The friction between white colonists and indigenous Africans has been covered extensively not least in the works of the old masters like Ngugi and, much more relatable here, by Achebe. So there is a great deal of familiarity for the reader of African literature with the preoccupations in Foreign Gods whose chief concern is the sale of a sacred figurine to a gallery in New York.
But what grips the reader in Foreign Gods Inc is the empathy for the book’s protagonist Ike and his pursuit of Ngene a once powerful war god, whose likeness he steals he plans to steal from his hometown and sell to Mark Gruels’s Manhattan gallery.
Ike, here, is an economics graduate from Amherst whose sole reason for not finding work is said to be his Igbo accent. His marriage and divorce from the fiery (and incidentally funny) Bernita has left him little money on which to survive. He then reads an article a friend sent him about Gruels and his thriving gallery, first with incredulity and a second time with a promise of riches, and decides to travel back to his ancestral home in Utonki, in south-eastern Nigeria to steal a once powerful god of war and sell to Gruels.
Ike’s humiliations and suffering would seem to have no end. Bernita relentlessly mocks him and he is all but sure that she has cheated on him with the owner of the provisions store right under his flat. All she learns from a documentary about South Africa is a new word to add to her repertoire of insults, “Your Zulu dick be running around, looking for some white ho, she accuse. Fuck you and your Zulu shit, she’d curse. Or she’d berate: why you speak English with that Zulu accent?”
At the airport in Nigeria Ike is harassed and made to bribe shamelessly corrupt immigration and custom officers. His mother and sister are now shadows of themselves emaciated by poverty and despair, making them easy preys to the predations of a dubious pastor and the adulterated prosperity gospel that has been sweeping the country. His childhood love who left him for a rich criminal is now widowed with kids she can barely feed, and now “the frumpy, reeking apparition before him was his first love, once the object of his anguished infatuation.” There is hardly any respite from the run of rut in Ike’s world so much that the reader begins to expect the worst possible outcome in every scene while hanging onto a fraying rope of hope that after 300 pages our beleaguered hero will find some reprieve.
Ike’s drinking and gambling problems and a wife who squanders his earnings does not cover new grounds as far as character studies go. But the simple yet thrilling premise and promise of the novel, is a joy to read because of Ndibe’s exquisite prose which aims for a register close to lush, descriptive poetry “the last time he saw her, she was wiry and shrunken, her skin wrinkled like corn tassel, her eyes all but conquered by darkness”, “suddenly the radiant sun broke out. It imbued the fizzling ropes of rain with a silvery brilliance”, “he (Ike) had the sensation of sinking in a soupy, brakish river, the choppiness of a surface presaging the wild pulsations of its undertow”. This is not the sort of exhibitory writing that distances itself from the story and parades itself for praise, rather it ventilates Ike’s quest acting as a life-critical system without which a story like his might lapse into a coma.
So concise is Ndibe’s prose that the odd inelegance is baffling though forgivable. On Page 130 he writes of Ike’s mother “her words swirled in the air, hard to absorb” only to find on the next page that “said in the dark, the words swirled, echoed, in the air” which could be put down to lazy editing. The one misjudged tonal moment is when Ike visits a childhood friend, Tony Iba, who has become a prosperous politician and whose misuse of words and ostentatious display of wealth is concocted for laughs. He is said to speak “a brew of English of his own invention, at once ungrammatical and alluring”.
Of his paintings Iba says they are “spectaculous” and then with false modesty “but I shouldn’t be throwing away so much hard-boiled money into such luxuriations. Where will I find the money to eat?” An “ungrammatical and alluring” English is close to the poeticism Mr Ndibe employs elsewhere in the novel in the sense that both are pitched at levels higher than that of what would be considered “plain English”. One is bombastic and the other is refined, but both are elevated from the ground base of common use to altitudes which they have in common.
Early on in the novel when Ike decides to return to Utonki, he envisages little problems in taking the figurine from its shrine. It is in fact intimated that he will make a quick job of it. But it would not be a worthwhile read if he does so easily (matter of fact there might not be a novel at all). We then learn that Ngene’s chief priest is Ike’s uncle, Osukwa, and its shrine is in his compound. While this is not stressed initially, it later becomes – partly for plot reasons – a source of emotional and objective quagmire for Ike. To further complicate matters, his mother, under the influence of a dubious pastor, believes that Osukwa and Ike’s grandmother were responsible for the death of Ike’s father. He defies his mother, much to her dismay, and pays repeated visits to Osukwa’s shrine where some of the most affecting passages in the novel are found.
It is to Ndibe’s credit that Ike’s presence at a worship session is not a mere recording of a neglected religious rite, for the reader is at once observer and participant of a sacred procession. Libations are poured and praises are given with incantatory power “the brave man goes to war, but the coward owns the story”. These vividly drawn pages – far superior to the uninspired versions in countless Nollywood films – are a needed counter balance to the rigorous religiosity of Stanton, the white missionary whose attempts to convert the indigenes of Utonki is charted in a 28 page short story inserted into the novel.
This presumably happened in the early colonial days and has at its heart the clash of civilizations and beliefs. Stanton’s success is not meagre but ends disastrously which the unpersuaded believe is testament to Ngene’s powers. But as a self-contained text, it does not add much credence or weight to Ike’s story, or indeed to the myth of Ngene any more than a passing mention of it could have done. This is not to say it is not an absorbing read, but rather it is a large side meal served along with the main course the enjoyment of which is admittedly dependent on the reader’s appetite.
Another reason why the prayers at Ngene’s shrine is important is that Stanton’s conversations with the indigenous sceptics is heavily lopsided. Perhaps unwittingly, he comes across as intelligent and determined, his good will and Christian zeal frustrated by the unyielding and uninterested people of Utonki who refuse to see the light of salvation. As an exercise in persuasive point of view, Staton’s story succeeds. But there is not a sound enough rebuttals from the indigenes save for some discursive prodding which are often so comical they end up sounding intellectually weak and, quite frankly, naff.
So the scenes in the shrine act, if not as a corrective, then as a parallel view of their belief system. It is not the novelist’s charge to write propaganda, but when the scale of narrative heft has been tipped in one direction for centuries, a layered alternative from those who choose to write their own stories starts to seem, ironically, like the Lord’s Work.
A version of this review was first published on Mediadiversified.org