Thursday, 1 October 2009

"The Shadow of a Smile" by Kachi Ozumba

African Novels is a supposedly commercially attractive pigeon-hole into which publishers have been lobbing books hopefully on a regular basis over the last few years, and I have been unlucky enough to have had to read a few of them, particularly for judging and reviewing purposes. A mistake in most cases, because it takes more than a bit of local colour to make a good novel, and nothing I have read to date has come close to The Famished Road, which for me set the gold standard.

On the back cover of The Shadow of a Smile there is the by now inevitable comparison with Ben Okri, but for once the blurb does not lie, for this is a very fine novel indeed. There are in fact publisher's references to various writers, but perhaps the most appropriate one does not figure at all, for this book reminded me more than anything of Kafka's The Trial. Like the unfortunate hero of that book (Josef K), Zuba finds day to day issues escalating nightmarishly into a legal minefield, and imprisonment.

The Shadow of a Smile is a very different novel to The Famished Road. For one thing, whereas Okri convincingly shows us the world through the eyes, and using the language, of a fairly naive child, Ozumba's protagonist is an educated and sophisticated young man of good family. This introduces us to a subtle shading of moral ambiguity, for it emerges that Zuba's father has been an establishment figure and part of a (presumably) corrupt previous regime. It is thus entirely possible that his father's colleagues subjected others to exactly the same privations which Zuba is now forced to suffer.

Much of the narrative is bleak, for we need little convincing to believe that Nigeria is not the best place in the world to be imprisoned, but Ozumba's achievement is to take such potentially harrowing surroundings and find in them not only sympathy and occasional acts of kindness, but even humour.

This is presumably Ozumba's first novel, since no previous ones are credited, and it is a deeply impressive debut. Incidentally, the title is a quotation from Anna Akhmatova, the persecuted Russian poet, on whom see a fascinating essay by Clive James in Cultural Amnesia, and refers obliquely to the expression on a fellow sufferer's face when she realises that her story will be told one day after all.

The Shadow of a Smile is published by Alma Books under ISBN 978-1-84688-089-6

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