri’s writing has been deeply informed by the years he spent in Nigeria during the country’s three-year civil war and the subsequent, highly turbulent postwar years. Writing for theSouth African Literary Review in September 1992, Carolyn Newton writes that Okri’s novel The Famished Road “could not have been born of England’s green and pleasant land; his is a heady cocktail of African legend and western classicism.” The same can be said of his short stories, which served as the testing ground for the writing style that he popularized with The Famished Road.

From 1967 to 1970, Nigeria was embroiled in a bloody civil war, also known as the Nigerian- Biafran War or the Biafran War, during which an estimated 1 million people were killed. Okri lived in Nigeria during the violent war and postwar years up until 1978. After this time, he remained deeply connected with his country’s ongoing political and social struggles.

Okri has been and continues to be deeply affected and engaged in the issues, challenges, and injustices faced by his countrymen. In 1985, following a visit home, he published several essays about Nigerian political concerns and the state of the nation. Ten years later, Okri remained active in Nigerian events, including those surrounding Nigerian author Ken Saro-Wiwa’s imprisonment and subsequent trial for treason. Despite pleas from around the world, including those from Okri and South African president Nelson Mandela, Saro- Wiwa was ultimately hanged along with several others who were detained with him.

The Civil War Years and Beyond The Nigerian Civil War began in 1967; however, seeds of discontent and destabilization date back to 1963 when Chief Obafemi Awolowo, the first premier of the newly created Mid-Western Region of Nigeria, was accused of and imprisoned for working against the national leadership. During 1966, Nigeria lost civilian administration of the country during two successful military coups d’etat in January and July. The latter coup d’etat left Lieutenant-General (later General) Yakubu Gowon at the helm of the country. He quickly divided the country into twelve states, which prompted Lieutenant-Colonel (later General) Odumegwu Ojukwu to announce the secession of the three easternmost states. The three states were to become the autonomous Republic of Biafra, and thus began the war. Literary figures, like Christopher Okigbo, one of Nigeria’s best poets and someone Okri admired, joined the fight for Biafra. Others like Wole Soyinka, who is a well-known and respected novelist and playwright, opposed the war. By 1970, the Biafran resistance had diminished considerably, and on January 15, 1970, a delegation from Biafra surrendered and ended the war.

Despite the end of the war, Nigeria’s political landscape continued to be marked by leadership assassinations, multiple military coups d’etat, and the ongoing division of the country into numerous states. In 1979, a reprieve seemed possible when civilian ruler Sheu Shagari was elected president of the Second Republic. In 1983, however, Major- General Mohammed Butari deposed Shagari in yet another military coup and gained control of the country. Butari created the Supreme Military Council that was aimed at curbing all democratic rights. In 1985, General Ibrahim Babangida overthrew Butari and pledged to return the country to civilian rule within the next decade. On the economic front, the eighties were challenging years for Nigeria. The country’s real gross national product (GNP) declined so significantly that Nigeria was reclassified by the World Bank as a low-income country for the first time since 1978. In the face of a collapsing economy, the internal ethnic tensions continued to build, and despite successfully forming a transitional government in 1993 comprised of a military National Defense and Security Council and a council of civilian ministers, Babangida was unable to fulfill his pledge. He eventually stepped down, but not until 1999 did Nigeria experience its first peaceful transition to civilian leadership.

Literary Style

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African Literature Okri’s work belongs to the ever-growing canon of African literature, which in the United States and Europe refers to literature written in English or French by writers from Africa. Africa has a long history of oral literature and literature written in indigenous languages; however, as African nations began to achieve independence in the 1950s and 1960s, a collection of writing began to emerge that was written in the languages of nations who had colonized the continent. West Africans, especially Nigerian writers, have been particularly prolific. First-generation-African writers, like Chinua Achebe, wrote in response to the stereotypes that colonial nations had long created about Africans. While these efforts were effective in redefining Africa and its people and cultures, early African writing, which was largely written by men, has been criticized for failing to accurately represent women. Hence, in the 1960s and beyond, female African writers, including Flora Nwapa, Buchi Emecheta, and Ama Ata Aidoo, began to write literature that exposed not only colonial repression and oppression but oppression of African women by African men. Okri belongs to the second generation of African writers. As a group, these writers have focused not only on the social, cultural, and political ramifications of colonization but also on post-independence challenges, failures, and opportunities for change throughout the continent.

Magic Realism As its name suggests, magic realism is a genre of literature that includes both realistic and magical elements. Unlike fantasy writing, literature written in this genre is not wholly fantastical. Instead, the world in which stories unfold is both fantasy and reality. German art critic Franz Roh originally coined the term “magic realism” in 1925; however, the term is largely associated with literature written in the 1980s and afterward. Magic realism is most often associated with Latin American writers because authors such as Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Isabel Allende popularized this form. Despite this association, magic realism appears in fiction outside of Latin America. “In the Shadow of War” is one example. In this story, Okri incorporates elements that seem to be other-worldly like the veiled woman who the children say walks without touching the ground.

