Reviews

Chasing After Shadows: A Review of Maik Nwosu’s ‘Alpha Song’

IMPRINT: LAGOS: HOUSE OF MALAIKA &  BEACON BOOKS, 2001

The opening of Maik Nwosu’s Alpha Song reads like Mariama Ba’s So Long a Letter. But unlike So Long a Letter, it is not just a letter; it is a dying father’s “last will and testament” to his five-year old son. As the book progresses, however, the “will and testament” turns out to be just memories. The protagonist, Taneba, says at the beginning: “And what more precious legacy can I leave you, my son, than my most prized possession? My secrets: my memory.” (p.1). The book begins in the present where Taneba, forty-five years old, and at the point of death, delves into the deep past to unburden his heart of memories that go beyond two decades: the life he had lived, the people he had met and the places he had been.

Like Christopher Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus, Alpha Song re-enacts the motif of the knowledge-seeker. It is a story of insatiable quest, of man’s endless search for meaning, for the true essence of life. But it is a futile search. No one ever finds it. Everything ends in disillusionment. Reading through the pages, one could clearly hear echoes of the voice of the Preacher saying: “Vanity upon vanity, all is vanity.” Taneba confesses in his letter to Toshiba: “All my life, I have been searching for something just beyond the edge of my consciousness, just a little above my comprehension. I doubt if I will ever find it…” (p.95)

Man is an insatiable being, ever searching. Taneba’s flight from his village to Lagos is a search for meaning. So is his romance with the night. His ultimate aim, he says, was “to catch up with the night”. But it was impossible because the night was always “one step ahead” of him. (p.3) As he would later confess: “I had lived through several ages of the night…wandering and wondering, seeking for a great indefinable essence but finding only small definable pleasures.” (p.212) In the end, he is “rather tired of seeking and not finding.” (p.228) Realising the futility of his search, he traces his way to his roots in Kaiama Creek.

The above then underlines man’s search for meaning as a pursuit after shadows. Yet, man cannot stop searching because he is insatiable; because “life is something we go through searching for meaning,” (p.2).

Just like Taneba, virtually every other character in Alpha Song goes in search of meaning, his or her own way. Bantus’s wanderings are also a search. He has been to New York and to almost all the islands in the world: Montego Bay, Tahiti, Zanzibar – yet his appetite for adventure is not whetted. He still goes off to Monrovia, to the desert, again to New York, and back to Lagos, all in search of what he does not even know. At one point he tells Taneba that he has been “to find the heart of the ocean.” (p.122) He too soon realises the futility of his search. “Life is a myth,” he says:

…the myth of existence, of living. We don’t live, man; we only go through the motions. Everyman’s life is a myth he tries to retell, to personalise; he doesn’t own it, he doesn’t even understand it. (p.78)

But does he stop searching? He sets off again, and rather than find meaning, he gets lost himself. After many years of living in illusion, Faith goes to church in search of God. Yellow’s movement from Papa Real’s house to Mama Zi’s Beach Kingdom is also a search. Taneba also goes to Mama Zi, to Abedie, and finally joins Faith’s church in New York. Man is in constant search, ever trying to know more.

Alpha Song is also a story of progression, of endless movement, of passage (of time and people) and of transformation and change. Nature is in a constant state of flux. Nothing remains the same. “Everything passes, except perhaps the essence of things.” (p.2) Thus, Taneba progresses from being the disinherited son of Elias Brass in the little village of Kaiama Creek to working in the sorting department of the general post office in Lagos. Then he begins to hang around the joints in his neighbourhood. When he meets Tamuno again and is introduced into night life, he becomes an incurable night-crawler.  He gradually transforms from a celibate dying from the burden of chastity to a chronic patron of prostitutes. He moves from being a stranded fellow at the coast of Monrovia to being the assistant manager in the express mail section of the post office, with an official car; from a fraudulent staff on the verge of imprisonment to the manager of Stephen Speed; from the international manager of Stephen Holdings to a prisoner in New York. When he returns to Lagos finally, he discovers that everything has changed. “Time had not stood still,” (p196), and everything he had been or done in the preceding decade suddenly seemed of no consequence in that “motion of time”.

Tamuno’s Heaven had become an embassy; Sundown! a restaurant; 24 a brothel. Only the Red Hat remained a club, although the name had changed to Lingo! The most amazing of the transformations was Music Temple. It had become a church: the Cathedral of St. Toshiba…. How everything changes. (p.227)

Col. Briggs transforms from an incurable patron of the night to its most outspoken antagonist. When he is made Minister for Youth and Social Development, he warns young people to “beware of the night for the night is evil.” (p.197) How people change! Bantu deserts his family, reunites with them, renames his wife La Mundo, deserts them again, and then vanishes. In the nightclubs too, there is constant motion of people, staff as well as patrons.

In another way, Alpha Song also treats the theme of the inevitability of death. Every man moves ultimately to his death. Taneba’s mother’s mother dies; his mother too dies; and so does his father. Tamuno dies, even though Chief Stephen describes him as a strong breed; Mama Rekia dies; the seemingly ageless Papa Real dies; and Chief Stephen dies, even though he “always seemed strong enough to outlive eternity.” (p.226) Finally, Faith dies. The disappearance of Bantu is also inevitable. In Naomi’s final letter to Bantu, she writes: “Dear Bantu: It is my fate then to bear this terrible guilt….”

