Reviews

Between Fantasy and Reality in Maiwada’s Musdoki

In serious literature, the genre that bears the closest affinity to popular literature such as thrillers, mysteries and romances can be said to be works classed under magical realism. Despite its great attraction to writers and readers alike, the demands placed on this kind of writing are so onerous such that only a few adherents can fulfill. It is these demands that have raised magical realism far above popular literature especially the added requirement of verisimilitude. It is not enough to depict the world of magic, it must be very realistic, with the characters well-infused with flesh-and-blood quality, the setting even when surreal must, through the power of imagination, be made so real and life-like that the readers can be able to associate with. What about the issues or themes? They must be serious and timeless, and not merely centred on fast bucks (money), women, crime, espionage and counter-espionage. It is the absence of these ingredients that robs popular literature of being regarded as serious literature. In spite of the world-wide fame of Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, owing to the controversies it has generated in religious circles, it can still not be classed as serious literature because of poor characterization and the unrealistic portrayal of events in the name of thrilling the readers. John Grisham’s The Pelican Brief, Fredrick Forsythe’s The Day of the Jackal, Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express, James Hadley Chase’s No Orchids for Miss Blandish, and Mario Puzo’s The Godfather are classic examples of thrillers that find convenient categorization as popular literature.

The evolution of the concept of magical realism can be traced to the short fiction of Edgar Allan Poe. This tradition was to be continued in the short fiction of Frantz Kafka (Metamorphosis) and D. H. Lawrence before attaining its maturity in the works of Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Salman Rushdie. No mention of magical realism today is complete without Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude and Love in the Time of Cholera and J. K. Rowlings’ Harry Potter series. On the African soil, Amos Tutuola blazed the trail with The Palm-wine Drinkard, followed by D. O. Fagunwa’s A Forest of Thousand Daemons (translated into English by Wole Soyinka), Okri’s The Famished Road and Song of Enchantment and Ngugi’s The Wizard of the Crow. The new generation of Nigerian writers has also found this magical realism mould of fiction alluring, albeit with a handful of successful adherents such as Maik Nwosu’s  Return to Algadez and Nnedi Okorafor’s Zarah, the Windseeker, and most recently, the lawyer-poet, Ahmed Maiwada, with his first fiction offering, Musdoki.

Set in the early 1990s, more specifically during the military regime of General Ibrahim Badamosi Babangida,  Musdoki is the story of a young, shy, frail, bespectacled law graduate from the Northern city of  Zaria, Nigeria, who goes to Lagos for his Barrister-at Law programme at the Nigerian Law School, then only centralized in the latter city. Before he finds his feet in the hustle-and-bustle city, he is fortunately accommodated for four days by his ex-coursemate’s mother, Mrs. George, in their family house at one of the highbrow areas of the city, the famous Victoria Island. This is where he is fated to meet Christy, later changed by her to Christine, one of the beautiful daughters of Mrs. George, whose influence in the life of the central character, Musdoki, in later years is to take the most dramatic turns. Her rather dreamy view of the future reminds the young lawyer of a young girl in his past known as Rita. She taunts him with cowardice as he refuses to live in the paradisiacal world she presents to him. From the outset, it is obvious that her love is not innocent but with strings attached especially when she seals it with blood-oath without his knowledge or consent on page 40:

She eased the knife and the blood-stained, half-peeled potato from my hands and set them on the floor. When she rose to attend to me her left thumb was equally bleeding, which she joined to my bleeding thumb. Then she stooped and licked the blood on my arm, moaning with pleasure and chuckling at the same time. ‘Suck mine’, she urged …

This seemingly innocent initiation into the occult world is to haunt the narrator-character with nightmarish existence. His resistance is not viewed lightly by her, after all, in the words of Shakespeare, ‘heaven knows no fury like a woman scorned’. In consequence, his life is dogged by one plague or the other until, when all attempts appear to have failed, she comes to the open to kill him by auto-accident. Her skills in the supernatural world are so powerful that she can morph from one creature into another, from Christine to Rita, to an old Hausa woman and to other hair-raising shapes!

