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The night hides with a knife: Conclusion



The blurb to Nduka Otiono’s short story collection includes Wumi Raji’s comment that the author “Is at his best when exploiting the techniques of oral performance.” Otiono carried out fieldwork on this in Nigeria in the 1980s and his absorption in the craft is still apparent, as evident in his edited collection of essays on the subject, which I mentioned at the end of last week’s column.

Not that this is apparent from the opening cluster of stories in The Night Hides. The first two are vignettes, just a few pages long—verbal snapshots with virtually no narrative development. Like the volume as a whole, these are stories of the dispossessed, of those for whom even marginalisation would be a comfortable condition.

The texture of these pieces is in some places extremely (one could say excessively) literary, with a wide-ranging vocabulary and a piling-up of qualifiers, as in the following ear-stopper: “That day, the cold harmattan wind was a blunt knife cutting benumbed bodies busy hustling for tickets or some other articles at a mass transit terminus in the city.”

Mostly, though, the writing is pared down to something much more lithe and conversational. The account of prison life, including the dialogue of inmates, in the longest piece (“Crossfire”) is so convincing it gives the alarming impression that the author himself has done time in jail.

This story, like the two that precede it, explores the lower depths but it is structurally quite different, much longer and with retroversions or flashbacks that build up a solid plot. Especially convincing, and very engaging, are the prisoners’ and warders’ reflections and comments on their way of talking.

These are people from cultures where the spoken word is still a matter of fascination and concern. And so to orality, or to orature, to employ the invaluable term coined by the Ugandan scholar Pio Zirimu.

In the opening section of the fourth story, “Jubilant Flames”, one can virtually hear the performer and see his gestures as he performs: “Bodies! Everywhere, bodies! This trampling, that crumpling. This elbowing, that cursing.” This is followed by the focalizer giving in to his friend’s plea to tell her the tale, as when a member of a live audience begs for a particular item from the performer’s repertoire.

The next story, and the most remarkable, “Wings of Rebellion”, opens with an epigraph from Zimbabwean poet Chenjerai Hove—“We live here for the most in an oral world whose daily organisation is ruled by the written word.”

The story itself begins “Ah, Nduka, I know those lines . . . I’m sure you’ve chosen them to remind me yet again of the tale that you’ve been bothering me to tell you.” What follows is quite surreal: a debate on the writer’s craft to which Wole Soyinka, Dambudzo Marechera and T.S. Eliot all chip in.

Only then comes the tale, interspersed with further discussion, including a diatribe on “our age of technological wizardry, which has left us with the memory of pigs!” Altogether, this is a challenging and hilarious piece of work that upholds the virtues of orality through a schema that is thoroughly postmodernist.

It is slightly disappointing to turn to the next story, “Escapade”, a conventional tale of erotic entanglements. The final piece, “One Day in the Life of an Applicant” (the title tells it all) is in conventional urban realist mode, in the well-worn Lagos-as-hellhole tradition. (I’m sure that footsore Basotho readers would be able to reimagine it set in the offices of Kingsway, Maseru, and thereabouts).

Finally an excellent Afterword by Frank Uche Mowah provides an account of the work of master performer Nweke Momah from Otiono’s own Delta State, Nigeria, and of the ways in which it impacted on Otiono’s craft, especially in its foregrounding of the role of women.

Writing about recent Nigerian novels, I have previously described Nigeria as the powerhouse of contemporary African literature, going on to say that this has partly to do with the sheer size of the place, and with its dynamism, complexity, and host of unresolved problems, all of which are grist to the writer’s mill. ‘The Night Hides with a Knife’ is an outstanding product from that powerhouse.

Chris Dunton

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