Man is a fated being. He cannot run away from his fate, how ever much he tries. Taneba flees from his village in order to obliterate the memory of his father; in order to escape, so to say, from the ghost of his father and his entire past. But like King Odewale in Ola Rotimi’s The Gods Are Not to Blame, the farther he runs, the closer he draws to his fate. His escape route leads him inevitably into the arms of Eve, the proposed fourth wife of his father before his father’s sudden death. The “Alpha Song” he so much enjoys turns out to be his father’s own composition. He literally comes face to face with the ghost of his father. In his consternation, he asks:

So, what all my life had amounted to – after almost two decades of rejecting and forgetting – was the completion of my father’s marriage programme? What sort of terrible ghost had that terrible man become that he would not let me be? (p.220) 

He then realises the futility of his flight. He goes home thereafter to perform a symbolic personal burial for his father who died over two decades before. Man is but a pawn in the hands of the supernatural forces.

Alpha Song is again a quest into the night and its impregnable “soda ash fountain of mysteries”. “The night is like a spirit and usually possesses different people in different ways”. (p.12) It is also “a time for deaths…” (p.13). Virtually all the evil things in the book are done at night: prostitution, drug business, the attack on Taneba, the attack on St. Notorious and his group, the murder of Tamuno, and so on. This is so because the night frees people “from their daytime inhibitions” (p.13).

The book is also a story of depravity, of moral decadence, and of man’s unquenchable crave for pleasure. Taneba moves insatiably from girl to girl and from one nightclub to the other, until he gets into trouble in New York where he is accused of attempted rape. This earns him a two-year jail term, thus fulfilling Mama Zi’s prophecy. The level of decadence is evident in the recklessness with which some families encourage their daughters to sell their bodies for money. Mairo’s mother encourages her to go to Europe for prostitution so as to support the family.  Angel’s brother also comes to Lagos to ask her for money, and she tells Taneba, “They think because I’m living with a white man I must be rich.” (p.191)

Some of the stories in Alpha Song remind one of Macbeth’s encounter with the three weird sisters in Shakespeare’s Macbeth. The image of the supernatural looms very large in the characters of Mama Rekia, who allegedly buys other people’s dreams for a fee so that she can dream them, until one day she buys a dream about her own death and dies subsequently; Ada Eke, the daughter of the stream, who is said to disappear into the depths of the stream on the night before the Eke market, thus causing the stream to rise, and her re-emergence afterwards causes the stream to thin out; Mairo, who is married to a jealous deity who detests her association with mortal men; Mama Zi, who prophesies Taneba’s troubles with women; the ageless Papa Real, who sells reality and who allegedly sacrifices other people to prolong his own life; Yellow who is always up and about on the streets every night and day and never goes to sleep; Eve, who predicts with horrifying precision in her diary recordings Taneba’s future actions in their relationship; the stone boulder in the middle of the road at midnight which disappears at daybreak; the silence, the mounted heads of ram and the smell of blood in Abedie’s house; and Taneba’s dreams about masquerades and his loss of hair. These stories evoke eerie feelings. So do Bantu’s revelations. But these stories should be seen, not as mere superstition, but as an insight into some beliefs and practices of traditional African peoples. They could also be viewed from the psychoanalytical perspective as embodying the different workings of the human mind. Alpha Song is after all a probe into the inner recesses of the human mind.

The greater part of the action in Alpha Song takes place in Lagos. However, through flashback, the setting shifts to Kaiama Creek, to Uzi Quarters, the orphanage of Tamuno’s childhood, and so on. One must also commend the author’s use of the first person narrator. Given the nature of the events, no other character could have told Taneba’s story better than Taneba himself. The author’s manner of introducing the characters is also commendable.

Maik Nwosu

Other techniques effectively employed by the author are letters and dreams. Many of the characters communicate by means of letter writing: Mairo to Taneba, Taneba to Toshiba, Toshiba to Taneba, Bantu’s wife to Taneba, and so on. These letters serve to reveal the thought patterns of the characters concerned. At other times, they tell the reader about some earlier events not directly related in simple narrative. The author seems to question the difference between dream and reality. If Mama Rekia buys a dream about her death and dies subsequently, Yellow suffers insomnia because Papa Real tells him in his dream that his eyes will never know sleep, and Taneba sees himself losing a grey hair each day in his dream and actually loses the hair in real life, then where is the demarcating line between dream and reality?

Alpha Song reads like a song, with many of the characters quoting lines from songs. Tamuno sees life itself as a song. His refrain: The robins will sing. Bantu’s revelations embody three songs: alpha song, meridian song, and omega song. Eve enjoys classical songs which she says “speak to the soul” (p.215), and from which she derives inspiration.

In many instances the book reads like poetry. Part of Taneba’s letter to Toshiba reads:
I have turned in four directions, into alphabet streets filled with smoke and alabaster, but you are an experience above experiences. You have given me memories, by simple signs of affection and paradisial conjugations, that spiral me into giddy heights…. You have made me, wearied by a million journeys into myself, feel the sacramental power of love… (p.96)

All said and done, it must be said that the author has succeeded in shaking the foundations of many of man’s actions without being excessively moralistic. In the end, man has only one person to confront: himself. Alpha Song then is a successful novel in as much as every reader is able to see in Taneba an image of himself or herself. Taneba is like every man, with all the basic human vices.

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