Dog Days and Other Dreams
By Tade Ipadeola
A review of Edible Bones
By Unoma Azuah
A typical literary work by Unoma Azuah begins right in the middle of life. Edible Bones is not an exception. But the newest novel from this author goes much farther from the mean of things into unexamined corners of life with exemplary ease. For example, upturning the embedded human notions that, somehow, the grass is always greener on the other side, that happiness is a plane ticket away, that strangers will embrace you, that your very own must. The manner in which Unoma Azuah takes off from the starters’ block into the gravamen of her existential explorations, however, is one of the things that mark this new work out as relevant art.
Every human being arrives at that terminus at which the truth or falsity of any age-old persuasion is tested and shown for what it really is. This novel is an interrogation of human motives and motivations in the process of making vital life choices. The characters in this new novel, whether Nigerians or Americans, uniquely instruct the reader in these subtle operations of heart and mind by showing, not telling – a tough task which the author again manages to pull off with panache.
Kaitochukwu, the protagonist, is the pivot on which the dynamics of the narrative rests. He is ambitious but naïve, generally energetic but slightly obtuse. He probably represents a sizable demographic in Nigeria of today. The trauma of living in a country where electricity, security and fundamental human rights is in constant jeopardy, potently capable of dehumanizing the average person, have already ravaged the man at the point of departure for the United States of America, the point at which the narrative begins. Kaito embarks on a simultaneous journey of geographies and cultures, dreams and awakenings.
There is no honeymoon in Kaito’s relationship with exile. The getting-to-know-you phase was as frank and candid as both can be. Foreign soil doesn’t suffer fools gladly, doesn’t waste tears on yesterday, demands that the exile literally hit the ground running – that the exile learns to be tough. Kaito’s experience in his first few days abroad are as close to psychic water-boarding as one can get. Even when he appears to be deriving some sort of benefit, there is a constant ache, a lingering shadow of unease, a proxy of chattel slavery to remind the man that he has just exchanged one bad reality for another.
There is a sense in which Kaito’s relationships in America betray him serially, starting with his countrymen. He discovers the bitter truth in the clichéd observation that when a deal looks too good to be true, it probably is. Kaito is the poster child for the individual who cannot be warned. There is a sense, also in which the fixation of the native on the West
What emerges from the structured narration in Edible Bones is a modern cautionary tale. It is also an extended variorum of the morality tale. Look before you leap, the grass may just be greener over the neighbour’s soak-away. The work plumbs its emotional depths. Ms Azuah’s art enjoys an admirable immunity from overkill or the overly simple rendition of a serious message.
Edible Bones is serious but enjoyably so. It is succeeds precisely because it does not take itself too seriously and is as generous with latitude to the reader as the author has been in the composition. The narrative is quick. It was designed to be. Quick as short blasts from a hunter’s whistle – let the hunting dog learn not to stray. The instructive quality in this narrative cannot be overemphasized in a world in which global economic recession has touched El Dorado and America seems to be the epicenter of the three digit quakes on the Richter scale.
There are enduring irreversibles in life and Unoma Azuah’s prose touches on some of them, especially in the relationship of Kaitochukwu and his parents. The author suggests, in not so many words, that parental vision of life needs to be as broad as necessary, especially now, in the 21st century. The relationship of citizen and country is also placed under scrutiny. When, in a land so abundant in resources should a citizen cease to ask what other citizens in other countries less well endowed no longer need to ask? What pattern of escape, if any, is to be preferred from a country that every moment threatens to consume the citizen? What factor of risk is tolerable in a foreign land? How much madness is equal to divine sense? Kaito’s encounter with the lone madman in the twilight hints at a credible answer.
A review should be as much about merit finding as fault-finding. On the fault-finding lane, I find the misfortunes of Kaito a little overwhelming. It is as if the universe singled him out for exemplary punishment and chose Ms Azuah as amanuensis. Certainly, the sufferings of a wanderer ought to teach Kaito how not to proceed into more traps in a foreign land? Certainly his liaisons could have offered episodic relief from the stream of ill-luck and misadventures? Is breaking even as impossible as the narrative suggests? His return to the homeland certainly could have been less catastrophic for every party concerned! Just when his American bride seemed to be finally getting into her African groove, something snaps. I find the conspiratorial breeze, blowing away Kaito’s already frayed dreams the final straw that put the proverbial camel into orthopedic limbo.
On the balance, Edible Bones is a book for the African willing to come to some accommodation with his lot on the planet. There is value to be had in looking inward; examining what is of value in our own societies. There was a time, not too distant, when value was not necessarily measured in wealth. There is also value to be derived from the attitude of the West to institutions and power. Could we challenge our own crumbling institutions to responsibility just as they do in the West? Can our correctional facilities at home do the job without lapsing into the farce of western penitentiaries? Can we, in short, make this a better place with our everyday decisions? Unoma Azuah latest novel is not particularly prescriptive but it is, in the final analysis, an exquisite narrative of the gastronomy of disquiet.