There’s a tap on the door. A sleeping, jobless man is startled. He rises from bed, wondering who the culprit is: his landlord or the landlord’s solicitor? But the tap isn’t as loud as danger. He reluctantly opens the door and finds two unfamiliar ladies. They are Jehovah’s Witnesses who have come “to share the word of the Lord with him.” “I don’t have the time,” he quips. But seconds later, he steps aside and lets them into his slight, ill-furnished room. They read and talk about a passage from the Book of Revelation with him and thereafter invite him to fellowship, before they leave. The story doesn’t end here: one of the ladies returns on a Friday evening, when the news of the Panama Papers leak is spreading epidemically across the country, henceforth spawning a tale about love, or something that appears like love. It is the briefest and strangest of encounters. She is married, yet she visits the man’s apartment every Tuesday or twice every week, mostly by 3:00PM.
For two months, during her suggestively odd visits, they sleep almost naked on the same bed, neither kissing nor touching, just sharing each other’s company and silence (such that the man “nearly dies of unfulfilled desire”). Everything is beautiful until the final lap: she ends her life after complaining one evening about being followed by someone, most likely her husband, who—in her own words—is the incurably jealous type. And what remains unknown is whether she has been suicidal or another victim of murder.
In Mark Mylod’s horror-comic thriller The Menu, Tyler, Nicholas Hoult’s self-infatuated character, remarks about a kind of art “on the edge of the abyss.” It’s a satisfying, albeit baroque, response to his autosexy, disinterested girlfriend, who questions his grim obsession with “the food thing.” Although he makes other remarques of this kind, I elect this wisecrack phrase—“art on the edge of [an] abyss”—not particularly for its sparkling aesthetic distance, but for how, in a profound and queer way, it takes hostage of my mind as I read Obinna Udenwe’s short story collection The Widow Who Died With Flowers in Her Mouth (Masobe, 2023), where, especially, the above story from it, “It Has to Do with Emilia,” gives such resonant experience.
What does “art on the edge of an abyss,” even in the most banal or figurative sense, actually mean? Is it an indescribable state of feeling we experience when we encounter great art, a deathless sinking into what Socrates thought of as the “incommunicable core,” or that brief second when art meets perfection, rendering time and space inexistent? Perhaps, such art must first possess the capacity to merge ordinary elements (e.g. character and canvas) with extraordinaries (e.g. torque and painting) into a stunningly cohesive whole, such that no witness, no matter how hard they try, can tell either apart. Living and nonliving. Reality and fiction. Matter and pathos. The witness merely stands before the artist’s mastery and either drifts off into the opposite side of language or marvels at the sharpness of their own unbelievability.
All 11 short stories spanning The Widow Who Died With Flowers in Her Mouth occupy the same terrain, maybe a bit differently: ordinary people meet far-from-ordinary situations, either by self-acting or as a consequence of fate, as though fashioned specially for each other. The end product is this organically sublime book interdicting genre categorisations with suchlike gird and vigour, as the author Udenwe has disavowed literary classification in his multifold interviews. “There is nothing like an African novel or American novel or Chinese novel. A novel is a novel. A story is a story,” he has said in an interview, as though situating himself comfortably on the navel of the Great Squabble that has perforated the African literary coterie for yearslong on whether an African novel should be weighed on the basis of identity, geography, sensibility, or, perhaps, a fusion of the triad.
The Widow conjoins fact and fiction to give us a cosmic vista of Nigerian life in all its grandeur and disappointments, while extending its light to the country as a whole. Whilst most writers may focus on their writing style and inconsiderably brutal satire to tell a good story, Udenwe makes a giant leap by indulging in facts, not simply as an agent, but as the nerve centre of narrative and thematic plot. The drama in “The Redemption of Father McGettrick,” one of the stories, is an inch-perfect exemplar. In it, we meet the pitiable, godforsaken Father Okere who strongly believes Zadie Smith is the cause for why his wife Adaugo, and their daughter, left him. In the spirit of fiction’s intrinsic quest to invoke suspense through contradicting realities, she could have been any other Zadie Smith, yet Zadie Smith is as real as Zadie, author of White Teeth, and The Autograph Man (the latter which, coincidentally, is the same novel Father Okere finds his wife reading on the day she leaves.)
