Mirror: Fiction by Ola W. Halim

muted noise
Image: Nada Abdalla via Flickr (cropped)

I.

Dr Olu Ajasin went mad every morning he woke to the signature corruption of post-independence Eugina, especially after a night of dreams where he lived in a Eugina empowered with a democracy that spoke the masses’ mind, where he was a youth and he reached up to yank off posters advertising cheap immigration fees to Europe and America, because his own country Eugina had its pastures lush green in the golden sunlight. He jerked off sleep and became so mad he yelled at Muyiwa, refused to take breakfast, and zoomed his car out of the compound like a man suddenly oblivious of the stretch of pothole-indented roads patiently lying ahead of him. He was driving this way that night, bumping in and out of the potholes and swearing at blank orbs along the highway which should have been streetlights. But that night, he was madder at what the governor had said than with the state of things in the country. The governor said he wrote novels because of prizes. According to him, Dr Ajasin hadn’t written his Booker prize-winning novel, Muted Noises, because he solely wanted to paint the state of things in Eugina; he’d written it for Western accolades, because the West applauded works which painted only the rusting features of Eugina; any work written to eulogise a country which, according to Western critics, boomed under colonial rule was considered too fantastical to be awarded major Western literary awards.

Dr Ajasin should not have let these words bother him. The governor did not know the rudiments of literature, after all. He never read political books, let alone literary books. But he could not shake the words off his head, especially because he did not get the chance to completely convince him that writing was not as interest-focused as the politics of Eugina. He did all he could to shake off the words, though. He hummed his favourite Lucky Dube song. He murmured a favourite paragraph from Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment. He reminded himself that he’d always been considered outlandish, that his perceptions were always waved off as the weirdness of a sociopolitical novelist under the illusion that governing Eugina was like writing fiction in a secluded part of your house.

Dr Ajasin was used to situations like this, and so he found it strange that this seemed to overwhelm him. About two years ago, after the publication of his fourth novel, Cloister, in which a group of Euginish politicians killed their employed political thugs to protect a fraternal secret, the president had invited him only to ask him when he’d ever get a Nobel prize; and although Muyiwa saw nothing wrong with that, he had read the sarcasm drawn in wrinkled swipes across the octogenarian’s face. The pinnacle of it all had been just months back: a literary magazine published a critique of Muted Noises and called it a novel written by a psychopath who had no respect for blood, citing numbers of gorily described scenes where his characters had to kill to secure political positions. He didn’t take legal action against the magazine as Muyiwa had urged; he’d only smiled into the rearview mirror of his car and shook his head. He’d been tagged the prime enemy of Eugina after a British broadcaster concluded Eugina was a half-dead fish judging from what he read from Muted Noises. Just last week a journalist insinuated, in clever euphemisms, that he was filling Europe and America with negative stories about Eugina and thus giving them licence to name the country an agglomeration of juveniles not ripe for independence, among other disrespectful tags. Dr Ajasin had simply said, “You need to understand, young man, that the duty of a writer is to mirror his society. You should wait until I do beyond that before you prosecute me.” If he’d survived all these, he asked himself now, then why should the governor’s sentimental affirmation unnerve him at all?

II.

Looking back now, Dr Ajasin realised he’d been uncomfortable long before the governor said those words. Although the air had smelled exotic, filling his mouth with saliva more than usual, he’d felt the foreboding of a man who knew death was lurking just behind him. Yet he’d kept nodding, giggling whenever the governor forced an ill-fitting joke.

“Let them serve you more,” the governor had said after a stretch of silence. “In my house, champagne is like pure water.”

He shook his head and laid the champagne flute on the table. His tripled reflections on the table almost made him jump; each monochrome of his face was distorted, like the matchstick men his daughter Modele drew.

“Since you won Booker, we haven’t got time to chat. Old boy stuff like that. So I called this small meeting. No publicity, no camera, no press people. Just these few men we run things together.” He pointed to the three men clad in overflowing agbada Dr Ajasin didn’t want to look at. “So feel free. We are not chopping you raw. We should at least cook you first if we want to.”

Dr Ajasin chuckled, nodded. He stared at the governor’s rotund belly, up to the bell-shaped head that housed bulging cheeks and scrutinising eyes. Those eyes were magical behind the thick spectacles. Tonight, the myriad of kaleidoscopic diagrams on the spectacles scared him, as though they were far more than glints of the tiny ruby lights stuck on the polished ceiling.

