Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Onuora Nzekwu's Blade Among the Boys

Onuora Nzekwu is an Igbo intellectual from Kafanchan in northern Nigeria. He published several novels in the 1960s, the early post-colonial period and a time of great cultural ferment in Nigeria and other West African countries (the glory days of Chinua Achebe's African Writer's Series, including the present novel).

This period of Nigerian literature is preoccupied with cultural, social and religious themes. The urgent issue of the time is the construction of a new African identity, one that reestablishes traditional African mores and values while recognizing the importance and influence of the much larger world into which post-colonial Africa is thrust. It is a didactic literature with one eye on the edification of the youth and another on the image of Africa in the outside world. These novels have a certain innocence even as they typically portray lives of poverty and hardship; there is a deep sense of community and family that is no longer such a strong motif. They are also often philosophical, as young protagonists must make existential choices: the old ways or the new, the village or the city, Africa or "the West."

I've read quite a few of these fascinating documents now, and Blade Among the Boys is a very high-quality example of the genre. It is well-written and complex, artfully ambiguous and, like the best African writing of the time, a cautionary tale about character as destiny (I think this quality of moral parable has deeper roots in the rich African tradition of folktales and maxims). Patrick Ikenga, also from Kafanchan, is in line to inherit the post of ceremonial religious leader of his extended family, but his immediate family are also Catholic converts and he dreams of becoming the first Igbo priest. He does not realize the starkness of this choice. Indeed he shows curiosity and enthusiasm for the traditional rites even as he keeps alive his ambition for the priesthood. A talented young man, Patrick even appears to have a chance to bridge his two worlds.

Subtle flaws in Patrick's character, combined with the after all unbridgeable dilemma of two religious traditions, one native and one imposed, warp the life of this smart and competent person until his loss is total. Patrick likes the pomp and circumstance of Catholicism. He is vain. He is also selfish and not particularly a paragon of virtue, but he doesn't realize this. Even with these flaws he could have had everything he wanted if only he chose the traditional path. Fatherless, he lacks real guidance and is subject to the caprices of his paternal uncles who have more authority over his life than his long-suffering mother.

A particularly good aspect of the novel is the way the author weaves together the issue of cultural identity with the issue of sexuality. In turning away from traditional marriage and disregarding his mother's need for a son who is a father he causes grievous harm to himself and to people who he loves. In the end he is cast out of both worlds, literally walking out the door into a life unknown. It is a classic ending for a novel.

Related novels discussed in this blog are Francis Selormey's Narrow Path; Cheikh Hamidou Kane's Ambiguous Adventure; Nkem Nwankwo's Danda; Asare Konadu's A Woman in Her Prime; Chukuemeka Ike's The Potter's Wheel; Cameron Duodu's The Gab Boys.