In Other Words Taduno’s Song by Odafe Ato­gun

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Au­thor­i­tar­ian rule changes a so­ci­ety. Ev­ery­day life is col­ored by un­pre­dictabil­ity and fear. Trust erodes, as does the econ­omy. The threat of vi­o­lence, or vi­o­lence it­self, is per­va­sive. Even love and mu­sic are al­tered. Nige­rian writer Odafe Ato­gun’s first novel — part dream, part night­mare — is a love story set in such a so­ci­ety. As the coun­try cow­ers un­der a re­pres­sive leader who is self-ob­sessed, cun­ning, and pos­si­bly crazy, its people find their very mem­o­ries tar­geted — the ad­min­is­tra­tion erases mu­sic and per­son­al­i­ties, if not the per­son him­self. The story’s lovers, kept apart through nearly all its pages, become tar­gets of the dic­ta­tor, who fears that one of them — Taduno the mu­si­cian — has a power that ex­ceeds his own. Un­easy lies the head that wears a crown.

Taduno, driven from his coun­try by the dic­ta­tor, lives in name­less ex­ile. He squats in a de­serted house where he doesn’t speak the lan­guage. He dreams of re­turn­ing to Nige­ria, where he left be­hind his love and gui­tars, and join­ing the re­sis­tance to the ruth­less despot. A let­ter some­how finds him, though it’s ad­dressed only with his name. It comes from Le­lah, his love in Lagos, and omi­nously warns of changes in the city, en­cour­ag­ing him to build a new life else­where. Like bait, the let­ter draws him to find her. In Lagos, he ex­pe­ri­ences the per­plex­ity that Ge­orge Bai­ley suf­fered in It’s a Won­der­ful Life. His for­mer friends and neigh­bors don’t know him. It’s as if he never ex­isted — he has been dis­ap­peared from the streets of Lagos, his pop­u­lar­ity as a hyp­notic singer­song­writer erased from pub­lic mem­ory. When he tells his neigh­bors what he knows of their lives, they turn sus­pi­cious. Af­ter ini­tially greet­ing him with sticks and stones, they de­cide Taduno is a nice man who has lost his mind, so they al­low him to stay. He moves into his now-de­serted for­mer house and rushes to see Le­lah. No one rec­og­nizes him, but they con­firm she was pulled off the streets by author­i­ties and has not been seen since.

The city has taken on an au­thor­i­tar­ian chill, as po­lice and sol­diers train their guns on ev­ery­one. Taduno tempts a ner­vous po­lice sergeant with a bribe, and is told that Le­lah is be­ing held be­cause she is the only one with knowl­edge of a mu­si­cian whose name and face have been lost, but whose mag­netic voice is pow­er­fully per­sua­sive. The govern­ment thinks his mu­sic might spur rev­o­lu­tion. The dic­ta­tor wants the mu­si­cian to flip and sing fa­vor­ably of him. Le­lah is his lever­age.

Taduno, his mag­netic voice now as scratchy as iron fil­ings, is in­ca­pable of singing as con­vinc­ingly as in the past. As he works to re­store his magic, he has a re­al­iza­tion: What has changed in the city is what has changed in him. He no longer knows him­self, as no one around him knows them­selves. The quest for iden­tity ex­tends to those around him. “Is it pos­si­ble that we are the ones who have for­got­ten the past?” his long­time friend Aroli asks, think­ing that Taduno’s life story may be an en­try into his.

The book’s set­ting bears re­sem­blance to Nige­ria un­der army gen­eral Sani Abacha in the 1990s, and crit­ics have com­pared Taduno to Fela Kuti, the late Nige­rian mu­si­cian and long­time po­lit­i­cal fire­brand who crit­i­cized gov­ern­ments and so­cial mores be­gin­ning in the 1970s. But Fela’s mu­sic — loud, as­sertive, and most of­ten played by an elec­tric big band — is dif­fer­ent from that of the gen­tle Taduno. Even with­out words, Taduno’s mu­sic car­ries mean­ing; it’s “the song of a man bro­ken and re­jected by a so­ci­ety very dear to his heart, an ada­gio of pain, played so beau­ti­fully even time be­came still.”

The same can be said of Ato­gun’s writ­ing. The au­thor doesn’t quite de­velop the kind of hair-rais­ing ten­sion ex­pected when the pos­si­bil­ity of kid­nap and mur­der is a real ev­ery­day dan­ger. Rather, his tone is somber, his char­ac­ters dis­ori­ented and des­per­ately hid­ing their fear. Kafkaesque bu­reau­cratic tan­gles and Or­wellian dec­la­ra­tions (“The Govern­ment does not be­lieve in in­no­cence”) give away the book’s pedi­gree. But Ato­gun’s re­served, melan­choly tone in the face of po­lit­i­cal fear presents some­thing new. There’s lit­tle ac­tual vi­o­lence — its pres­ence is sec­ond­hand rather than wit­nessed, even as the en­tire story turns on its prom­ise.

Once Taduno has re­gained his voice and power, he is re­mem­bered by the pop­u­lace, who see him as a po­ten­tial sav­ior. But Taduno has an im­pos­si­ble choice to make be­tween his love and his love of his people. Then, again, the choice may be out of his hands.

Ato­gun’s Lagos has the ir­ra­tional feel of any place un­der a strong­man. Cor­rup­tion and hu­man rights abuses are the norm. Most sober­ing is the sense of para­noia and fear that par­a­lyzes the people. Ato­gun has some well-cho­sen words di­rected at au­thor­i­tar­i­ans. In one bar­room dis­cus­sion, a claim that the Nige­rian pres­i­dent wants to be the An­tichrist and take over the en­tire world is coun­tered by one voice say­ing that’s the North Korean dic­ta­tor’s aspi­ra­tion, and an­other who says “Mr. Pres­i­dent” truly wants only to be rich. “Call him a thief, call him a looter of our na­tional trea­sury, but cer­tainly not the An­tichrist.” It’s im­por­tant to re­mem­ber that the pow­er­ful are also petty. — Bill Kohlhaase

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