In Other Words Taduno’s Song by Odafe Atogun
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