“Let me start by congratulating you. It is now that you have become a real writer, having won a big British prize. A writer who has not won a big award is like abanayan cloth, and only fake and dull people read him—”

“I beg to disagree, Your Excellency—”

“My friend, every writer writes for accolade. How do you continue to be a determined writer if nobody is giving you a sweet pat on the back?”

“Any writer, Your Excellency, who writes primarily for prizes should consider athletics or modelling instead.”

The governor cackled, throwing his log-sized arms in the air. “That’s pun in literature, right?” Dr Ajasin nodded. “You writers think the rest of us are empty heads when it comes to literary things. I hope I am proving you people wrong.”

The men in agbada chuckled. Dr Ajasin glanced at them. Something in their posture, the way their faces thrust too forward and their eyes too open, was not right.

“Your Excellency, writing is not always some lucrative business. You know, ever since the decline of intellectual interests around this region and—”

“My friend, you cannot buy my mind with your grammar. Every writer writes for prizes, period!”

Dr Ajasin shrugged. “Okay, Your Excellency.”

“I called this meeting for us to discuss something important. I want to buy the rights to publish an Independence edition of Muted Noises.

Dr Ajasin no longer sensed trouble; he saw it now, a formless silhouette looming, dark mountains rising to hide moonlit navy-blue skies within layers of soil underneath. A slow, meandering chill ran through him. He didn’t say anything immediately.

“I will have the Minister of Arts and Culture write a foreword. He’s a personal friend. You know he read Literature something at Harvard.”

“I think it’s a fine idea.” He shifted in his seat. “But why?”

“You ask why? Well, it is simple. You and your fellow intellectuals once said government did not encourage reading, and that is why people no longer read. Did you not remember? You even said you were not sure if the president had read Things Fall Apart!

One of the agbada men lurched forward when his phone rang. The governor shot him a sharp glance, then sprang up and continued shouting. The man elbowed the governor as he brushed past to take the call. The other two men murmured something like, Your Excellency, calm down, sit down please. But he didn’t sit. He was bouncing about the room, swinging his arms and jerking his head from side to side like an animated doll. He said Dr Ajasin ought to be happy Kedaye State had taken interest in his work, so much it wanted to make it its official Independence gift to schools. He should be happy that, at last, the state was prepared to introduce it to indigenous students instead of the Europeans and Americans who only read for researches on underdeveloped Eugina. He ended the drama on a light note, leaning close enough to squeeze Dr Ajasin’s hand. As he sank back to his seat, Dr Ajasin’s heart sank.

“I am really happy. At least, those foolish oyibos have seen something good in Eugina. We have a major product of ours in their market now. That thought alone should make me tipsy, and that should explain why I’m acting this way. The only way to appreciate your work is to republish your work and distribute it to students free. I don’t know what you may be thinking.”

The governor had not read Muted Noises. He’d apparently only scanned summaries and commentaries online and only grasped a rudimentary synopsis. If he had read it and had been able to accurately interpret the allegories in it, he’d have discovered the book drew heavily from the controversial election that saw him into office as primary source, though altered slightly to give the perfect fiction camouflage. He wouldn’t want to republish a book that called him a politicklept, a quasi-military rights abuser, just like virtually all political leaders in Eugina. Or perhaps, his move to republish the book had a deeper motive he needed to fashion out with time. He had to seek advice from his publishers and agents first.

“I will give you time to decide, anyhow. Independence is still eight months away. But decide fast before our educational system crumbles, as you people predicted.”

III.

As soon as he stepped into his hotel room, a thunderbolt of realisation struck him: the agbada man who had gone out to take a call did not return. A cold sensation surged through him and left his limbs frozen. The air was heavy and musty, and in the darkness, shadows slithered up the walls of his mind. Something wasn’t right about the private meeting tonight. He turned on the lights and sat on the bed. Then he noticed the pillow he’d laid horizontally, while hurriedly looking for his Rolex, now looked neatly arranged on the bed. The creepiness seized and released his breath at will.

