Friday, August 29, 2008

Uwem Akpan's "Say You're One of Them": Book Review

You can read other Amazon reviewers (where this review was posted today) and the synopsis from the Washington Post there for an overview of the themes and their author. What no other previous entry has conveyed is the power of Akpan's language. He rarely pauses from dialogue or moving the story along often intricate lines, so when he does notice the landscape, it's for a telling detail. These scenes allow the narrative to "catch its breath" and to pause for dramatic effect. Since most of the stories included here rush along often into truly harrowing scenarios, these momentary shifts towards the horizon only intensify the punch of these unflinchingly brutal, poignant tales.

My favorite comes on p. 74, about thirty pages into the novella (130 pp.) "Fattening for Gabon." The children do not know yet why they are being fussed over and threatened alternately. But, note how the details compress traditional with globalized Africa near the border that separates them from their fate, and match the transition from pastoral safety to menacing journey under powerful forces-- a trail that Yewa and the narrator Kotchikpa follow unwittingly:

"The fisherman at sea spangled the water with their lanterns, like stars. Yet there was no sea, no sky, no land, only points of light dangling in a black chasm. The night had eaten the coconut vistas too, except when the canoe lanterns, moving, were periodically blotted out behind the trees. The sea blew a strong kiss of breeze, warm and unrelenting, through our neighborhood. In the distance, we could hear the hum from the no-man's-land market fizzling out for the night. We could also hear the semitrailers and trucks coming and going from the border, backing up or parking. Sometimes, from where we sat, we saw the beams of their headlights sweeping the skies of neighboring villages, like searchlights."

Akpan's skilled at what his Jesuit founder, St. Ignatius, called the practice of "discernment." The author's able to imagine himself into the scenes he depicts, and they unfold from his imagination weighted on imaginative levels that deepen their immediate references. They convey a spiritual gloss that reminds me of many of the stories of similarly "paralyzed" youngsters and adults in Joyce's "Dubliners." Perhaps the difference is that Fr. Akpan believes in what James Joyce sought to transmit by literary rather than salvific means to the reader seeking, along with the characters, enlightenment. For both Akpan and Joyce, we get the machinations of the grown-up world filtered often unbearably through the perspectives of those too young, too powerless, or too overwhelmed to cope with pure evil and utter chaos.

In each story, often subtly and deftly, he manages to refer to Christian themes that his characters briefly recall within their terror or wonder. I only gave this four stars because "What Language" to me while a good story fell short of the mark set by the other four, and out of these, the other novella, "Luxurious Hearses," appeared at times to be too schematic, almost as if "Things Fall Apart" by his predecessor Chinua Achebe (also reviewed by me) needed to be updated within a framework either too long or too short for the pages given to it. Yet, the story ends as gracefully, or as awfully, as most of the others here. Akpan spares no sense in making you feel, as potently as did the Jesuit preacher in Joyce's "Portrait," the hold the imagination can have over the pinioned and gibbering soul.

Other places in his fiction, luckily, Akpan shifts towards a degree of grace, if often tempered with irony as the expectations of faith are always tested to their utmost, and many of the characters find their fate one of flight, exile, or a kind of martyrdom for their convictions. The earlier Amazonian comparing Akpan to Flannery O'Connor hit the mark. A quick example later in the story: "The plantations and sea loomed behind the road, and sometimes it looked as if the plantation were on the sea or as if the people on the road were walking on the water, like Jesus." (130)

This writer, I predict, will only improve with his next stories, and a five-star rating will surely be earned. The stories demand attention, and the unfamiliarity that Western readers will have with the Africanized syntax, loan words, French and untranslated native dialogue, plunge you in, appropriately, to the dilemmas of a continent undergoing dramatic upheaval. His characters may not find much luck; but we are lucky that Fr. Akpan can convey their drama to us in stories that often prove to be, despite the risk of cliché, ones you cannot put down much as you wish you could forget their carefully described patterns of darkness and light, despair and hope, grace and damnation.

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