Perhaps the first thing that strikes one about this novel is its desire to be a poetic rendition. The signs of this desire are palpable and pervasive throughout the story. The author obviously has intended to situate the narrative between the junction at which poetry and story meets; more tellingly, the junction at which poetry exerts its poetic power over narration. The other thing to say about this novel is its inclination to startle its readers. Certain stranger-than-fiction scenes or episodes appear unexpectedly to beat the readers’ imagination. Concomitant with that unexpectedness is what one might see as the novel’s boundless freedom to use four letter words or words that would have been self-censored. In a way then this novel has the ambition of being a brave tale both in subject-matter and in style.
It is difficult not to see Naked Light and the Blind Eye as the story of Tani. The novel presents Tani as a girl child raised by a mother who frees herself from cultural restrictions and sets her gaze on the thing between a man’s thighs; and by a father who himself is lost to the fleshly pleasure a woman gives. This template of sex and sexuality will offer itself to a teenage Tani as a normal way of life. In addition to being a “rebellious teenager”, she is practically nymphomaniac, raping boys. The omniscient narrator says, “Tany enjoyed fucking. Everyone in the village came to know this about her. Not long after, Tani was sitting on a bench at the back of the hut and playing with a knife, which she held between her legs. She had been asked to peel some yams by her mother… Tani was singing and cutting through the air within her thighs until she cut herself just beside the clitoris” (82). This, presented as a flashback, is part of the profile of Tani, the impossible young woman that Solomon, far older than she, brings to the city as a wife – the woman with whom he expects to have a good life in his retiring age.
Expectedly Solomon who has had a wife and children before marrying Tani is condemned to a harrowing matrimony, although he is himself not flawless. The novel opens with Solomon’s travail rendered in very poetic lines. Once again Solomon has beaten up Tani, and she has run away. It is apparent to him that if she does not return his life will be in even worse situation. When Tani returns, after she has characteristically taken advantage of the fight to wangle money from Solomon, the full drama of husband and wife in a precarious condition unfolds. From being a nagging wife to being sexually exploitative, from being a bad mother to being incestuous (she wants to make love to her stepson Ayimola), from being a bad cook, bad house manager, to being a cruel escapist (when Solomon is brought down by stroke she abandons him to die), Tani comes through as an incarnation of evil, the type in (male-contrived) folklore.
But it is not only Tani’s glaring inhumanity that startles the reader. In fact the subplots, mostly set in the village Oroke – from where most of the main characters hail, are even more shocking. There are the episodes of the madman Kanida putting a number of puppies inside a “battered rusty tin”, boiling them to death and feasting on them; of him raping women in the night while they are asleep; and of him being clubbed to death by a merciless village mob. There is the incident of Jeremiah, Tani’s uncle, not only eating dog but also human beings. There is the episode of how Manari, one of the villagers, cut off the ear of a boy who has been stealing foodstuffs from his house. Then there is the drama of how soldiers descend on the village and perpetrate all kinds of evil ranging from raping to killing. These and other incidents give us a character of a village where strange things happen. Besides being a story of Tani, the novel is a story of this unusual village perhaps intended to dramatise the inhumanity existing among a people, especially in the Niger Delta area of Nigeria. This is even more depicted in the description of squalor in the city, with characters like the artists Ayimola, Otabolo and Henrietta commenting on the oppressive system in the society.
It is easy to see the strength of this novel as resting on its poetic language and rather bizarre imagination. But it is also on these the weakness of the novel rests. At the beginning of the novel, especially in the very poetic rendition of Solomon’s personal anguish, the novel comes through as heavy-handed not just because of its poeticity but also because of the level of philosophisation. It does seem that Osha allows his training in philosophy to come between a story and his telling or, rather, showing it. All of the musings about Solomon’s failure in life and his condemnation to a cantankerous woman, as unnecessarily intrusive as they are, would have been left out (and possibly produced as a poem) since the drama (more of which is needed) the novel subsequently presents is sufficient to let us know of Solomon’s agony. Indeed each time the narrator vacates the story to comment or philosophise the novel becomes tedious and one wonders if there shouldn’t be a demarcation between a poem or a philosophical piece and just showing a story.
It is also troubling the manner in which the novel deploys four letter words, especially “cunt”, in what is presented as a bucolic setting. When Manari is accosted by the village elders for cutting off the ear of a boy who just stole his foodstuffs, he charges at them: “Then where were you when the motherfucker kept on doing damage to my barn?” (102). Is it the case of the character using disrespectful word or the author using a socially alien expression in a village setting in Nigeria, especially as there is nothing in the novel to give the social backgrounds of the people in the village. Osha’s novel, in its silence on certain sociological specifics and time, and its loud, even lousy, use of slang, both by the characters and the narrator, reads as an uprooted story which prides itself only on its textual being. One of the dangers here is that most of the characters, especially those cast in the stranger-than-fiction scenes, appear fake or misrepresented. There is the case of the narrator being insincere with the story; it does seem that he is more interested in stinging human conscience than showing a story.
But it is to the credit of the novel that it does not – in spite of or because of its dense language – come through as another banal political commentary on the Niger Delta condition. This is not to say the novel does not indict; it indicts both the leader and the led by giving its readers pictures of rot, the biggest being the personality of Tani. Tani’s character, despite its anti-feminist ramification, may strike one as a symbol of a dictator’s Nigeria.