Before he became an author eighteen years ago, before he became convinced his treasures weren’t hidden under the rumbles of classroom teaching and made the call that swung his life around, he’d learnt that, as a writer, he had to regard death with lesser awe because it simply transcended one to another phase of life; the difference lay in the form. It could be explained in simple chemistry — you lived on earth solid, you died liquid and you entered into another phase of life gas particles, until your particles were united and solidified by the atmosphere enough to stand earthly struggles again, and the cycle continued. He’d explained this to Muyiwa, making it clear that she ought not cry if the world rose one day without him. When their son Olawole died of a mysterious cause on his birthday, he just smiled and said there wasn’t need for an autopsy, that Olawole would definitely come back stronger and more durable. He’d written Midday Shadows in memory of his son, explaining, in political undertones, why death was a dead end only in the face of cowards. A critique called the novel an outlandish blend of realism and fantasy that did not even blend so well.

Now, though, when everything around him whispered death to his ears, his hands trembled and his teeth clattered. He picked up his iPhone to ask Muyiwa if the plumber had fixed the bathtub, or anything else to calm him. But then, Muyiwa might sense the quiver in his voice and force him into sharing his fears. Being married to him for twenty years was akin to knowing him all his life, she claimed, and Dr Ajasin knew she was right. She could tell it when a new story idea hit him, when he was reading a book based on its thematic concerns and nothing else. She was the one who first figured out that the call he’d made eighteen years ago had taken something dark from his life and hurled it through the window. Now, as he scanned the room, it dawned on him that Muyiwa would never know he lied when he boasted he didn’t fear death.

He reached for his laptop and scrolled down the menu with trembling fingers. Perhaps he was just imagining things. Maybe old age made him forget he’d properly arranged his pillow after taking out his Rolex. The faint scent in the room, a loose mixture of apple and camphor, could belong to a deodorant somebody left behind while leaving. He shrugged and continued to draft character profiles for his next novel, A Dance for the Lame. It was going to be his most realised novel. It was about a Euginish couple returning from Canada to work in the refugee camps of displaced children after the futuristic Eugina Civil War, and uncovering many truths about the real immediate causes of the war, which the government had bribed the media never to publish.

He was as excited as he was when he made the call eighteen years ago. Each time he wanted to recall it, usually before starting a story, he closed his eyes and assumed a meditative disposition. He placed a hand on his left chest, so that nothing but his heartbeat mattered. The voices screeched like radio waves, and then a connection was established. “I think you’ve always been a writer,” the voice said. “Saying you want to be a writer is like saying, at thirty-two, that you want to start living.”

“So it’s not a stupid decision to want to resign from teaching?”

“Was marrying Muyiwa a stupid decision?”

He paused for a while, biting hard at his pen. Then he said no.

“Good. See your writing career as such. Remember the story you wrote when we were in secondary school? I still think about it till today.”

“O my God.” He walked to his shelf, picked up his copy of Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, ran a lingering finger down its embossed cover. “O my God.”

He wanted to make the same call now. It was to his friend, Jimi, his first reader, the one who didn’t think you couldn’t write a proper story until you did Literature at university. It was twelve, the time of the night people dreamt, the time Eugina knew a holistic strip of peace and tranquillity, and just like a million others, Jimi would be sleeping by now. So he didn’t call. Instead, as though intuitively, he picked up his pen and wrote across the paper before him, I don’t write for prizes! I wasn’t thinking about prizes when I made up my mind to be a writer! He slapped the laptop shut. A presence breathed past him. He froze. Reaching out for his bottle of red wine, he climbed into the bed.

He took four gulps. The sharpness on his tongue was strange. It felt as though peppered pebbles were being scratched over his taste buds. He sat up. The sharp sensation travelled through his gullet and sliced through his heart and he felt warm blood in his mouth. His drink had been poisoned. He quickly dashed to the window and lifted the blinds, to take a final glimpse of dawn. The sky was all dark, except for an agglomeration of yellow clouds drifting in the distance, over the horizon. His fingers touched it, the tube containing what was fast killing him. He stared at its label: Highly poisonous. Could kill within minutes. Far below, dotted lights made the city look like a galaxy of multicolored stars. Dr Ajasin slowly slid to the ground clutching these images, memories to keep him company as he journeyed as gas particles into another phase of existence.

IV.

