Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Class Struggles in "Of Goats and Poisoned Oranges"

It is one thing to start a story with a lot of promise and yet another to bring it to a fulfilling clincher at the end. I feel as if Ciku Kimeria’s Of Goats and Poisoned Oranges has left me with a series of unresolved or else loose ends that could have done with some polishing. But who am I that is yet to reconstruct a coherent opening to novel to say so?
Kimeria presents a story whose opening is so riveting that I was at once reminded of Ng’ang’a Mbugua’s Terrorists of the Aberdare. In Mbugua’s case, the story opens when the protagonist has arrived in heaven and is trying to get acclimatised to the new surroundings. For her part, Kimeria borrows a similar but doubly different angle. The narrator reckons: "It really is a strange situation to find oneself in - that of attending your own funeral. If anyone told me that the day would come when I would get to listen to my own eulogy, see old lost friends shed a tear and notice the absence of those I had assumed would be at my funeral, I would have thought them mad."
Of Goats and Poisoned Oranges demonstrates the superficial lives of Kenya’s middle class and pokes fun at attempts to bridge the gap between the low class and members of the middle class. This is vividly brought out in the marriage between Wambui, the novel’s protagonist, and Njogu, the antagonist. It is a fairy tale of a relationship that was never meant to be and one that miserably and tragically comes to an end when Njogu murders Wambui after she physically effaces her existence by feigning her death.
One could argue that this is a modern narrative reliving the times of urban populations and their socio-economic struggles. Njogu marries into money and begins to make an identity for himself. Unfortunately, this is overshadowed by his poor upbringing and the fact that he has married into a rich family. Consequently, he is not Njogu the man he would wish to be but the Njogu married to Wambui. It is a crisis of identity that drives him into seclusion when his marriage first alienates his family and friends and then forces him into a stage-managed lifestyle that he loathes. One could even propose that he feels emasculated as a man.
The unfolding of the story reveals the different life perspectives modern couples have as a result of their upbringing and the kinds of tussles this can create. Told from a multiplicity of voices, Of Goats and Poisoned Oranges allows each character to reveal their inner desires and fears by telling it all – the bare knuckle way. The conflict between Wambui and Njogu is given impetus by the appearance of Nyambura, Njogu’s mistress, in the picture.
A few flashes of suspense will keep the reader going as s/he strives to find out how the trickery of the couple upon each other will turn out. The lies that married couples keep are unravelled and the reader is made to reassess his/her postulations about marriage. Indeed, the text revels in the stereotype that a nagging wife is the sole bearer of the responsibility for her cheating husband. It also preys on the thinking that a couple can be discordant if the lady is rich and the man is poor. But you have to read the novel and decide for yourself.
However, I must give the story credit for the fact that it gives women a kind of agency. Although it is not well captured/brought out, one feels that the women somehow have a sense of control over their bodies, that is, their sexuality. The fact that the women also have money, apart from the few who have to rely on the men to provide for them, attests to the fact that women are consistently getting economically empowered in contemporary urban societies.
One of the best ways in which the women demonstrate independency is when they choose to have children without letting Njogu know that he is unable to sire. Hence, King’ori and Njogu jr. are not sons of Njogu, at least not in a biological sense. In this way, Kimeria enables the women to decide how they will be defined in their own terms. But I fault the text for being artificial in the way it tackles perceptions about poverty. I felt like the writer tried too hard to capture the sensibilities of a poor man and his ambitions. The descriptions about Kibera come across as too shallow and devoid of any meaningful depiction of slum dwellings.
One will have to grab a copy of the text to be their own jury. For me, it is just another read not necessarily for critical studies but one that can help to while away the time. It is not necessarily humorous but some may find it so on the contrary. I trust that you will enjoy it.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

