In the Shadow of War

by Ben Okri

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Themes and Meanings

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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, this woman represents Nigeria, already deeply wounded but, nevertheless, attempting to feed its starving people.


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Truth 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 playful joke between a father and his precocious son, the exchange also functions as an introduction to the notion that not everything that is said or stated as fact can be believed as true. At the same time, Omovo’s father’s statement that an eclipse is “when the world goes dark” shows readers that some information can actually be true. In addition to suggesting that honesty and dishonesty often go...

(This entire section contains 1023 words.)

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hand in hand, this opening scene prompts readers to be mindful that some factual elements of the story may be true, whereas others may not. For example, in the end, readers are left to wonder if the veiled woman is a spy or a witch. Perhaps more important, readers must also determine if they believe that all of the events in the forest really take place or if they are a dream or the product of Omovo’s fanciful imagination.

War and Morality “In the Shadow of War” is set during the Nigerian Civil War. Using this backdrop, Okri explores morality and the ways in which war breaks down the usually clear distinctions between what constitutes moral behavior and what does not. As mentioned in the earlier section on the theme of truth, Omovo’s dishonesty is one way that Okri points out how a normally immoral act can be moral in wartime. Omovo’s lie about not having seen the veiled woman prevents him from having to tell the soldiers that he has seen her going into the forest via the village paths and the Express road and thus shields her route from the soldiers, at least in the short term. Earlier, Omovo disobeys his father by turning the radio back on after his father leaves for work. Under normal circumstances, such behavior would demonstrate willful disobedience; however, to the extent that what Omovo learns on the radio informs his decision to lie to the soldiers and reject their bribe, his disobedience can be seen as a path to rightful living and informed decisions when it comes to protecting the veiled woman. While Okri explores ambiguities around moral behavior, he also clearly points out the injustices of war, the most obvious of which is perhaps that the veiled woman is killed by the soldiers for coming to the aid of malnourished children and women. In the end, readers do not know if the veiled woman is indeed a spy or if she is simply helping some unfortunate casualties of the war; however, the lack of resolution on this point only reinforces Okri’s perspective that murdering anyone is wrong.

Loyalty One of the most prominent themes in “In the Shadow of War” is that of loyalty. The theme manifests itself in many ways: loyalty to country, loyalty to humanity, and loyalty to family. The soldiers’ pursuit of the veiled woman demonstrates their loyalty to the national cause. They are fighting to unite Nigeria once again and to prevent Biafra from becoming an independent republic. In contrast, the veiled woman does not demonstrate loyalty to the national cause. Instead, she shows clear disdain for the soldiers when she spits in the face of one of them. By bringing the basket of goods to the impoverished and displaced Biafran women and children, the veiled woman demonstrates loyalty, perhaps to the Biafran cause but most definitely to her fellow human beings. Whether the woman is a spy is not clearly resolved before her death; however, her commitment to helping people who are suffering despite their political affiliations is readily apparent. Omovo also demonstrates loyalty to humanity when he lies to the soldiers about whether he has seen the veiled woman. The theme of loyalty as it pertains to family is brought out in the end of the story when Omovo’s father tells him to thank the soldiers and then takes Omovo back to bed after “smiling apologetically” to the soldiers. Read in one way, this scene suggests that the father’s loyalty lies with the soldiers and that he somewhat hushes his son’s excited tale of the day’s events. Read in another way, however, Omovo’s father can be seen as protecting his son from the harm the soldiers might do to him if Omovo appears to defend the veiled woman’s actions in any way. Ironically, by taking his son home, Omovo’s father is showing the greatest loyalty because he is protecting his son from a political and violent world that he may be too young to understand.