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ARROWS OF RAIN
Heinemann Educational Publishers, UK,
Reviewed for USAfricaonline.com by NIYI OSUNDARE
The trope of madness is to the novelist what surrealism is to thepainter. It is both a mask and a method. Behind that mask is auniverse of freedom, even indemnity, hardly ever available to the"normal" person. From behind that mask you can upbraid the gods, damnthe despot, transgress all taboos and still roam free in the streets.Many African writers have explored this trope to great advantage: AyiKwei Armah in Fragments, Bessie Head in A Question of Power, and,more recently, Bayo Adebowale in Out of His Mind. In these worksmadness is not just a personal affliction; it is a mirror in whichthe images of a supposedly sane society play out themselves. In theend there is something close to a reversal of state in which the madindividual and the sane society tend to swap consciousness, and it isleft to the observer to decide who is actually mad.
In Arrows of Rain, Okey Ndibe (in picture top right) employs thistrope in his exploration of the bizarre happenings in Madia, acountry reeling in decay and chaos of apocalyptic proportions. Thestory begins rather cinematographically on a beach with its infinityof water and wilderness of sands. In the centre of attention is aprostitute's corpse with a beguiling smile on her lips. Surroundingher are Lanky, the voluble lifeguard and a motley crowd of loafersand voyeurists, including foreign tourists, trying to catch a pieceof the action. In a macabre turn of events, Bukuru, the madbeach-comber, is arrested and taken away by the police, arraigned incourt, and charged with the murder of the prostitute.
And in the muggy madness of an overcrowded court, he shocks theentire country by declaring that His Excellency Major General IsaPalat Bello, head of state and commander-in-chief, president forlife, of the state of Madia, is, indeed, a murderer. From now on, alleyes, all claws, converge on Bukuru. Government psychiatrists jumpover each other desperate to prove to the world and to Bukuru himselfthat Bukuru is mad. An plan is even contemplated to poison him inprison. He harbours a secret too dangerous for those in power.
The proof for this alarming revelation comes in a series ofcarefully managed flashbacks. Through them, we know that Bukuru isOgugua, the promising journalist who once crossed the path of MajorIsa Bello in their competition for the attention of Iyese, astrikingly lively young woman forced into prostitution after acalamitous divorce.
Major Isa Palat Bello (alias Major Penis), the spoilt,foul-mouthed, alcoholic scion of an oligarchic dynasty, wants her tocontinue as his kept woman. Iyese finds a new spiritual anchor inOgugua, breaks a long spell of infertility by having a baby for him.In a rage of drunken jealousy, Major Bello butchers Iyese, and walksaway. Only Ogugua and Violet, Iyese's loyal friend, know this secret,which becomes even more dangerous when a coup d'etat catapults Bellofrom Major to Major General in one brief day, and secures him intothe position of head of state, and later, president for life.
There are more intriguing strands to Ndibe's tapestry. As thestory unfolds, we discover that Femi Adero, the journalist who servesas carrier for Bukuru's story, is in actual fact his son by Iyese,who had been adopted and put through a name change. This novel is, ina manner of speaking, a tale of two journalists who discover too latethat they are father and son. And each of them goes through life withdeep scars: the elder Ogugua is driven into madness by a combinationof personal guilt and the malaise of Madia society; the younger isriddled with the insecurities and anxieties of an adopted child. Itis significant that Ndibe adroitly links father and son through theart and act of story telling, in true recongnition of themeta-fictional philosophy of this work: "a story never forgivessilence" (p.55).
