Review by Chris Dunton, National University of Lesotho
The opening of this debut novel gives a reliable indicator of its dominant stylistic tendency, louring, metaphorical, and dotted with quasi-metaphysical formulations: “The window panes had a sombre cast as rain streaked down them like half frozen tears. Night time didn’t seem persuasive. It was as if it didn’t believe in itself.” A pathetic fallacy then leads us into the opening gambit of the plot: “She had gone . . . . My being in its entirety blended with the rain.”
Solomon, the first-person narrator, is sixty. After one of his habitual bouts of violence, his wife, Tani, has left him, being pregnant and taking with her the other children. He meditates on “the origins of my fucked-upness. I felt so twisted and incapable of turning around my life.”
A level of abstraction opens up that threatens to leave the reader beached: “No excuse could be found to be blood, sperm and real tears again through an exactitude that was without antecedents, that wasn’t a correlative of an already lingering presence”—the only possible response to which is “come again,. guv?” This weakens the musculature of what would otherwise have been a lean, mean novel; a little editorial pressure would have been salutary.
Solomon regards his wife as a “slut”, a money-guzzler, and his life with her one of vacuous “surface glitter.” The depth of his alienation from her is matched only by his own self-denigration (and Osha conveys both with a bleak authenticity).
The style calms down a bit (though still packed with imagery, some of it very striking) as Solomon recalls the history of his birthplace, a moribund backwater populated with cynical drunkards and promiscuous women; he sees himself as perpetuating the village’s cycle of defeat in his own wasted life.
We do get Tani’s low-down on her husband, but her characterization (albeit from Solomon’s point-of-view) is unremittingly harsh: on his view, she is an untransformable peasant (“her mouth stank! She didn’t even know how to kiss properly.”)
All of this is played out in “a city in ruins and in throes of anguish [where] pain and hopelessness had touched everything.” Osha takes the idea of urban entropy to an extreme, producing images that are iconic and yet freshly shocking, for example that of a madman eating a cellophane bag full of rotten melon soup, salvaged from a garbage bin. If one important element in understanding entropy is a breakdown in communication, then that is exemplified here, with virtually no character able to talk constructively to any other, least of all Solomon and Tani.
Part One ends with the introduction of Solomon’s illegitimate son, Ayimola, a poet who produces a startling and cynical piece on Socrates and Alcibiades (which ends with the philosopher unscrewing his prick, sticking it in his randy devotee’s bum, and walking off) and photographer who achieves some measure of notoriety with his shots of rubbish dumps (the composition of which has for him an aesthetic appeal, a crux Osha could have worked on further, as in critiques of Pieter Hugo’s photos of Nollywood and of computer-dumps in Accra).
Solomon dies, unloved and alone. Part Two opens with the funeral and with quarrels over what remains of his estate. An extensive flashback fills in the picture of the dysfunctional rural community and of his upbringing—a site of delinquency, betrayal, cruelty and vengefulness. Here Osha takes us just about as far from the image of the still-pristine enclave of pre-colonial life as it is possible to go. Acts of theft are paradigmatic of the state of this place: “a destruction of the communal bond, a deep psychological disturbance, a severance at the heart of the community, an injury to peace and truth”—but then it is difficult to see what there is left to injure. (There is, at least, still story-telling. Throughout the village scenes animal fables are performed; this can seem such a tired ploy, but here they are truly enlivening, because they are so judiciously chosen).
A hundred pages in there is the first hint of the wider, national scene, when soldiers raid the village, hunting for young political activists. The generally cringe-inducing blurb for the novel refers to its setting as “the Niger Delta, where unctuous [sic] black oil stains the happiness of the Ogoni people”, which suggests that Naked Light might be a contribution to an emerging sub-genre of the Nigerian novel, the Delta crisis novel, in common with Helon Habila’s The River and Tanure Ojaide’s The Activist. This turns out to be not really the case, as the main thematic thrust of the novel has to do with its multiple domestic crises. Nonetheless, the episodes that deal with the depredations of the military are well-handled.
An aside here. Osha’s soldiers are without exception depraved and their assault on the village is brutal in the extreme. Fair enough: this is what is going down. But whenever I read an account such as this, I remember riding in a bus past Kirikiri jail, with two young soldiers who were crying with shame and anger at what had just taken place: Abacha’s demonstration execution of young prisoners, some of whom were still awaiting trial. “How can I hold my head up now?” one asked. “As a soldier I am hated by my own people.” Which leads to the observation that with very few exceptions (Burma Boy, which deals with the relatively distant past; Song for Night), the Nigerian novel has not attempted to explore the lives and consciousness of the military.
From this point on the plot broadens. With Ayimola now embedded in the familial pandemonium of Tani’s house, in the latter part of the novel he emerges as a central character. He takes up with Henrietta, an artist, half-Swiss. “At over forty she was still a firebrand, she wanted . . . real drastic reform so that the black man could be truly liberated.” The relationship is a difficult one, as Ayimola is afraid she will blot him out, that he will become completely subsumed under the force of her personality.
Henrietta is committed to Nigeria and to trying to revitalize its artistic life (“I’ve been paying my dues to see that things work out in this country.”) Yet her disgust at Nigeria’s violence and degeneration knows no bounds; she sees the fact that she’s entitled to a Swiss passport as a possible escape route. However justified her tirades are, given the evidence on the ground, they still leave a nasty taste in the mouth. Perhaps this is an indicator that the novel is aiming to work as a carminative, prompting the question why on earth should one feel the urge to defend Nigeria?
The last section of Naked Light is like an unraveling spool, with new characters introduced and a deepening sense of the unlikelihood of any fulfilling relationship being founded between any of the characters, old or new—a profoundly alienated cluster of individuals, driving each other to despair in a god-forsaken pit of a city.
Osha has talent bursting at the seams (though it could certainly do with some more disciplined channeling). In Naked Light he seems to have set out to produce one of the most unremittingly harrowing works of fiction yet to emerge from a Nigerian writer (and there is certainly stiff competition here). One could argue that in relation to previous novels on rural disintegration and urban decay he is rather too consciously upping the ante.