It's been quite a journey for Okey Ndibe's first novel, "Arrows of Rain." Originally published in England in 2000, the book is finally coming out here in the wake of last year's "Foreign Gods, Inc.," which essentially introduced the author to an American readership.
And yet Ndibe — who came to the United States from his native Nigeria in 1988 at the urging of Chinua Achebe — is also a founder of the journal African Commentary; he was a Fulbright scholar and now teaches at Brown. So why did his debut remain under the radar for so long?
The answer might be found in "Arrows of Rain" itself, for this is a strange and at times unwieldy book. It is also smart and often deftly written, a parable of power and the humanity it strips away. Set in Madia, a fictitious African country ruled by an Idi Amin-like strongman named Isa Palat Bello, it begins as something of a crime novel when a prostitute is raped and murdered on an upscale tourist beach.
It is New Year's Day 1988, the anniversary of the revolution, and as the police investigate, we find ourselves on the edge of two worlds. "Most prostitutes are ogbanje," an old man says, explaining why the dead woman appears to be smiling. The word refers to a being that "can die and return to life over and over again. To them, death is a game, that's why they can laugh at it." Much later, we get an alternate explanation: "[F]or those who suffer in this life, the grave can possess a dark allure."
Somewhere between those two perspectives "Arrows of Rain" unfurls its defining tension: between old and new values, the traditional and the existential, the belief that we live in a world of spirits or we live on our own.
"In the real world necessity sometimes takes precedence over conscience," Ndibe writes about complicity with the government while also reflecting the inner conflicts of his characters. Of them, none is as afflicted as Ogugua, the homeless man arrested for the murder, who takes on the persona of the mad god Bukuru when he goes to trial. It's a deft move, allowing him to play a sort of holy fool. Still, even a holy fool can only go so far, as Bukuru learns when he testifies in open court that Bello is a rapist and a killer himself.
That's a strong moment and a vivid turn in the story: a strategy to frame the political as personal. No sooner does it take place, though, than Ndibe makes an unexpected shift, moving from the voice of a reporter named Femi Adero to that of Bukuru. The vehicle is a narrative within the narrative: a memoir of sorts, written in prison, in which the accused man lays out the details of his life. Once a journalist, he fell in love with a woman who was Bello's mistress, only to abandon her out of terror.
"I turned and walked away," he tells us, "ashamed of myself for yet another failure, another turning away from responsibility. What was my life but a succession of silences, evasions, abdications?" This, of course, is a fundamental question, especially in a nation where speaking out can be a capital offense. At the same time, Ndibe wants us to understand, we can never, no matter what the circumstances, escape the weight of moral consequence.
As "Arrows of Rain" develops, we lose sight to some extent of just whose moral consequences are at stake. Surely Bukuru's are, as the book becomes the saga of his internal reckoning and also those of Madia, beset by desperation and by fear. But what about Femi, who disappears for almost 200 pages, only to reemerge in what reads like a hastily constructed coda that raises more uncertainties than it can resolve? It's a difficult structure not because it is complex but because it is obtuse, and it leaves us to wonder about the relationship of the characters, the point the novel means to make.
Ndibe is no naïf; he knows Bukuru's testimony, even if true, will have no particular effect. "Don't wrestle with fate," a character cautions. "To know is sometimes good, but to have the wisdom to accept what you cannot know is better."
All the same, "Arrows of Rain" remains a novel of resistance — if not political resistance, exactly, then resistance at the level of the soul. Like Bukuru, Femi is lost, a journalist who reads his own work "with the haste of a bureaucrat skimming an official document," an adopted son rejected by his fiancée because she cannot verify the quality of his genes.
Both men long to be better, more engaged in the society around them, although both are weak, or at least defeated, not up to the task. This could (even should) be the source of a potent confluence, but in the novel as constructed, their experiences never come to resonate as more than a pair of uneasy parallels.
Part of Nbide's message is that we lose ourselves if we don't share our stories; "Don't fear any man," he writes, "but fear lying. Remember this: a story that must be told never forgives silence." But what is the power of stories if they don't connect? That's the unspoken issue provoked by "Arrows of Rain."
There is much to admire in the novel: some gorgeous writing, an abiding sense of moral implication, the recognition that corruption has its roots in every one of us as we blur the line of what we're willing to live with, the compromises with which we abide. "Slowly," Bukuru acknowledges, "the fear encircled the anger, nibbling away at it. In the end, the outrage was in the belly of the fear, the anger was eclipsed."
That's a wise and profound statement, both in the context of this book and beyond. In the end, however, it is not enough to overcome the bifurcation of the structure, in which the whole is less, regrettably, than the sum of its parts.
Arrows of Rain: A Novel
Soho Press: 292 pp., $16 paper