The supreme strands in this narrative web are the characters. Thestory's population is not overly large, so many of the characters areendowed with a remarkable peculiarity. From the pub-crawling buthumane Ashiki to the oath-spewing but considerate Austine Pepe; fromthe injudicious Justice Kayode to the quietly liberal psychiatristDr. Mandi. Then there are turncoats and backsliders like Maximus Jajawho fell from the enviable pedestal of a people-oriented, deeplyhumane doctor into the scary abyss of crass materialism and chillingsoullessness, and Professor Sogon Yaw, the Marxist politicalscientist who lost his faith to decadent politics. And, of course,the two most engaging spirits in the novel: Ogugua's blindgrandmother, stoical, clairvoyant, and stunningly wise; Pa MatthewIleka, the positively radical father of Reuben Atta, Madia'ssybaritic Minister for Social Issues.
These chararcters and others in the story are unforgetably etchedin our memory through Ndibe's rippling sense of humour and uncannyeye for the dramatic. It is hard not to laugh even as one plodsthrough the depressing madness of Madia. And the story teller sparesno detail, overlooks no hint no matter how minute, how grotesque.Consider his depiction of the itinerant medicine seller on a movingbus in Langa; the diplomatic fallouts of Chief Amanka's legendarysnore; the orgy at Honourable Reuben Ata's residence, complete withits cognac and cigars, its impregnable Power Platoon; the Madiacabinet on the night of the coup d'etat, an event which met thecabinet in a drunken stupor, and the Prime Minister ("Come Tiger!")in a frenzy of carnal excess...
Ndibe tells it all in a language that is crisp, flavoured,sensitive, and frequently poetic. This story teller more than makesus imagine the people and events; we can genuinely feel them andtouch their substance. He leaves no one in doubt about his preferenceof good over evil. The visionless, idiotic, and tirelesslyacquisitive cabal that has usurped Africa's political leadership isdragged out for merciless drubbing and excoriation. Anyone acquaintedwith the history and contemporary politics of Nigeria will recognisefamiliar landscapes in this tale. In many respects Arrows of Rain ismore than a satirical yarn; it is a moral fable.
And in this strength lie some of the story's flaws. There is somuch corruption in this novel that nearly everyone is afflicted oneway or another. Well, except Ogugua's grandmother and Pa MatthewIleka, the two who serve as the conscience and moral anchor of thecountry. Grandma dies before the story is over, and Pa Ileka isalready in his eighties.
The young population of this story is so reprobate, so culturallyalienated, that the reader is constrained to wonder whether there isany future. In many ways, Bukuru's madness is a thin disguise, a kindof escape, for the lucidity of his mind belies the loony shagginessof his appearance. This novel gives us little in terms of hope; butit leaves a fair dose of nostalgia.
The message here stands the logic of Armah's first novel on itshead: the beautiful ones are already born; but, alas, they aregetting old and dying off. Any wonder, then, that at the end of thenovel, General Isa Bello the murderer-king is not just in governmentbut is unopposably in power? The tree of virtue is eaten up by decay.There seem not to be any bud, any spores, any off-shoots no matterhow tender.
This (unintended?) pessimism flies in the face of historicaltruth; for experience has shown that no matter how profound, howwidespread its evil, tyranny has never gone without opposition. Madiais essentially a country of scoundrels, without heroes, beyondredemption. I almost said to Arrows of Rain: retain your story, butcorrect your vision.
All this notwithstanding, Arrows of Rain is an eloquent, engagingstory. The novel makes evil repellingly ugly by taking off its mask.Ndibe's language is robust and masterfully controlled. His deploymentof the epistolary mode advances the narrative plot in a deliberate,unobtrusive way. Yes, indeed, "speech is the mouth's debt to thestory" (p.55); Ndibe has paid that debt with a telling that sparkleswith felicity and insight. A KING FOR ALL TIMES: CONTINENTAL AGENDA
Dr. Osundare, poet and prolific essayist is the author of'Pages from the Book of the Sun : New and Selected Poems' publishedin November 2000, and other works, including The Eye of the Earth,and Waiting Laughters. He is the winner of the Commonwealth PoetryPrize for 1986, and the 1991 Noma Award for Publishing in Africa.This review will appear in the February 7, 2001 edition of USAfricaThe Newspaper.
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A KING FOR ALL TIMES: