Naked Light and the Blind Eye – a book review
by Sanya Osha. Future Fiction London. 167 pp. $14.95 (Paperback).
Naked Light & The Blind Eye is a story set in a society that has gone through phases of change but the changes seem to make the lives of the inhabitants worse than before. The narrative is told in interlocking stories that comprise parts 1, 2 & 3 which are the main sub-divisions of the text. Each short story unravels into another interrelated story that helps the reader make the connection between all the different mini-stories. In part one of the novel, the reader is introduced to Solomon Wenku the main protagonist in the novel. The novel begins with the disappearance of Solomon’s wife, Tani and this greatly troubles Solomon. He gets the opportunity to reflect on his life and it is through his reflections that we know about the larger society and the influences that have shaped the life of his community. This first mini-story reads like a monologue. Solomon takes in every detail of his surroundings and then begins to analyze each situation with a critical skeptical eye.
The first part of the novel is set in a flat in a city suburb where Solomon lived with his wife Tani and their two children. The story moves from the flat into a slum where Tani went to live with her friend, Shadun, after she was battered by Solomon. Whether it is in the suburb or the slum the city described is dysfunctional, filled with heaps of garbage, potholes, beggars and general chaos.
The physical environment in a way depicts the chaos in the social environment as portrayed in the life of Solomon the main protagonist in the novel. Solomon’s life is chaotic. He is in a second marriage that is often on the brink of collapse. It is more a marriage of convenience than anything else. There is nothing in the marriage but rather survival by the partners in this marriage. His wife has deserted and gone to live with her friend in an informal settlement. Solomon has tried living a few days without her and he has realized that his life is unbearable. Despite his wife’s tantrums she plays a critical role in making life livable. He goes to fetch his wife but he must pay a price to get her back and the price is almost the equivalent of the dowry he paid to get her in the first place. One is left wondering whether there is not collusion to extort money from him given the dubious character of his wife.
In a flashback the city chaos and decadence is contrasted with the pristine rural existence of Oroke. The reader is taken to the world of the villagers of Oroke who live up on the hills, far removed from the trappings of the modern world. Although some have descended to the valleys, those who remain up on the hills lead their lives oblivious of the changes that inevitably impact on their way of life. The rural existence is juxtaposed with the modern, urban decadence and sub-human existence depicted by the poor living conditions in the slums. The slums are depicted as a place of ugliness, filthiness, decadence, and hopelessness. The urban periphery is then contrasted with the suburban that is modern, where the lives of the inhabitants are considered better off but then the unreliable water, uncollected garbage and unreliable power supply immediately negate the idea that of a well-resourced suburban existence because it also lacks basic essentials. One is left asking what really is the difference between the lives of the informal dwellers and the suburbanites except for the structure and larger space of their dwellings.
The text describes a community full of tragedies; private and communal tragedies. Tragedy in the private sphere is personified in Solomon Wenku who moves from a promising young villager only to be confronted with tragedies in his urban existence. Although Solomon is one of those who got a good education and moved from the village to escape the misery of Oroke, the narrative suggests that his life was inextricably linked to the village. He had had affairs in this village, had done as he wished just because he was educated and even sired a child with an elderly man’s wife. It is in this same village that Benu his first wife had succeeded in trapping him down to a marriage that later ended in divorce. Solomon’s marriage to Tani, the ‘unspoilt’ rural youngster, begins on a promising note as she accepts to continue living in his rural home but only at the beginning. Her move to the city opens up a whole new world that she had only dreamt of but the marriage takes a turn for the worse. Tani is depicted as a barbaric, crude villager who despite her attempts to climb the ladder to middle class respectability remains rooted in her unrefined ways. Despite her upper class pretences her very demeanor and speech are depicted as irredeemably barbaric and beyond redemption. When in the presence of women like Mrs. Farshi whom she considers a threat to her ‘throne’ all her barbaric, unrefined and uncultured ill-bred ways emerge: she shouts when calling her daughter (Lokoma) curses and shamelessly swears loudly an iota of concern for the visitor.
Solomon looks back at his life and is disillusioned that despite having had better opportunities, his old age was filled with despair no different from that of Villagers who had remained in Oroke. Worse, he was broke and in a loveless marriage. His life tragically ends when he is incapacitated by a stroke and then Tani decides to desert him.
Part 2 of the novel begins with Tani attending the funeral of Solomon, dressed to kill. We are then shown Tani and Benu then get locked in a struggle over Solomon’s property and the mediator tries to calm the tension and resolve the conflict by narrating a number of parables. How this conflict is resolved is not clear but it appears that at the end of it there is a semblance of peace. The narrative then takes a turn when Tani decides to stay in the village with her relatives. Her stay is depicted in a series of bizarre stories. In a flashback we’re taken to the life of Solomon and it is here that the details of his two marriages emerge. Tani (Solomon’s second wife) is depicted as an unruly sex crazed teenager who used underage boys to fulfill her sexual desires, then graduated to an affair with the village shopkeeper. In addition, Tani is depicted as coming from a dysfunctional family. What began as a love story between Tani’s parents takes its descent when Tani’s father without remorse has affairs with other women despite pleas from his wife. Tani’s mother decides to take revenge by seeking lovers from among the men in the village. Her affairs end tragically when her own husband sexually molests her. His wayward ways too come to an end when his own cat bites off his genitals.