Setting When authors sit down to write literature, whether it be a novel, a short story, or a play, they must decide where their story should take place. The place in which a story takes place is called its setting. In some cases, authors intentionally make the setting of their work unknown or vague. In other cases, however, the setting of the work plays an integral role in the development of the author’s themes. The latter is true with “In the Shadow of War.” This story takes place during Nigeria’s civil war, which continued from 1967 to 1970. Using this as his setting, Okri was able to explore the impact that war has on people and the moral predicaments that they find themselves in during civil strife.

Compare and Contrast

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Late 1960s: There are fewer than ten Nigerian novels published per year.

1980s: There are approximately fifty Nigerian novels published per year.

Today: There are approximately twenty Nigerian novels published per year.

Late 1960s: Civilian administration in Nigeria ends following two successive military coups d’etat.

1980s: General Ibrahim Babangida overthrows Major General Mohammed Butari, stating his intention to return Nigeria to civilian rule in the 1990s.

Today: The Nigerian president Olusegun Obasanjo issues a press statement about his unwillingness to accept any actions aimed at destabilizing his democratically elected presidential administration.

Late 1960s: Famous Nigerian poet Christopher Okigbo resigns from the Cambridge University Press and enlists as a major in the Biafran army.

1980s: Because of governmental changes in Nigeria, Okri’s Nigerian-sponsored scholarship at the University of Essex ends. Okri leaves for London, where he is homeless before finding a flat in Seven Sisters.

Today: Author Ken Saro-Wiwa is taken into custody by the government, charged with treason, and hanged despite protests and appeals by Okri and South African president Nelson Mandela.

Media Adaptations

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The BBC maintains a Web page about Okri ( that contains a brief overview of his work and life. The site also includes a link to an article about one of Okri’s poems, as well as information about other postcolonial authors, including Chinua Achebe.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Sources Bissoondath, Neil, “Rage and Sadness in Nigeria,” in New York Times Book Review, August 13, 1989, p. 12.

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

King, Bruce, “Okri, Ben,” in Encyclopedia of Post-Colonial Literatures in English, Vol. 2, edited by Eugene Benson and L. W. Conolly, Routledge, 1994, p. 1178.

Moh, Felicia, Ben Okri: An Introduction to His Early Fiction, Fourth Dimension Publishers, 2002.

Newton, Carolyn, “An Interview with Ben Okri,” in South African Literary Review, Vol. 2, No. 3, September 1992, pp. 5–6.

Okri, Ben, “In the Shadow of War,” in The Art of the Story: An International Anthology of Contemporary Short Stories, edited by Daniel Halpern, Penguin Books, 1999, pp. 477–80.

———, “The True Issue of This Century Is Not Terrorism, or Religion. It Is Freedom. We Need to De-censor Our Minds,” in the Herald (Glasgow, UK), August 11, 2003, p. 9.

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

Parekh, Pushpa Naidu, and Siga Fatima Jagne, eds., in Postcolonial African Writers: A Bio-Bibliographical Sourcebook, Greenwood Press, 1998, pp. 367–70.

Thorpe, Michael, “Nigeria,” in World Literature Today, Vol. 64, No. 2, Spring 1990, p. 349.

Further Reading Boehmer, Elleke, ed., Colonial and Postcolonial Literature: Migrant Metaphors, Oxford Press, 1995. In this collection, Boehmer explores colonial and postcolonial writing in English from 1770 to the present, tracing its development and comparing it to western writing.

Martin, Phyllis M., and Patrick O’Meara, eds., Africa, Indiana University Press, 1995. This collection includes a host of articles about the continent’s history, art, music, social customs, economics, and politics. Of particular interest are the following articles: “African Literature” by Eileen Julien; “The Colonial Era” by Sheldon Gellar; and “Decolonization, Independence, and the Failure of Politics” by Edmond J. Keller.

Oliver, Roland, and J. D. Fage, A Short History of Africa, Penguin Books, 1990. Oliver and Fage’s book provides a concise overview of the continent’s history, including chapters on the colonial period and the early years of independence.

Parekh, Pushpa Naidu, and Siga Fatima Jagne, eds., Postcolonial African Writers: A Bio-Bibliographical Sourcebook, Greenwood Press, 1998. This source provides readers with an overview of Okri’s life, his works and major themes, and the critical reception that his work has received over the years.

Soyinka, Wole, The Open Sore of a Continent: A Personal Narrative of the Nigerian Crisis, Oxford University Press, 1996. In this collection of his previous speeches, Nobel Prize laureate and well-known Nigerian playwright and novelist Wole Soyinka offers a critical overview of Nigeria’s political history and the country’s future.


Critical Essays


Teaching Guide