Events unravel, in flashes and moments, and we find the cause of Adaugo’s exit to be as mysterious and perplexing as Zadie Smith’s proceedings. She appears frequently in Father Okere’s dreams, “trying to save him from something,” showing an unsettling measure of care for his wellbeing. Dream Zadie is an ideal bodyguard, a guide (she would take him through a labyrinth . . .), and a motivator (“Fly!” she commands in one dream. “Fly. And. Be. Free. Father!”) In the final dream, she hands him her book and he wakes up to a strange miracle.
Is Dream Zadie still the real Zadie Smith? Where does reality end and imagination begin? What’s left, in the end, is only but a story that’s believable enough to probe our most intimate spaces, trap us in its maze for as long as it stretches, and cast a mirror of doubt on the facts of our memory—a story that gives us a new, bright eye for the world. And this is, tellingly, Udenwe’s clarifying legerdemain as a writer: to create a meetinghouse of real and imagined selves or events where the familiar becomes unfamiliar, leaving one with more questions than answers after every run-in.
Reviewers have mentioned Udenwe’s ability to “bridge the gap between literary and thriller forms of fiction writing.” In bridging this gap, there is the risk, in some way, of failing to balance the possible disagreeing elements. But Udenwe triumphs, at least, to a measurable extent. In truth, he may have taken it personally, to the extreme, in creating a good, if not perfect, marriage.
Every story is fundamentally a mystery story, regardless of genre, and this is why we take the knife to the cake—the only noblest reason for lengthy hours spent reading passages of our favourite French or Russian novel in small, ultrabright library rooms. Stories that do not engender questions to be answered, or answers to be pruned for veracity, lead to readers’ disinterest in both cake and knife. That’s not to say every story must subsume a narrative arc in which a handsome, overzealous black detective walks into San Luis Potosi or Nelson Mandela Bay to inspect the shooting of a certain John Kennedy. But if you must tell a tale about the Legend of Cleopatra, or Prometheus’ significance to Greek civilisation, you should, by all means possible, be interesting enough to keep readers falling and falling, without any hold, into its abyss of knowledge.
Similarly, almost all stories in this collection wield a heavy brushstroke of mystery, one way or another, like perfect detective mini-novelettes. But there are no detectives here, except the reader who is left with the role to introspect, interpret, and explore. They leap from scene to scene, page to page, fronting ideals like love, desire, marriage, and life’s foils like manipulation, and even death; sometimes, to the point of estrangement. Especially death—one of the most recurring themes in Udenwe’s novels. (His two erstwhile novels, Colours of Hatred, and Satans $ Shaitans, are set against the backdrops of the Sudanese Civil War and terrorism in Nigeria, respectively.)
More war. More death. We are not spared the mallet here either, even though we do not have to face the grotesque deaths representative of wars and terrorist attacks. Death as inquiry. Death as a revelation. Death as itself. A fifty-ish Nigerian man kills himself (by passing a skewer through his anus and his stomach, puncturing his head) as if to stir up revolution à la Arab Spring—martyrdom, egotism, or a body broken by insanity? A goodhearted widow is discovered “half-naked and dead” on the eve of her late husband’s anniversary—is the killer among her suitors? Not enough? Try this: A man often takes women he really likes to his favourite spot, close to a “huge and imposing” tree, but they never return, either because they pass away or they simply just leave—what’s this tree?
The Widow Who Died With Flowers in Her Mouth is a fine collection, by design and by all standards—cinematic, fast-paced, and edutaining, not to mention its nonlinearity steeped in oral tradition. Although one or two stories lean towards the dreadfully poor Nollywoodesque yarn, Udenwe somehow poses this collection as an indelible statement on the Nigerian literary scene, shifting our gazes from the ever-dominant traditional genres towards the possibility of a hybrid stack.
Some stories make us forget, some make us remember, some afford us the grace to exist in both realms, and The Widow Who Died With Flowers in Her Mouth leads as a far more solid example. It somehow turns you into a god sitting—there again, the phrase!—at the edge of an abyss, watching the ordinary take a plunge into the extraordinary.♦
The Widow Who Died with Flowers in Her Mouth is published by Maosbe Books. BUY HERE.
Njoku Nonso is a Nigerian Igbo-born writer. His work which explores the self as a unit of language, familyhood, spaces, death, grief, and otherness, has been published in Boston Review, Chestnut Review, Agbowo, Bodega, 20.35 Africa, and Ake Review.