Review by Ioana Danaila
“It was in the ships that the mouth-locks were used, so that they [the slaves] couldn’t console each other and rally their spirits and thereby revolt. To further discourage communication, no two persons of the same language were kept together: Mandingo was chained to Yoruba, Wolof was chained to Ibo, Bini was chained to Hausa. You see, every oppressor knows that wherever one word is joined to another word to form a sentence, there’ll be revolt. That is our work, the media: to refuse to be silenced, to encourage legitimate criticism wherever we find it.”
Nigeria in the 1990s. Military régimes follow one another, yet no-one seems to take an interest in people’s daily lives, their despair and their lack of perspective.
Lomba, Kela, Bola, James, Joshua, all writers, journalists or students, are some of the characters who try living lives as normal as possible in the maze of arrests and “official” killings hanging above their heads. As the story unfolds, they will all be bruised in one way or another by the abuses of the régime, by its violence and ignorance.
Helon Habila’s novel is more than a piece of writing: it is a chorus of voices sometimes harmonious, sometimes discordant; sometimes screaming for the freedom to speak, sometimes choked by despair. From Lomba’s experience in prison, the story unfolds backwards, telling the experiences of his friends which echo in his own. All have loved; all have had dreams of writing; all have learned to live with their despair and go on hoping.
More than just a character, Lomba is the author’s alter ego who goes from one story to another, from one experience to another, from one character to another to give the reader vast spectre of a society in which intellectual value is feared and chained precisely because it is freedom-bringing. More than a political piece of criticism, the novel is a close look at the contemporary world, the perspective of exile and the luring media.
Journalists, poets, writers or students, the characters share a common identity: masters of words and speech, against the system that punishes truth-tellers (Ken Saro-Wiwa’s death is highlighted).
Victims of the political establishment, their mission is to struggle for their voices and voice their deep struggles… a mission they succeed at, for the intertwined lives of the characters form the polyphony which the reader is invited to listen and meditate upon. ‑ The African Book Review