|Jan/Feb 2009 Reviews & Interviews|
by Chika Unigwe
Farafina. 2007. 183 pp.
The use of allusion in novels enriches not only the reading experience, but also adds depth to the human drama. So when I saw the dazzling novel with "The Phoenix" embossed in bold grey letters, I quickly snatched it off the shelf of the snug bookshop tucked in a quiet corner of the magnificent Eko Hotel & Suites and paid its premium price. Another allusion awaited me when I turned the pages, and the first word that popped out was a Biblical reference: Damascus.
I knew at once there would be a sort of illumination the major character would encounter; a conversion; a change of heart. Like Saul. I wasn't disappointed in any way after reading the last page.
Originally published as De Feniks in Dutch by Meulenhoff/Manteau, The Phoenix is an uncommon story with strong overtones of the Diaspora. Before I delve into details, I think it is appropriate to commend the author for neatly melding both allusions into the body of the plot, so neither of them tended to override the other.
The story opens with a graphic scene of the distraught protagonist, Oge, embarking on a "Damascus" trip on a Leuven-bound train, to keep an appointment with her doctor, Dr. Suikerbuik. One may readily conceive the train as a metaphorical journey into the mind of the character as she leads us through the speckled landscape(s) of her life "riddled with bumps and coffins and crosses." The reader travels through her past and present on to a future which is as complex as it is nebulous and frightening.
As the train hums and slithers along, we get to unravel the source of Oge's trouble, relayed through a series of controlled yet vivid flashbacks. We become familiar with the "smell of loneliness." We get acquainted with her rootless identity. The fellow blacks she meets do not, and would not, reciprocate the familial gesture she so much desires. Instead they turn inwards; they shrink, fast and retractable as snail's tentacles, from her fraternal smile.
Oge's condition reveals itself to the reader in bleak and compelling details. She enthusiastically leaves behind her secure Catholic parents' home in Enugu, Nigeria, to live with her loving husband, Gunter, in Turnhout, Belgium where a cathedral looms on every street corner. Young and trusting and in love, she embraces her new environment, hoping for a Sinterklaas-like fantasy.
However, it does not take Oge an eternity to find out that "Fantasies die. Realities live," and this jolts her with an unsettling awakening. It becomes more agonizing when even "the sheer magic of a light bulb" fails to distance her from the dizzying "darkness" suggestive of death. This realization worsens after Jordi, her only child of five, accidentally dies in the neighbourhood school playground.
Her situation is exacerbated by the frostiness of foreign culture and by Gunter's temper which further undermines her assimilation into this culture. She is surrounded by people yet she seems to be without people; thus she's shut out from having any kind of meaningful and enduring social interaction.
The Phoenix illuminates the travails of a stranger who, though, married to a Belgian does not in any way lose her foreignness, even when she is "a citizen of the country." In fact, her marital status cannot erase the marked "boundaries," because the society, in which she lives, is barefacedly blinkered and "difficult for an outsider to penetrate." Even her one-year-old friendship with Lisa, her coffee-drinking partner, is not a license to "go beyond each other's kitchen" or "delve into each other's lives." Oge must not only grapple with this, but also with the realization that openness is seen as unnatural. In this Belgium everything is "conveniently packaged," every guest expected, every visit planned. No spontaneity. It is so organized that it seems quite suicidal.
It's paradoxical that people who would let their dogs lick their cheeks could deprive themselves of the sheer sunshine of community, cocoon themselves in the "aura of stillness." To the African, this comes as culture shock; a variant every diasporic person, not only Oge, must face.
The Phoenix reveals certain shades of stereotypes that confront foreigners. This is evident in Oge's varied encounters with the talkative woman in the red skirt, her fellow wayfarer on the train; parents of children in her son's school; Lisa, her lonely, only friend and the shop assistant at the boutique. She cannot escape these cold realities, she must lug her "personal emotional baggage" alone. And yet, all of this simply amplifies her helplessness, her isolation. She must "burn" in the "fire," she didn't set herself, so she can arise from the "ashes" to live again. This time more courageous, more rooted, to face a society that promises no "Utopia."
Living is not coffee and cream, it is indeed "ash and confetti and glitter" as embodied in Oge's experience. Her grief underscores the extent man can go to find meaning in the "reality" induced by the opiate of denial and religion. Such a reality anaesthetizes us from the combustion of grief, briefly, it seems. The truth is we just cannot deal with our "cancer" by ourselves. We must turn to those with whom we share a common bond, whether spouses, friends, or parents. That is the most reliable way we can "live again" and spread out our wings to soar above our old selves, our old fears.
The Phoenix further explores a number of other themes—alienation, bereavement, marital friction, religious unwariness and environmental issues of oil exploitation and marginalization—and even though the plot is not so complex the deft treatment of ordinary quotidian experience of the foreigner trapped in the ambience of Diaspora captured my heart tightly. It is in its lucid depiction of loneliness in all its ugliness and the rash of desolation that it breeds that this novel stands out as accomplished, notable and significant.
Chika Unigwe shows her skills here as an experienced, adept and experimental creative writer. She employs a remarkable device that instills the whole story with a sense of immediacy. The narrative structure moves in a non-linear loop; well-handled, highly stylized multiple point of view—although, the second person point of view predominates more than half the entire pages. The author's use of interior monologue, no doubt effectively-paced, drives the story well and reinforces the seclusion faced by the major character. The tone borders on the nostalgic, elegiac. This effect is rather apt and telling, considering the character whose existence oscillates between her exuberant past and funereal present. All this infuses a kind of cinematic slant to the plot. One may be tempted to draw allusions to the structure of Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction.
It is also instructive to point out that there is no exaggerated emotionalism, but a fidelity to realism. The protagonist's emotional struggle to cope with the loss of her only son and cancer is dealt with it in a subtle context that is not too tragic, or overdramatic, or hyperbolic. What I liked best is the dreamy quality to the story, which poignantly underlines Oge's "floating" life as though she were ephemeral, an apparition. And thus her struggle to cling to her self becomes even more hallucinatory and fragmentary.
The story is about regeneration eventually. The phoenix reference serves to enhance the dominant theme of the novel; that in each of us lies the conflict, often beyond our control, that threatens to reduce or reduces us to ashes, and our innate ability to be renewed, because we have a choice to be reborn. Robert Louis Stevenson said, "The difficulty of literature is not to write, but to write what you mean; not to affect your reader, but to affect him precisely as you wish." And I believe that Chika Unigwe has succeeded in that effort.