One unique feature of the African writer, which he appears not to have weaned himself from, long after the colonial misadventure in Africa, is the theme of protest. Apart from the central theme of love, Musdoki can well be regarded as a reprisal novel to  Adichie’s  sectional novel, Half of a Yellow Sun, as seen from the eyes of a northern Nigerian zealot-narrator. All the sins of Southern Nigerians against Northerners in this ill-fated union are well-chronicled. The disdainful attitude of the Southerners not to ever attribute intelligence to Northerners, ‘intelligence was not associated with my people!’ (p. 37), ‘Some others said I was only daft like my kith and kin’ (p. 88), how Northerners were hounded out of Lagos and other South-western states of Nigeria during the annulment of June 12 Presidential Elections by the IBB dictatorship (pp. 88 -126), how their Yoruba wives and children refused to flee along with their Hausa husbands reminiscent of white women when the going is unpalatable, how Northern delegates were stoned in Lagos and Ilorin for the sin ‘that the North was not yet ready for full independence from Britain at that time’  (p. 100). Maiwada’s sense of history is very high and he uses it to advantage to describe how Nigeria is endlessly plagued with disunity right from the days of the independence heroes. He seems to be saying that as long as we give room to these divisive tendencies, the dream of one Nigeria is a mirage on our road to the Promised Land. His arguments are more balanced than Adichie’s with great sympathies for the marginalized Northern Hausa Christians. As he put it in the mouth of his character, Musdoki, on page 126:

The unqualified patriotism for the North among the crowd was infectious. I was infected. I was electrified to find myself with the same content of Northern patriotism I had long before I left home for the Law School; long before the religious killings slit the throat of my delusion on a cohesive North.

In the end, Musdoki resolved never to run away from the boiling West, for he would rather ‘gladly suffer the  stranger’s dagger than the grass blade of my own kith and kin’ (p. 128 -129). He poignantly narrates his heart-rending experiences when he flees the bloodthirsty Yoruba youth thirsty for Northern blood and runs into his people. Happily, he calls at them in Hausa, ‘Wait … please don’t run away, for Allah’s sake. I’m one of you.’ (p.92) and he is given a lift by a family in a flight from Lagos in a salon car. After donating his two bottles of water as a sacrifice which ‘must have convinced everybody of my authenticity as a Northerner’ (p. 93) for the car stalled for want of water, he is given a lift. But on getting to Jebba, a Northern town, the family discovers much to their chagrin that he is not a Northern Muslim like them when he is invited to join them at the mosque but he does not budge (p. 126). Upon return, they refuse him entrance, wrench the door from his grip and leave without him, the profligate, the infidel! His cry is perhaps the cry for the entire North as on page 127:

I stood there for a long while after the car had disappeared from my sight, northward toward Mokwa town. If I cried, the tears were not for me; they were for the North that must be one to win the rumoured war, regardless of its people’s diverse personal choices.

The writer does not spare these divisive elements within the so-called monolithic North who use religion to discriminate against their Northern Christian brothers who, like the bat, stranger to the sky and earth, are both rejected by the Southerners and their Northerner brothers with nowhere to cling to in the name of religion. Perhaps, through the immediacy of the first-person narrative technique, one cannot fail to associate Musdoki as the alter-ego of the writer himself. They both share several similar attributes in common – lawyer, poet (pp. 56, 67 and 195), Northern Hausa Christian, son of a teacher mother but spoilt like the last born (pp 36 and 42) and a pharmacist father (p. 37).