The Dark World of Fiston Mwanza Mujila’s Tram 83

Not necessarily a fast read for me but I am nevertheless quenched since I have put to rest Mujila’s Tram 83. This is an interesting novel grappling with the underworld of a third world country torn apart by greed for minerals, power, money, that is, that innate desire in human beings to have control over others. This is a story set in a bar but conjuring up the essences of political war lords, creative writers, drunkards, prostitutes, miners etc.
This is the story of the people of the Democratic Republic of Congo. It is a projection of what a failed leadership leads to. It depicts the tale tale consequences of civil war, the enlisting of minors into forced labour in the mines, the debauchery of the society as minors are forced into prostitution and the general moral decay occasioned by the disillusionment of a socio-economic set up that is lopsided.
The opening chapter of the text provides a vivid picture of what the reader expects to encounter:
Northern Station. Friday. Around seven or nine in the evening. “Patience, friend, you know full well our trains have lost all sense of time.”
The Northern Station was going to the dogs. It was essentially an unfinished metal structure, gutted by artillery, train tracks, and locomotives that called to mind the railroad built by Stanley, cassava fields, cut-rate hotels, greasy spoons, bordellos, Pentecostal churches, bakeries, and noise engineered by men of all generations and nationalities combined.
It was the only place on earth you could hang yourself, defecate, blaspheme, fall into infatuation, and thieve without regard to prying eyes. Indeed, an air of connivance hung ever about the place. Jackals don’t eat jackals. They pounce on the turkeys and partridges, and devour them. According to the fickle but ever-recurring legend, the seeds of all resistance movements, all wars of liberation, sprouted at the station, between two locomotives. And as if that weren’t enough, the same legend claims that the building of the railroad resulted in numerous deaths attributed to tropical diseases, technical blunders, the poor working conditions imposed by the colonial authorities – in short, all the usual clichés.” (pg 1-2)
Indeed, the lives of Requiem and Lucien symbolically reflects the weight of this statement: “It was the only place on earth you could hang yourself, defecate, blaspheme, fall into infatuation, and thieve without regard to prying eyes.” The opening line of the text alludes to the Bible and the creation story. Mujila draws on this to ironically problematize the struggles of the people of the Democratic Republic of Congo to not only put their lives together but the very being of their nation too.
This is the kind of story that wrenches a reader’s heart apart as we encounter baby chicks coerced into prostituting their bodies so as to survive. The efforts to make a living under whatever cost draws people in droves from all corners of the world. Rivalries abound, pimping takes centre stage, honesty and truth become an anathema and the human life is reduced to something that can easily be dispensed with. In dark humour, Mujila pokes fun at the people’s efforts to enrich themselves whilst openly disregarding human beings who end up being destroyed in the process.
The narrative texture and linguistic choices are inventive. There are sections of long paragraphs of one sentence, an isolated case of repetitive use of a single word in one paragraph and other uncanny literary choices that make the text unique. The music played in Tram 83 is a mixture of different genres but jazz abounds. In fact, one can argue that the music helps to drown the people’s sorrows just as much as the drugs, sex, extortions, and the drinking sprees do. It is an adventurous narrative that bespeaks of neo-colonialism and perpetual exploitation that has remained the bedrock of most postcolonies.
Tram 83 is a story of the jungle that is African states afflicted by failed leadership. The chaos that characterise the story are best depicted in the cranky nature of the narrative. The paragraphs appear to be characterised by a rough texture of crude language, obscenities, and a general air of perversion. In this way, Mujila successfully depicts the seedy underbelly of a country besieged by a reckless gold rush that can only resort to pure anarchy.

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Abubakar Adam Ibrahim's Season of Crimson Blossoms