There is the tragedy of the village madman. The madman in a feat of hunger goes and steals some puppies and makes a meal out of them. He is then confronted by some rough men eager to sniff the life out of him for eating the puppies. He is beaten and when passersby see him being attacked they intervene on his behalf, perhaps ignorant of his crime. His life is spared thanks to the intervention of villagers who sympathize with him. Kanida, the madman, is again caught stealing plantains by the owner of a farm near his abode. The young farmer strikes him and he falls down to the ground wailing. When the farmer then rushes to get a knife in order to kill the madman, Kanida gets the opportunity to escape and he does so quickly. He lives to see another day but does not stop his pilfering and anti-social ways. His dance with tragedy comes to an end one night when he decides to sneak into a number homes, seeks out the women and rapes them, starting with Tani’s sister. The madman is rounded up and taken to the centre of the village where he is clobbered to death by a mob; his body is not buried but thrown into a forest in the village believed to be an abode of evil spirits.
In the story of a young boy who is caught by a teacher stealing foodstuffs from his kitchen, the boy is given three options of punishment all of which are likely to result in severe bodily harm. The delinquent finally chooses to lose one ear. The cutting of his ear gives him such excruciating pain that his scream reverberates in the neighborhood but there is no one to rescue him because the nearest homestead is very far. The boy goes home and reports to the elders who then confront the teacher. The teacher swears at the elders and tells them that they can do whatever they like but whoever reports him to the police must be ready to die. Given the option of reporting the matter to the police and losing their lives or letting the matter rest and saving their skin, they choose the latter. The narrative depicts a total breakdown of law and order where the aggrieved villagers take matters into their own hands and the authorities represented by the police have little or no influence in dealing with civil cases and conflict among the villagers. Every offence is met with untold brutality.
In the story of a woman who stole some yams she was stripped naked and frog-matched to the village shrine where her name was recalled. When this is done one is as good as dead because she is ostracized and left to suffer with her children. Yet it appears that women are treated more harshly than men; this woman is publicly humiliated, dehumanized and shamed and in addition she is handed over to the authorities. There is no end to her woes until she dies. The yam thief is the metaphor of the woman who is poor and has no respite for her poverty. When she steals to feed her children she is brutalized, dehumanized, humiliated and shamed in a way that men are not. Women’s treatment is worse than that of men who commit similar offences. The cruelty with which her pilfering is met is incomparable to the transgressions of the men that rape women and kill fellow villagers and get away with it. While the delinquent offender loses an ear and in fact has the sympathy of the elders who then confront Manari the teacher, there is neither mercy nor sympathy for the woman and the whole village turns up to witness her humiliation. This is story is reminiscent of the woman in the bible caught in adultery and whom the whole community was ready to stone had Jesus intervened challenging anyone who had not sinned to cast the first stone. Ironically in the biblical story the man with whom the woman had committed adultery was not in the picture, again bringing some parallel in the universal discrimination against women and their oppression across cultures. In Oroke village, customary laws are depicted as cruel, harsh and punitive against women than they are to the men. Men can get away with the same crimes but society condemns women who dare go against the norms and customs to oblivion.
Towards the end of the second part of the novel soldiers invade the village of Oroke, kill randomly, injure, maim, and rape women indiscriminately. Those who dare question the actions of the soldiers either meet with brutal violence or disappear without a trace. The same violence is depicted in part three of the novel where people in the city are stopped at roadblocks and have to bribe their way out or else they get killed. We are also shown the arbitrary arrest of innocent people who then have to bribe their way out of police cells. The novel succeeds in depicting a hopelessly corrupt, society, where there is no law and order and where the agents of the state use their power with impunity to kill, rape and arrest civilians simply going about their business. Although part one alludes to the invasion of the village by White people and then Arabs, the presence of a military emerges in the village towards the end of part two of the novel and in part three where the story is set in the city. Everything in this society from the rural to the urban, from private to public spaces from the young to the elderly is depicted as being chaotic. Hopelessness, despair and disillusionment pervade the public and private lives of people in this society that seems to have disintegrated from the inside out.
While the text is successful in portraying the chaos both in the physical, social and political environment, the text is rather depressing. One is left wondering whether in the midst of all the confusion, chaos and oppression the author could not find or create spaces of beauty, order, tranquility and hope. Although the text successfully describes life under the Nigerian military regime, there is a gap in the transition to democracy and how the life of the protagonists might have changed but this does not diminish the contribution of the text in depicting life under the military regimes. This tragic narrative told with bits of rib-cracking humor. The author uses a range of stylistic devices such as suspense, flashbacks, metaphors, poetry and parables to enliven and narrate the tragedy as it unfolds. It is the story of a society encumbered by a range of challenges for which there are no easy quick-fix solutions. It adds to the growing anthology of works emerging from Africa and makes for interesting reading for the general public.
reviewed by Catherine Ndinda