Far before the police visited the hotel room and compared the strip of paper on the table beside Dr Ajasin’s laptop to the dots of blood dripping down the walls, and the Euginish National Radio called it suicide resulting from the psychological trauma Muyiwa admitted her husband had suffered lately, the agbada man who had gone out to receive his call returned to the room. Dr Ajasin left an hour ago. He showed the video clip to the governor and the other two gathered around to watch the final minutes of Dr Ajasin’s life. Everything fell into place, the story of a frustrated man who committed suicide in a cozy hotel two hundred kilometres from his home. While the governor strolled into the inner chambers to talk to the Commissioner of Police, the man in agbada called the hotel manager. She picked on the second ring. She was sure, perfectly sure that nobody would suspect anything. Dr Ajasin had brought the wine from home. The tube was tucked in the curtains after some quantities were released into his drink while he checked out the bathroom and the boys made his bed and brushed the curtains, and the boys were the smartest people the hotel had. The hands that handled things had been carefully tucked in metal gloves polished with a solution of methylated spirit and Izal, of course, without Dr Ajasin noticing as he’d already slid off his glasses. There was nothing to worry about, except if the government refused to pay her what it promised.

“You know we did this for the collective betterment of our country, right?” the man whispered. “Ajasin was becoming a threat. He was becoming too powerful, and nobody was saying anything. You see Muted Noises? That was too extreme! One day, he’d have sold our government entirely—”

“But he’s gone now.”

“Yes, thanks to you. Now, discard this phone. His Excellency will reach you soon. Remember the oath you swore!”

Suicide. The note Dr Ajasin had scribbled about not writing for prizes conveyed his frustration. Although the police made a show of investigations and legal interactions where Muyiwa and even Dr Ajasin’s friend Jimi were arrested for questioning and hypothetical statements were issued by false witnesses who didn’t blink on TV, it was clear Dr Ajasin had killed himself. He’d always been frustrated with the state of things in Eugina, and each of his novels had helped convey shards of this frustration. Muted Noises was the boldest of all, and was perhaps written to register the fact that the author needed psychological help. One of its protagonist, a judge who was threatened at gunpoint to declare the controversial gubernatorial election free and fair but could not continue to hide the truth from the masses, many of whom were slaughtered in a sudden massacre because they wanted to vote in their choice representative, had sent the audio recording of the call made to him shortly before the encounter with the armed man to his daughter — the commissioner of police — and then hanged himself. Eugina should have seen it coming, but it brushed it off as one of Dr Ajasin’s realistic pieces of fiction. Nobody thought perhaps, the mirror analogy he’d used almost throughout his life, was at play — that, being that he simply mirrored society, there had to be facts intermeshing perfectly with fiction.

The governor paid a condolence visit to the family and sat between Muyiwa and her mother-in-law who kept her eyes glued to the camera as though her son would walk right out of it. The man talked sparingly, careful not to launch a joke.

“My husband didn’t commit suicide,” Muyiwa said. “Olu would never take his own life.”

“Do not worry. We will get to the bottom of this. Olu did not die for nothing. He will always be remembered.”

Five months later, Dr Ajasin was lowered into a marble grave under the tree where he wrote his novels. Just above him, across a pillar shaped like the roof of a car, his epitaph sat:

the gong of the dumb

an evergreen memory etched deep

in the heart of Eugina.

V.

Two years later the military struck because civilian governments had proven to be corrupt and inactive in good policy implementation. It was a bloody coup, in which the government houses of many states and parts of the Presidential Villa in Gomuv were burnt, and many leaders, including the Kedaye State governor, were grotesquely assassinated. Dr Ajasin’s novels, alongside other writings perceived as critical of the government, were publicly burned before a mammoth crowd that held its breath. Anyone found in possession of them was committing one of the numerous anti-nationalist crimes listed in the decrees and was sentenced to death by a tribunal of soldiers who were too dedicated to ensuring Eugina returned to shape to listen to any plea. Yet Dr Olu Ajasin would always be remembered. For Muyiwa, the prints of his ink-stained fingers on the ceiling-to-floor mirror in their bedroom would always stare back at her, and somewhere under these prints, she would conceal his memory.

———————-

Image: Nada Abdalla via Flickr (cropped)

Written by
Ola W. Halim

Ola W. Halim writes fiction and reflections somewhere in Edo State, where he teaches English Language and Literature. He's currently working on a couple of novels, including one about sickle cell anemia. He lives mostly in his head.

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Written by Ola W. Halim

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