Reviews

The Mirror of Our Times: A Review of ‘The Funeral Did Not End’

TITLE: THE FUNERAL DID NOT END
AUTHOR: SYLVA NZE IFEDIGBO
PUBLISHERS: DADA BOOKS, LAGOS, NIGERIA
PAGES: 299

On my way home from work that rain-moistened afternoon I popped into Debonair Bookstores, Yaba. It was pay day and I was flush with cash. I scanned the shelves and my eyes fell on Ifedigbo’s latest offering. There had been a fair amount of hype on social media about the book prior to its arrival and the author had done some high-powered PR through Face Book before its presentation. Out of curiosity I added it to my payday collection and hoped my investment would yield returns.

Let me be plain. ‘The Funeral Did Not End’ is an entertainer. When you run through a number of contemporary Nigerian literary fiction you may agree that it is a big achievement. Quite a few of our writers, in their bid to be literary, have forgotten that fiction must entertain before it accomplishes any other high-minded objective. In this era of quality visual and non-visual challenges to the book, any author who does not factor in the entertainment dimension to his work is asking for a short lifespan for his book.

Ifedigbo is a child of his time. The twenty stories in the collection encapsulate aspects of the contemporary Nigerian situation like few other prose I have recently read. From cult wars to creek warlords; from TV game shows to unabashedly corrupt politicians they reflect the way we are with a subtle caveat; perhaps there is a way we could be. Ifedigbo holds out tantalizing feelers in what he says and implies.

‘Tunji’s Proposal’ left me with a fresh hatred for an old set of spoilers. A young, bright innovator, Tunji, sells his concept for urban waste disposal to bureaucrats who sell him down the river. The tale reeks of the corruption, indolence and hopeless work ethics that characterise the Nigerian civil service. Ifedigbo’s insight into the vice-claw mentality of our bureaucrats is amazing. I am tempted to wonder if the veterinary doctor-turned –author got a raw deal when he went to the Ministry of Agriculture with a proposal to rid Nigerian birds of flu. Just a thought. Well beyond the irony-framed portrait of venality, the language of exploitation and denudation of man by man is a subtle, unspoken lament for what could have been.

‘Lunch on Good Friday’ bears the imprint of a probably unconscious Chimamanda Adichiesque influence. Key into ‘Purple Hibiscus’ for some parallels. In the novel’s first section Jaja’s clash with his father takes place at the lunch table on Palm Sunday. I was struck by the similarity in underlying tones of tragedy and change that struck the families in both stories on significant days in Christendom. Eugene Achike, Jaja’s father’s domestic tyranny comes to a head that day. Omalicha’s mother, also a backhanded home tyrant-witness how she treats her jobless husband and daughters- and adulterer, crosses the line at lunch. Although overt parallels may be obvious to readers of both works I am concerned with the stories’ implicit contextualities. Omalicha and Kambili, both female protagonists, are silent but incisive observers who can see right through the deeds of men. Probably because hers is a short story, Omalicha’s character is less developed. When her father struck by dispatching Nonso Bosah, his wife’s lover and earning himself twenty-five years in jail, echoes of Jaja’s unjust imprisonment for his father’s death by poisoning reverberated.

‘Death on Gimbaya Street,’ the evocative, surreal story of the slaughter of Apo Six in 2005 by the only female victim, is a haunting, well realized tale that ends up making the well-ordered world of the dead more appealing than the chaotic cosmos the living inhabit. Whatever became of the Apo Six case?

In my opinion the story from which the collection draws its title is not its numero uno, though well written and infused with images of sorrow, waste and debasement. The demands of an unfortunate Igbo cultural expectation that demands an outrageously costly funeral for a supposed big man hits at the individual and collective souls. But the story left me with a feeling of being shortchanged. More meat should have been cooked with its characters.