Although the year is far from over, I feel pleasantly inundated to name Abubakar Adam Ibrahim’s Season of Crimson Blossoms as my read of the year. Abubakar has a particular poignancy with language, a loftiness essentially associated with poetry but one which he effectively utilises for his novel. This is a story of old tales just as much as it is a tale of modern and futuristic events. It is a narrative that fuses together the disparate stories of a 55-year-old widow Binta Zubairu and that of a 25-year-old weed dealer Reza. The resultant effect is a palpable story that grips the reader from the first page to the very last but not without some blemishes or disappointments of course.
For a debut novel, Season of Crimson Blossoms is too promising, too interesting. Abubakar deftly describes in minute details the issues affecting contemporary Nigerian society and the world at large. It is a story about morality, women, liberation, crime, individuals, alienation… you could almost argue that the novel is about anything and everything. It has a haunting tale of the affair between a “mother” and a “son”. Not a biological relationship but one that deconstructs itself so since Reza, the young man that Binta has a relationship with, constantly reminds her of her dead son almost Reza’s age mate.
Reza appears to fill a void in Binta’s life since traditional dictum denied her an opportunity to show affection for her first born son. On his part, Reza has a troublesome past since he was unable to connect with his mother in the only way a son would wish to connect with his mother. Reza’s mother chose an immoral path and in her quest to cushion him from the same ended up pushing him away into an abyss of self-hatred. Binta and Reza’s meeting appears to be choreographed by fate, a budding emotional connection nourished by the emptiness in life and watered by the “undesirable” sexual tension between the two. This tension is clear at first sight when Reza breaks into Binta’s house as a common thief. The mixed feelings ensuing out of their physical touch as Reza restrains Binta from screaming is of both pain and pleasure, excitement and fear.
Season of Crimson Blossoms has numerous memorable lines. One of these serves as the narrative hook of the novel. Indeed, the novel opens in the most unorthodox of ways: “Hajiya Binta Zubairu was finally born at fifty-five when a dark-lipped rogue with short, spiky hair, like a field of minuscule anthills, scaled her fence and landed, boots and all, in the puddle that was her heart.” Both comic and serious is the tone that the reader discovers in the opening pages of the text. Much later, the story is characterised by humour and tragedy with almost equal measure when Binta and Reza’s relationship blossoms into unfathomable greats and bursts into a death most memorable: Reza accidentally kills Binta’s only remaining son when the latter, Binta’s wealthy son, accosts him after realising that he has been having an affair with his mother.
I love the way the narrative explores Binta’s sexuality, explicitly demonstrating how tradition can at times gang up with religious beliefs to repress individual feelings, desires and aspirations. Binta is cast as a woman who despises the mundane ritualistic nature of marital sex. Her subtle abhorrence of the same is clearly captured by her pain and trauma whilst she resorts to counting as a way to numb her pain and disgust as her husband “beastly” does his thing without a second thought to her feelings and her view of their sex life. Binta’s desire for sexual liberation is frustrated by her chauvinistic husband who appears stuck in the traditions he has been socialised into:
“She wanted it to be different. She had always wanted it to be different. And so when he nudged her that night, instead of rolling on her back and throwing her legs apart, she rolled into him and reached for his groin. He instinctively moaned when she caressed his hardness and they both feared their first son, lying on a mattress would stir.
What the hell are you doing? The words, half-barked, half whispered, struck her like a blow. He pinned her down and, without further rituals, lifted her wrapper. She turned her face to the wall and started counting. The tears slipped down the side of her closed eyes before she got to twenty.” (pg. 54)
In this excerpt, it is vividly clear that Binta and many other women of her ilk wish for a redefinition of the sexual act. She desires to be heard and not projected as a sexual object that is the butt of a man’s sexual passions and escapades. Indeed, Reza seems to fill the emptiness that widowhood has created in her heart and it is no wonder she appears to ironically come to life at the twilight of her life.
The text harshly castigates men especially concerning matters sexual. The narrative avers that all that men do is fuck and all that a woman must do is submit: “When he’s done, always put your legs up so his seed will run into your womb.” (pg. 51) It is a diminishing of the woman’s individuality, a reduction to a procreation tool. However, the men appear to enjoy the process oblivious of what devastation their sexual moves is wreaking on the women. Binta narrates that: “…when he was tossing and turning on the bed next to her, she knew he would nudge her with his knee and she would have to throw her legs open. He would lift her wrapper, spit into her crotch and mount her…She would count slowly under her breath, her eyes closed…And somewhere between sixty and seventy – always between sixty and seventy – he would grunt, empty himself and roll off her until he was ready to go again.” (pg. 53-54). It is not a mutual consenting sexual experience that anyone can relish but a lopsided one informed by ignorance, tradition and religious practices devoid of consideration for a woman’s sexual choices/preferences. In this context, Abubakar comes across as strongly disposed towards the liberation of women and their sexuality.

However, Season of Crimson Blossoms also explores the trauma and devastation of the civil wars in Nigeria. This is aptly captured in the traumatised soul of Binta’s granddaughter, Fa’iza, who cannot stand the sight of blood since it rekindles memories of her butchered family members. The cruel slaughter of her father appears permanently etched at the back of her mind: “…he raised his machete and brought it down. Bright, red blood, warm and sticky, splashed across Fa’iza’s face and dotted, in a fine spray, the shell-pink nightdress that her father had bought her” (pg. 84). In her troubling thoughts, the reader glimpses at the devastating effects of war when families are destroyed through death, separation or socio-economic after effects.
Binta’s strong personality enables her to express scorn at Mallam Haruna’s proposition to her. She appears able to dismantle the ideals of patriarchy, to make her on decisions, like where and when to meet Reza for their sexual escapades. On his part, Reza appears caught in the maze of crime and by extension political evils that threaten to destroy him. Although his conscience depicts a desire to change when he strives to please Binta, he also sadly comes across as unable to extricate himself from the web of an evil dance he has choreographed with the help of fate by his side.
Reza’s human side redeems him and endears him to the reader. Also, Binta’s fate as a lonely widow condemned to die lonely and without relishing the thrills of life accords her the sympathy of the reader. Both characters thereafter invite the empathetic eye of the reader as we discover how small happenings in our lives can devastatingly turn out for the best or the worst. Reza is the hero of San Siro, the hellhole of criminals but his criminality thaws out as he rediscovers his humanity in his relationship with Binta. On her part, Binta rediscovers the beauty of life and how troubling the human conscience can be when she develops feelings and gets entangled with Reza. Unfortunately, for Reza it is ironic that he has to die when he begins to discover redemption thereby according the reader an anticlimactic cathartic moment.
The catastrophe that is their lives is best captured and relived throughout the narrative. Although some bits read a bit off as Reza strives to become a better man or the fact that it reads weird for Binta to be romantically involved with a young man who only reminds her of her son, the story thrives as a strong reflection of our times, our fears, our desires, our frustrations and the general aura that is the world that we are living in. Season of Crimson Blossoms gruesomely reminds us that we all need to blossom in one way or the other, to punctuate life with different scents: provide an opportune aperture through which we can conceive of such possibilities through which we can blossom.

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