Death may be a hemlock-filled goblet falling from your hands. Death may be a stained-glass window flying off its ancient frames in reaction to an exploding bomb. Either way, death can crash, can explode, can shatter into smithereens. Each shard has its story, or none would have the potential to draw blood as you try to collect them together. In Olubunmi Familoni’s debut literary work, Smithereens of Death, each shard is, in fact, a story.
Far from being placid and aseptic, all twenty-five stories of Smithereens of Death are alive. Fully alive with tragedy, longing, war, fragmentation of relationships and an eventual re-assortment of sorts (in some instances for good, in other instances downright ridiculous), neediness, identity crisis, darkling comedy, sounds of forays into fortune or forlornness. In the first, Flies to Wanton Boys, we find that war abhors smugness. I thought, as I listened to the expatriate journalist-narrator mourn, ‘I have only a camera. A Nikon. Broken’, that Teju Cole might just bleed; this shard would surely lacerate him. Here, Olubunmi begins his collection-long experiment with mediums of dialogue: standard English, Yorùbá-English (‘She is my shild’, says the native medicine man in the seventh story, The Fly, grinning), pidgin English (thus goes the painful poser from Madam Caro’s mouth, in the nineteenth story, A Master of Himself: ‘So na who give you di belle, ashawo girl?); and with how informal Englishes can be used to fraternise (in the conversations in Flies to Wanton Boys, for instance), or else to entice (as happened in The Fly); and with how, comically, standard but flowery English may simply fetch you alienation (‘These small men that have nothing but their big-big English,’ mutters Faith in the eleventh story, The Cost of Dying, ‘they always end up crazy’). The rather amusing second, Welcome to Hell, its sadness somewhat veiled, appears to take up from where Flies left off, so one might well think, Ah, this must be a novel in disguise…But Olubumni only employs this as a sleight of hand, a feint: the third, The Long Journey, on the fragmentation of a family, and told by an unreliable narrator for whom you very well might feel a fond exasperation for, like a jab, connects with your chin, jolting you back into reality.
There is no want of such words as death, dead, dark, wraith, stench, corpse, ghostly, shit, fuck, gory, as Olubunmi’s characters employ gallows humour, scatological humour, light-hearted profanity, to show humanity sometimes in defiance of, and at other times in resignation to, her self-inflicted torture, her sorrows, and her failures (as exemplified in the bumbling attempts of certain of the characters attain to the high ideals of their belief systems). Death is personified, darkness personalised. The deliberate, almost playful variation (as you read on) of point of view, narrator, story length, and theme and light and shade and mood, show Olubunmi not to be insensitive to the protean tastes of readers’ palates. And the collection glistens with imagery.
Each shard is a story. In each, an interesting reflection of humanity: broken, yet breathing, or breathing, yet broken. This unreliable duality is expressed in the characters as well, who are sad, angry, happy, hate-filled, profane, but no less human. Like the intriguing Helmet in the thirteenth story, The Colour of Darkness, these characters know Death, intimately, as you would a lover. Most of the female characters are even more intriguing, even disturbing: having read Smithereens right after Chris Abani’s Becoming Abigail, I could not help but be agitated, even irked, by the misery of the female characters.
You may find a few flaws (for instance, I found the separation of standard English words from pidgin ones in a few whole sentences that are clearly pidgin somewhat pedantic and rather jarring), but you are very likely to acknowledge, as I frankly do, that Olubunmi shows himself a writer with imagination. The voice may be new, emerging, but the hands and mind are those quite well accustomed to moves and practices of compositions like past masters such as Updike and Steinbeck. And now he steps onto the literary stage.
‘Smithereens of Death’ is available at Booksellers, Ibadan, and other leading bookstores in Nigeria, and at konga.com.