Young Tony’s trials through love and tragedy.
21-year-old Anthony Mukoro falls in love. He just left university and is awaiting his NYSC. He lives on the island of Lagos with enough time and leisure to enjoy his youthfulness and recuperate from the lethargy of graduating from a Nigerian university. In the first pages, we immediately detect a premonition about Anthony’s idleness, a lack of direction—even ours, of where the story leads. Until Tony (short) is arrested by a love interest which plunges him into a toxic romance with Odufa, a Jekyll-and-Hyde character.
Red flags trail this new relationship: sudden, speed slaps to Tony’ face by his lover and her impulsive, mania-esque behaviour. But his love to her is undying. His case becomes a typical heaven’s wager: The devil says to God, “Tony is no discerner of what is good, his sense of devotion to Odufa is libidinal.” But God says, “I know my son, wise in his ways.” If not, the disapproval Tony gets from his friends, and Odufa’s warning to him that she’s a bad decision, are enough for him to rethink his newfound love. We wait to see if he’d back out as his love story takes awry turns. He doesn’t. The devil wins the wager.
Our protagonist’s devotion to his new love Odufa is tethered to a life-dependent decision. His doctor informs him of his impotency: he doesn’t have “the required sperm motility rate to impregnate a woman.” A mournful addition to his already hypertensive condition. Odufa is aware of these and agrees to be with him and promises even to give him a child, which, eventually, miraculously, she becomes pregnant. At 21 and unprepared, Tony begins a phase in his life where he becomes the sole pilot. He is plagued with responsibilities and expectations befitting a father, all too sudden, and falters at it. Because his infantile mind unabashedly unravels his innocence of the path before him.
Before he meets Odufa, he resigned to a life of philandering to escape his fear of extinction, unable to father a child. Odufa is just one of the girls he’d have and be done with, but she becomes his waterloo. Both lovers become drunk of each other. When Odufa returns to school in Kano and falls sick, her sister calls to tell Tony, who leaves Lagos the next day to care for his love. Finally with her, he watches her lay in bed as “her chest rose and fell in gentle motions.” It is a moment of infatuation or hormones and Tony becomes convinced: “I knew it then that I could do anything for her. I knew losing her would mean losing the very air I breathed. I loved her . . . to the moon, the sun, to a thousand stars and beyond.”
Tony’s words are not cheap, he religiously upholds them to the point of dumbfoundment. This promise quoted above litters the pages of the novel, one lover to the other in puerile proportion. Towards the end of the book, Odufa says to Tony, “I love you . . . for as long as the earth holds your footprint in the sands of time.” This is after so many useless fights, break ups and make ups; we read their avowal for each other and wonder at their madness.
But at the heart of the story is the trial of young Tony imagined by Othuke Ominiabohs. The subject matter, after all, is love. Young, foolish love. The novel doesn’t argue for or judge it. Rather it presents how ugly, and quickly so, it becomes when the wanton heart plays with fire. Because when the baby appears, Toni faces rejection from his mother who despises Odufa; and the coldness of Odufa’s parents who are unhappy with the out-of-wedlock-situation. Responsibilities pile. Blames, too. The world spins, Tony almost forgets NYSC and his future. Poor man—ah, boy!: he is lost sometimes. For this short time, he is thrown into a new phase from which he tries to find himself. He is confused by his mother’s refusal of Odufa: why she can’t see the girl as his miracle.
But more, he is ignorant of the playground he’s stepped in: unwanted pregnancies are breeding grounds for bitterness and mindless feuds between families; a disaster and indignity for the girl’s family. But Tony is too cosmopolitan, removed from such silly traditional fights and everyone tells him what to do. In all the chaos, Odufa is the only person he returns to in brief moments their love renews, but she is finally turned by her mother who makes his life a final hell. In one last act, Tony kneels to Odufa: “I walked in as if treading on a field rigged with land mine. I knelt quietly before her and wrung my hands in the air.” This happens in Odufa’s house in Lagos, her mother and younger sister present. The girl’s mother uses the scenario to give Tony a TED-talk on how wives are treated.
Tony knows nobody is on his side, and in this small show of power in which he surrenders to Odufa’s femininity, kneeling before her, the women institute themselves as matrons of matrimony. It is a criticism of matriarchy as a subtle extension of patriarchy: Tony’s mother superintends his affair with Odufa and disagrees with their union. In the same way, Odufa’s mother superintends her daughter’s affair with Tony and his family, and is concerned about Odufa’s unpaid bride price. Thus, she elects to torment Tony. These actions control Tony’s life, but more so it does Odufa’s, who is not free to make any decision.
But that’s a stretch. Many men, and many more, will fall on their knees to women. However, there’s a Freudian twist in Tony’s romance with Odufa. Love, after all, can be a constant search to reclaim innocence. Odufa is his salvation, her image bonded to the child she gives him, which he must have to be whole and complete, rescued from his castration anxiety and fatherlessness. He confesses: “Before I met her, the quality of hope in me was pretty frail. But with her coming, hope became a blessing, a gift in whose abundance I strove to grasp each day.”
He is not only enslaved by this working of his unconscious, but also trapped in a self-inflicted romantic spell with Odufa. So that when she severs their relationship, he bewails: “I felt like a little boy. My feelings for Odufa had grown to the point where she was all that I saw, all that I heard. She had become my light, my sunshine, my diamond, my laughter . . . my everything. And I badly wanted to put an end to our quarrels, our fight.” Sadly, Odufa later pulls the last straw and ends the relationship, having custody of the child.
It is a last blow. Tony is thrown into a tortuous philosophical spasm of tending to his broken heart, where “To the sky-height to which I had once soared in hope, I began a long shooting plunge to the hard ground of despair.” He enters a Socratic mood of contemplation: a voice in his head questions his spirit—or something like that: You’re going to die anyway . . . “Please, go away.” Do you really think you can love anyone else? And so on. Alone, he writes poetry, imploring Odufa:
Can you not hear me
Flowing through your veins
Screaming your name? [. . .]
Can you not feel me
Gnawing at your heart
Tugging your sleeve?
But his words echo back to him and he concludes, “the world is a wicked place.” After all.
Page-turning sometimes, lethargic read sometimes, suffering some setbacks; Odufa is rewarding in the end. We journey with the young protagonist initiated into the ritual of “becoming a man” in our cruel Nigerian sense. And whatever he goes through becomes ours: his lessons and small joys.
There’s a curious turn of prose style in the novel’s end which reads like a Conradian Ominiabohs, ponderous and in high language, which diminuendos in tragedy. Tony can’t bear his life anymore, can’t live, can’t breathe, poetry can’t save him; he takes his life by taking a cocktail of pills. His last thoughts are of Odufa, whom he reaches “one last time with outstretched arms, towards the nothingness that had held her face.” But the sea draws him “into [its] womb . . . ever so slowly, into the changeless ocean-night of inexorable eternal blackness . . .”—and the novel ends.◙
Carl Terver is the founding editor of Afapinen. He is the author of the poetry chapbook For Girl at Rubicon.