The protagonist of Okey Ndibe’s unforgettable new novel, “Foreign Gods Inc.,” is a failed immigrant. Ike (pronounced EE-kay) is a New York City cab driver who brings in lots of cash but can’t hold on to it for very long. His mother back home in Nigeria lives with the shame of having an American son who doesn’t send her any money.
An article in New York magazine offers Ike hope. He reads about an art gallery in lower Manhattan that specializes in statues of foreign deities, with the most impressive specimens commanding six-figure prices. Ike comes up with a plan: He’ll return to his village in southeastern Nigeria and steal its most powerful deity, the war god Ngene.
“Foreign Gods Inc.” is a magnificent fable of a novel, and one that very quickly overcomes a hobbling start. Ndibe, author of the previous novel “Arrows of Rain,” begins this book in New York, where Ike lives a frustrating existence. He has a degree in economics, but his thick African accent prevents him from getting a job in the financial industry. Ndibe’s portrait of New York immigrant life is mostly flat and unconvincing. But “Foreign Gods Inc.” springs to life the moment the cab driver Ike lands in Africa.
Consider the wonderful pidgin poetry of the porter who carries Ike’s luggage through customs in the Lagos airport. When Ike explains in grammatically correct English that he’s not going to bribe the customs agent about to inspect his bags, the porter warns: “Oga, dis no be matter of big grammar. If you blow grammar, customs go vex for you.”
Nigeria, in Ndibe’s telling, is a place of proud people and “vexing” traditions that are at once a source of strength and shame. The rural landscape in which Ike was born and raised is changing quickly too. The river that gives life to Ike’s village has a new bridge over it, built by a minister as a gift to his young, third wife, and thus dubbed the “Path to a Pot of Sweetness.”
Ike soon discovers that one half of his family is pitted against the other: His mother, now an Evangelical Christian, begs him not to see his uncle, a devotee of the war god Ngene.
“He’s Satan’s biggest agent in these parts,” Ike’s mother says of Ike’s uncle. Her plan for her son is simple: to marry him off to a “good Christian girl.” Several such “good” girls ogle over Ike in church, firing off a series of increasingly over-the-top compliments:
“He’s as handsome as a white man…Do you hear his smell? He smells sweeter than the red flower in the midst of dawn…Did you see his eyes? Quiet as Lake Utonki, but deeper. A man with such eyes — he can kill with love.”
Ndibe seems to have a boundless ear for the lyrical turns of phrase of the working people of rural Nigeria. When the followers of the Ngene war god cult finally enter the scene, Ike listens as they rattle off a list of the god’s attributes: “Ngene, you’re the head of splendor, the hand of riches! You’re the breast that suckles the baby! Ngene, you’re the one who swallowed the thing that swallowed an elephant.” Ngene is a god seemingly so powerful, Ike’s uncle has gotten rich summoning favors and prophecies from it for politicians and assorted other people willing to pay good money for its services.
Everywhere he looks, Ike sees corruption and the wounds caused by ambition and poverty. It’s as if everyone in his village had suffered the fate of the deity itself. Despite the bluster of the god’s followers, Ngene was largely emasculated by Nigeria’s British colonizers and missionaries. “When he outlawed wars and disarmed warriors, the white man stripped Ngene of its offices,” Ike reads in a history of the village. The god represents a past that’s impossible to recover.
Ike has come to Utonki to either become the deity’s new chief priest, or to steal it and thus end what’s left of its power over the people of the village. The final chapters of “Foreign Gods Inc.” unfold as a series of comic and tragic incidents. Ike has tied his own fate to that of a god, and the ending Ndibe gives his protagonist and the novel itself is memorable and moving.
The wooden deity “has character, an audacious personality,” says one non-African who sees it. So does Ndibe’s novel, a page-turning allegory about the globalized world. In “Foreign Gods Inc.,” Ndibe links Manhattan to a village in Africa and shows just how great the distance between them really is.
Foreign Gods Inc.
Soho Press: 330 pp., $25