Thursday 12 November 2009

We Haven't Finished With the Abyssinian Boy and the Boy Who Wrote It

The fascination continues with Onyeka Nwelue's début book, The Abyssinian Boy, as the co-publisher of Saraba e-zine, Damilola Ajayi gives Critical Literature Review his views on the young Nigerian's novel

According to E.L Doctorow, a reputable American author, there is no longer any such thing like fiction or non-fiction; there’s only a narrative. This , holds true in The Abyssinian Boy, the début effort of Onyeka Nwelue, one of the youngest Nigerian novelists .

It is startlingly remarkable that Mr Nwelue penned this manuscript before he turned twenty, a time when his peers are beleaguered by the consequences of hormonal fluctuations and are decisively bothered with trendy ways of combating them and asserting themselves as a generation with a difference.

Even more remarkable is the fact that at such a nascent stage, Mr Nwelue could dip his imaginations in the dyes of reality so much so that what he achieves is refreshingly familiar. The streets he describes, the people that populate his fictional world and even the emotional concerns of his characters are so real that his characters could be next door neighbours. His fiction is indeed a potent and genuine remake of reality which can neither be centrifuged nor decanted by analysis.

A part of this novel unfurls in India. In fact it is in India we meet our characters in their “usual state”, before the essence of the story creeps in.  This part of the novel is an amazing love song of India. The author takes readers on a virtual tour of the aesthetics of the world’s second most populous nation, romanticizing even its dregs in crisp prose. Easily, this part of the novel evokes colourful scenes similar to the kind in Bollywood movies. It is not surprising that the author actually wrote a decent helping of his manuscript in India and his narrative must have been roused by familiar sensations.

The major characters are the members of an “international” family comprising of a South Indian essayist, his East Nigerian wife and their half-caste nine-year old son, David. The most toward action in the novel’s plot is a visit to the wife’s home country Nigeria, by the family and their encounters thereafter. Through Mr Nwelue’s ornate and sometimes faltering narrative, we plumb the detail of their lives. We see their imperfections, their mistakes, misgivings, misadventures and even the weird relatives with whom they co-exist albeit idyllically.

We delve into their pasts often to relive their experiences, sometimes immaterial to the denouement, but all the same experiences thrust on us by the author’s prerogative. We traipse through refreshing anecdotes and comic vignettes that are perhaps posers of the author’s overseas experience.

The voice through which this story is told is controlled. And convincing. One sees Mr Nwelue toeing the lines of great predecessors like Amos Tutuola in his attempt to birth a language for his works. Even though one is not particularly convinced that he achieves this in The Abyssinian Boy, one can be sure he has set a template which would become a centrepiece attraction  in his subsequent fictional endeavours.

The syntax of this work gives it the nuanced feel of a work in translation and the liberty with which the author deals his expressions might herald a new trend in sentence constructions. However the hyphenated depiction of expressions that are supposedly descriptions in this novel— you-are-very-stupid-and-hopeless-eye, so-what eyes—though heaping some humour on the reader’s plate , are puerile nonetheless. Encountering invented adverbs like “Neverthemore” is shocking but hints to readers the poetic license the author has compelled to his prose.

More than anything, the thematic concerns enjoy a multiplicity that does not correlate with the length of the novel. Often, it seemed like the author attempted to artistically flare his connoisseurship and grant opinions on pertinent issues which have garnered cultural concerns and had become denominators cutting across humanity. However, these issues are tackled fleetingly with the result that the reader is often left with opinionated rather than holistic insights.

Colourful characters also abound in this novel. Easily, the narrative becomes a marketplace where all sorts of characters are introduced, perhaps in an attempt to achieve a sub-plot which doesn’t entirely work into the “big” narrative. These characters, with peculiar idiosyncrasies and sometimes phonation, interact with themselves and grapple an array of human issues such as religion, sexuality, cuisines, amongst other cultural concerns.

Also, there are the mystic overtones that lend the magical realism tag this novel sometimes bears from previous reviews. The recruitment of Nfanfa, an imaginary albino dwarf that fuels David’s hallucination is reminiscent of similar illusionary characters in Helen Oyeyemi’sThe Icarus Girl”, another first novel by another remarkable young Nigerian that dwells on homecoming and the troubles thereafter.

Mr Nwelue, no doubt, has penned a moving tale that underscores the issues of racial integration and culture clash. He has shown his promise and his flair as one of the important emerging contenders of the Great Nigerian Novel and readers can still expect the masterpiece tucked up his sleeves.

[Damilola Ajayi co-publishes the quarterly literary e-zine, Saraba. A penultimate medical student, his works have appeared both in print and online. He is presently working an anthology of short fiction.]

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