‘On the Hot Seat’ defines the collection for me. I prophesy to the church of literature that in years to come, when Ifedigbo becomes one of the greybeards of twenty-first century Nigerian literature, this tale will mark out his oeuvre. Cheeky, incisive and seat-pulsating, the story of Ben Okafor’s day out with a leading TV reality game host captures the hearts of those who face the sassy and smart-suited moderator’s wiles in their bid for the big bucks. Frank Edo, the host of the MTN-sponsored ‘Who Wants to be a Millionaire?’ should read this story.

‘Call Room,’ the sensual yarn of a reluctant doctor’s ignorant tryst with a HIV-positive senior colleague is tasty. My heart went out to the lovers. I see them making up in the post-story’s world.

‘Share of the Money’ should have been titled ‘Manual of the House.’ I recognized all its characters; indeed they live among us. Or to be accurate they live above us ordinary mortals on their corruption-hewed Mount Olympus. Sleaze, sex, backstabbing, impeachment and illiteracy, some of the ingredients used in cooking the unwholesome soup of the Nigerian legislature since 1999, are present. Ifedigbo did a yeoman’s job of depicting Northern and Niger Delta politicians’ approach to corruption. The conclusion invariably drawn is that though tongue and tribe may differ, together in corruption they stand.

‘One lonely harmattan night’ is one of the collection’s most beautiful stories. Ifedigbo waxes lyrical and takes poetic prose to rarefied level in his depiction of an elderly couple’s struggle with their socio-economic situation their grandson’s ill-health and their love for each other. Taste and feel the second paragraph:

‘After the rains each year, dusty North East trade winds blew over the grassland in this northern part of the country, bringing the harmattan, and stripping the leaves from the short trees again and again, until the branches were left bare and exposed like mangrove roots. When the rains returned, they find the leafless trees standing lonely like bachelors, enduring the hot dry days and chilly nights, waiting patiently for the raindrops and the future.’ (pp.86-87)

Old Sani’s kicking of his pito-boozing habit is the ultimate sacrifice; a sacrifice that will not restore their child’s health but heals his wife’s heart in spite of life’s knocks. The story achieves fiction’s ultimate accolade by immersing its reader into its characters.

The remaining twelve stories sparkle in varying degrees. In the war of sex, marks and wits between Professor Bako and Laraba in ‘Sound Proof’ the winner seems obvious but then scorpions are known not to sting.  Most of the other tales can be digested with cold bottles of beer but ‘Sister Stacy’ is a takeaway. For the life of me, I could not fathom why the protagonist, Bode, was not content with delving beneath Stacy’s sweet skirts or jeans, as the case may be. Probing into her hypocritical piety cost him a brainy Lolita who knows how to dispense that thing that makes the world go round. The tale pushed the envelope in its writer’s uncluttered bid to tell us that one cannot embrace right and wrong simultaneously.

‘Scourge of the Vandals’ should not be in this collection. It is just too banal for my taste. Cult-related stories are two a kobo on the Nigerian literary firmament so anyone who wants to take on the subject should up the ante. Ifedigbo probably took gory experiences he witnessed as a student at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, and turned it into a competent but by no means outstanding yarn. ‘Snoop Dog’ as the nickname of a cult hitman? Sounds more like an aspiring imitation rapper. The effort at suspense was average. I knew where Snoop Dog would end up before I got there.

The book’s proof-readers should have been more painstaking. The nineteenth story on p.252 is numbered eighteen. Grammatical and spelling infelicities exist. For instance:
p.198: ‘common baby’ should be ‘come on, baby’
p.191: ‘Women of Faiths’ should be ‘Women of Faith’
p.182: ‘alter’ refers to ‘altar’
The illustrations in the book could be upped artistically in subsequent editions.

Ifedigbo does a good job of holding an accurate mirror to our society. He does not preach; he does not moralize; he neither absolves nor denigrates. He is accessible; a good storekeeper of Nigerian popular culture, lingo and mannerisms, including his Igbo heritage. I do not regret buying ‘The Funeral Did Not End.’

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