Musdoki can also be described as a picturesque this-is-Lagos novel, for perhaps, no other novel in Nigeria has ever described Lagos from the eyes of a stranger like this work. To the narrator, the city was like a god caught naked. The roads are terrible (p.46), the weather treacherous (p. 47), ‘the air is foul; the houses are old and dirty … People were out on the porches and the balconies brushing their mouths. I said don’t they have sinks in their toilets? Children were hauling water from one compound to the other. That was hard life.” (p. 46). The narrator went on on page 54 to describe the milling bodies engaged in usual wait for buses and taxis under drizzling skies, the ‘cut-throat struggle’ for them when they come along, and even the ferry in the lagoon and Apapa not exempted, ‘crawling with bodies and sunk into the lagoon water up to her deck; and I perched on the edge, watching the liquid killer growl by.’ Perhaps, the best description of Lagos in this novel is given on pages 42 and 43, thus:

Lagos was a whirlpool, for a first timer like me coming out of a bucolic city in the conservative north. The buses would not wait for the passengers to board or disembark properly before moving as if they were running on conveyor belts. Sometimes they seemed to vanish from the roads, especially when it poured, or during rush hours. On those occasions, miracles alone could get me either to school or back home at the expected hours. When it was not pouring hard and long, it was scotching and stifling; a condition made worse for me by the Law School dress code of suit-and-tie. The high volume of traffic often blocked every inch of the broad highways. And there were crowds everywhere; on the streets, at the bus stops, inside the buses, on the roads, at school, at the pepper soup joints and even at home. My cousin and I shared a cramped bedroom in a three-bedroom apartment flat rented by his married and older friend who worked in a different merchant bank on the island, and who had a retinue of dependants that lived there or camped at will. There was always more than one person to a bedroom. Still the parlour never ceased serving as bedroom every night.

Maiwada may have left the city of Lagos for more than a decade now to settle in Abuja, but he is still a Lagosian at heart, for Lagos is like an enigmatic lover noted for its recalcitrance and yet difficult to break completely loose from her. Even writers in Lagos will go green with envy with the powerful description of the waterways in Lagos on pages 68 and 69 as follows:

We flew eastward against the tides, toward the Apapa Port. To our right, Ikoyi West and East blurred past, and to our left Victoria Island did the same; each area with its strings of dazzling traffic, dominated by yellow of the taxis and buses traditional to Lagos. The Falomo Bridge flipped above us as if it was a curved piece of stick. So did the Onikan Bridge, from where we swerved southward toward the sea. Lagos Island and Apapa Port were to our right, as was the lagoon separating the two places that lay flat like a crinkled aluminum sheet. To our left were the posteriors of Bonny Camp military barrack, the Federal Palace Hotel, navy staff story buildings, the national and Lagos State television stations all on Ahmadu Bellow Way in Victoria.

A beautiful description from a writer very familiar with Lagos, wouldn’t one say? Maiwada has done to Lagos with his Musdoki what his elder literary countryman, J. P. Clark did to Ibadan in poetry several years ago when he penned as follows:
Ibadan,
                Running splash of rust
        and gold – flung and scattered
        among seven hills like broken
        china in the sun.

Perhaps apart from Helon Habila, no other Northern Nigerian writer uses language with the consciousness of entertaining his readers like Maiwada. To him, literary language is sterile and dead without poetry, be it in prose-fiction or drama. As a poet, Maiwada’s language is so fresh and sublime that the world of his characters is so pictorially realistic in a grand style of magical realism. The fusion of reality and fantasy is impossible without language as on pages 81 and 82 where the narrator described a horrifying scene reminiscent of Tutuola’s The Palmwine Drinkard and Okri’s The Famished Road:

… the hawk’s hanging tail began to turn gradually, receding from the top edge of the television screen in jerky motions as the hawk turned to face me directly. Its eyes shot two pinstripe shafts of dazzling green light into my eyes. I screened the blaze from my eyes with an open palm. Then I heard a sudden, urgent flutter of wings. The hawk’s claws and beak had torn into my bare face and shoulders before I knew it; it wings that felt like heated iron plates had slapped my newly shaved head and my face. I jerked backward until I crashed out from the sofa with my back to the floor. My eyeglasses dropped to my mouth, which made it hard for me to see very clearly.

