Review By Odega Shawa
The first thing anybody should do when they pick up Onyeka Nwelue’s novel, A Country of Extraordinary Ghosts, is think of Amos Tutuola’s classic The Palm-Wine Drinkard and his Dead Palm-Wine Tapster in the Deads’ Town.
Without this elevation of socio-cultural, and in Nwelue’s case urban, consciousness, the entire folksy nature of the fiery metaphors that start tearing at the reader right from the first lines of the story falls short of the arcane initiation the entire novel was strategically positioned to be.
The magic of the novel’s plot movement lures one to not see men like trees, as the blind man with the half miracle cure told Jesus Christ. A disembodied spirit floats through the central narrative, taking on his two bodies, his two lives, as these cut open the very fabrics of experience for us to see what lies under the thing that lies under what we think is reality. In one amorphous perspective of this central character: ‘Sodom is Lagos and Lagos is Sodom.’
There you have it.
The story takes place in Sodom and Lagos, two worlds apart that share yet a common bond in the dissolution of both moral and vision. Not just for individuals or the numerous characters, naa. Even for entire nations, this disintegration of the core significant qualities that constitute progressive existence means that blindness will become common in all spheres of life, with its attendant catastrophes.
In one of his more insightful moments the hero, there is doubt he will accept such a tag without argument, peels off from the main narrative what precisely the crises has become in the real Sodom-Lagos, just like a few moments ago a beautiful ashawo (prostitute) peeled off his pants inside her shack on the streets of Lagos:
‘The people… never did think about the future. They were drinking, whoring or fighting. No one was thinking about anything. No one was thinking about phones, or machines or birds that could carry people.’
This is blindness at work of course.
In Sodom a similar blindness ensured the death of the city because it caused the inhabitants to demand the rape of God’s angels. The warning is that in Lagos it could cause the death of an urban stronghold that meticulously plans megacities for the well to do, but no word on the survival of the masses who sleep in shacks as tiny and as imaginably uncomfortable as ‘chicken houses’. The gutter leaks sewage and urine. The roof does not keep away rain on stormy nights.
Yet just across town other people have five million naira to waste on one-night parties. The flashy lights all go to the top, ignoring the swarming termites below that can possibly gnaw the mighty tree down.
In the cosmology of A Country of Extraordinary Ghosts Sodom is a progression of the same destructive arc that Lagos must avoid. Maybe your city, too. Maybe your country and your continent.
The novel is not just a social commentary of course. It is a spiritual guide on how not to let a society die.
The prevalent erotic tone of the narrative is a ruse. The characters use it to escape from their own existential deformities, something they are powerless to deal with on their own.
The way a typical Lagos ruffian deals with inner sensitive awareness of the rot around him is beer, marijuana and prostitutes. Looking at this external nature one can hiss and look away in disdain. The hostile ruggedness of the typical Lagos ‘area boy’ of course is the same as the hostile ruggedness of the men of Sodom who surrounded Lot’s house, demanding the angels of God for sexual assault. At least in their case the Lagos area boys and girls, who the central character falls among in his teleportation from Sodom, use their hostility as a survival tool. They have little choice.
They are not monsters, these Lagos area people. They welcome the stranger among them and seeks to protect him, to plant him in their world. They are redeemable. As the saying goes in Lagos: na condition make crayfish bend. It was nurture, not nature, that created their world and its outward bad reputation.
Because of this bad reputation, the police needed little provocation to round up our hero and his friends after an all-night party. A Roman Catholic priest appears to bail him, then, as fast, proceeds to adopt him. They take a trip to the Vatican.
This is the last encounter of redemption, or is supposed to be, since religion itself is a metaphor for spirituality. If all else fails, then we still have our spiritual ideals, right. However, the question remains: how do you redeem yourself in an environment where you cannot remain righteous, by default?
‘…there was a knock on the door, I opened it, and it was Father Ajayi. He walked into the room, laid his head on my bed, opened his short and brought out his penis, and then, he looked me in the eye and said, “Atone for your sins.”’
Instead of a strong and rational punishment, a counter atonement if you like, the Father, when he is discovered, one among many other wolves in sheep’s clothing, is merely transferred to another parish by the custodians of his venerable office.
In this way, with the spiritual outlet of redemption also blocked by the wolves tending the sheep, A Country of Extraordinary Ghosts stabs you awake with its final siren: we all carry our last trumpets with us, and disembodied, in transit or living, we can blast it whenever we want, for all it is worth. Heaven may not have any voice stronger than the voice in your head that says evil is evil, no matter who is doing evil. If we all listen to this voice, eventually, it may be possible to squeeze the Sodom from Lagos, to squeeze a better outcome from a bad example.
Odega Shawa is a writer, poet, and the author of ‘The Biafra Manifesto.’