Onyeka Nwelue’s A Country of Extraordinary Ghosts: An inconclusive Story Across Time
“Let us start from the beginning of this story when God created the heaven and the earth. Shapeless earth; nothing was real. It looked deep, like a well without water. Everything seemed ordinary. Its extraordinariness was brought about by the omnipotence of God. God solidified everything.”
So, begin the opening lines of Onyeka Nwelue’s A Country of Extraordinary Ghosts. From the beginning of this novel, the reader gets the feeling that this is a retelling of the Biblical creation story. But the story soon jumps, to the occasion of Lot, his wife and his daughters. Only that the narrator in Onyeka’s story is an escapee of the inferno. The story, therefore, begins like a journalistic account of the descent of fire on Sodom and Gomorrah.
Once the reader settles into the pages, he is jolted by the fact that there has been a jump across time and space. Blurred borders between time and space make it possible that a train ride from Sodom lands the character in Lagos, in the twenty-first century, epochs from his time in Sodom. It is there, in the city of Lagos, that the story begins to evolve.
In Lagos, the protagonist experiences the life of the city – sleaze, party, prostitutes and the police. He is in the police cell when he is rescued by a Catholic priest, Father Ajayi, who takes him to Rome. In Rome, the narrator goes to confession and narrates what life is like living with Father Ajayi. He confesses to witnessing paedophilia and suffering a whole range of sexual abuse under father Ajayi and his mistress, the Irish nun named Sister Mary. The narrative comes to a close as the confession ends and the protagonist affirms his decision to not return to Nigeria.
Among other things, what Onyeka Nwelue achieves in this narrative is a vivid portrayal of life in the city – violence, ambivalence, and the stories that make the city thick. In his depiction of urbanity, which he does across places and time, Onyeka Nwelue joins a long line of writers who have portrayed urbanity as being synonymous with negativity. He points to, for instance, how clergy like Father Ajayi take advantage of gullible and unwary people. He also points to brazen misbehaviour that characterises most cities.
However, recent publications are beginning to say that complete negativity is but one side of the urban story. Recent urban tales like Chibundu Onuzo’s Welcome to Lagos and Leye Adenle’s Easy Motion Tourist have opined that despite the evil the city inheres, there is good there. This point is important because of the timing in which A City of Extraordinary Ghosts has been published. To portray the city as being solely evil (when goodness is present, it is tinged with such badness that cancels out the good) is telling an urban tale that was true, but is now beginning to change.
Onyeka Nwelue is indeed a genius artist. His ability to portray the innards of a mind twisted by schizophrenia is, in this reviewer’s opinion, comparable to William Faulkner’s power to explore the stream of consciousness in As I Lay Dying. But it is not enough. While the narrativization of the schizophrenic mind is superbly done, it is poorly indicated. Apart from the blurb on the back cover of the novel, and the one-liner before the novel’s opening that reads, “Federal Neuropsychiatric Hospital Yaba,” there is nothing in the story that points to an idea that the story is a rambling or a recollection of a mind warped by psychosis. Perhaps, this technique is Onyeka Nwelue’s way of catching his readers by surprise (he does the same thing in his The Beginning of Everything Colourful where the reader realises that the whole narrative is nothing but a dream), there is something about this style that almost waters down this narrative. Also, there is something about this narrative that feels somewhat inconclusive, like a song that ends on an accidental note, waiting for its rest.
Perhaps by a trick of editing, proof-reading or printing, this narrative is riddled with typographical errors. That, however, does nothing to the fact The City of Extraordinary Ghosts is a fast read whose strength lies, among other things, in the author’s ability to paint vivid pictures with beautiful, down to earth prose; all of which issues from a sophisticated mind sharpened by experience.
*Femi Ayodele writes from Lagos, Nigeria.