A nature poet, Maiwada’s description of nature in this novel is comparable to the masters of the Romantic Age of English Poetry such as John Keats’s ‘To Autumn’ and William Wordsworth’s ‘The World is Too much with Us’. On page 76, ‘the rising sun tinted the eastern sky in slapdash strokes of grey and amber’, and on page 107, we have:

The grey clouds draped on the sun’s doorway admitted a sprinkle of tan and amber. It was enough to attach silhouettes to our voices; to transform the vegetation on the outside to a stable olive blur; enough to reveal the patches of liquid silver that littered the grey road from the previous rainfall. Oh, the glow and the glory! It was like emerging through the birth canal of a coal pit into the open world. Beakful serenades by the treetop choirs and orchestra cheered our rebirth …

He continued on page 125 with powerful nature imagery when he wrote ‘Now and then a frayed ribbon of skylarks would drift across the blue clear sky and then evaporate’. On every page, Maiwada serves his reader with fresh images drawn from his wide experiences such as ‘only to see the toilet seat brimming with a black python as thick as a sumo wrestler’s thigh. Its wide hood stood erect in readiness either to spit or spring, and then swallow. Its big eyes were translucent bulbs of blood.’ (p. 57). In fact, it is this keen imagination that the writer infused in his character, Musdoki, that lends this work with magical realism.

However, as great as this novel is, there is a snag with the ending which rings like a typical Nigerian film, what with the usual last-minute repentance and reconciliation of Musdoki and Rita alias Christine. This has dampened his attempt to ‘vividly blur the border between dream and reality’, what would have been an otherwise great tragedy, thus robbing the work of a convincing ending. Again, there are many gaps in the work. Is Rita really Christine? If yes, what happens to her shape, Rita’s?  It would have been better if the Rita’s story is removed from the entire work to pave way for the more interesting Christine story to run, unimpeded, to the end alone instead of this escapist happy ending. It appears that the gargantuan conflict provoked in the story is beyond a satisfactory resolution by the writer. This would have taken care of some of the improbabilities in the work which have weakened the verisimilitude of the plot. The end result is the last, unsatisfying gasp of the reader that hangs tremulously in the teeth like a false laughter. Also, the character of the hero, Musdoki, does not seem to be fully developed. He started as a weak, innocent and indecisive character and ends as a very carefree character when he rises on page 205 to defend a girl who has been seeking to destroy his life. This cannot be said to be Christ-like as even Christians are enjoined to be as gentle as a lamb but as wise as a serpent! Similarly, there is a little lack of consistency in the plot. For example, the old-woman ‘organ-thief’ is said to have restored Musdoki’s stolen organ (private parts)  and disappeared into thin air in public view on pages 175 and 176 but on pages 180 and 181, Iyabo, Musdoki’s office secretary, worried when told that the old woman had disappeared because Musdoki’s organ had not been returned, only for her fear to be allayed by Musdoki himself that when he woke up from sleep and rushed to ‘the bathroom for shower so that I could rush down to your [Iyabo’s] place, I saw that my yahoo [organ] has been restored!’ (p. 181).  There are also a few typographical and grammatical errors such as ‘a series of slow, ominous nod’ (p. 79), ’Iyabo sprung to her feet’ (p. 161), ‘Some more people had also ran’ (p. 178), ‘resulting to’ (p.168) yet ‘resulting in a wild stampede’ on page 176, ‘the Nigerian Police Force ‘(p. 198) yet ‘The Nigeria Police Force’ used twice on page 199!

Undoubtedly, with Musdoki, Maiwada has taken magical realism to greater heights and has carved a niche for himself which cannot be reckoned without in any meaningful discussion of the modern African Novel. This multi-dimensional novel goes beyond merely chronicling the timeless theme of love but can also be taken as a timely warning to a nation on the precipice of self-destruction. One cannot help but agree with the writer that the problem with us as a nation is not only the failure of leadership but in ourselves, our pathological refusal to be truly united as a people despite our diversity. As a first novel, Maiwada’s Musdoki is not a tentative footstep in an unfamiliar terrain akin to the chicken in the adage, hopping on one leg. Maiwada as a first-time novelist, came fully made with thirty-two teeth of a full-grown adult.

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9 Comments

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