words follow me

Icon

archive of essays by Teju Cole for NEXT newspaper

instruments of darkness

Ceridwen Dovey’s novel, Blood Kin, has no named characters. Each person is identified simply by job description, pronoun, or relationship to the president. This president himself is, at the opening of the book, dictator-for-life of an unnamed country, sketched out largely by his tastes and preferences than by any real exploration of his character. His character is dictatorial; that is all we need to know. The absence of names plunges the story firmly in the atmosphere of a fable, and Dovey’s almost archetypal focus on the roles by the main characters hints at an allegorical intent.

The most important of those roles are held by three men who serve the president: his barber, his portraitist, and his chef. The chef cooks for him daily, the barber comes once a week to clip his hair, and the portraitist does a new portrait of him every month. The opening pages are eerie, and the reader already suspects that the ensuing narrative will be dark. Dovey, a young South-African novelist, who won that country’s Sunday Times Fiction Prize last year for this book, introduces the work in ominous tones. Though what she describes in those first few pages are the respective procedures of the president’s men, and though these descriptions are at once precise and gently lyrical, she drops into each just enough of a hint of the menace to come.

So, there’s the chef, who takes apparent pleasure in disembowelling crayfish and beheading prawns. Her description of how he kills the abalones (large sea snails) is especially gripping: he must let them calm down for a half-hour before he smashes them with a rolling pin. If they see him coming and contract, the flesh becomes tough and inedible; they are wasted.The barber, meanwhile, having particular access to the president, idly muses about slitting his throat or snapping his neck in the middle of shave. He has no compelling reason to do so. The thought merely occurs to him. Even the portraitist is haunted by submerged violence, in his case the close observation that reveals the president ageing before his eyes. They are all present in the presidential palace on the day the president is deposed and, with him, they are all spirited away to another palace, outside the city, from which the rest of the story unfolds.

The story that Dovey tells is, as her title suggests, about kinship, blood kinship of two distinct kinds: the genetic connection between people, and the way people are bound by violence. Each of the book’s short chapters is narrated in the first person; as Banquo says in Macbeth, “the instruments of darkness tell us truths.” In the first part, the portraitist, the barber and the chef tell their stories, interspersing the stories of their lives with their current condition under house arrest and in service of the new dictator, a man who calls himself the Commander.

The second part of the book extends these stories, and gives voice to a few other characters we have met in the first part: the portraitist’s wife, the barber’s brother’s fiancée, and the chef’s daughter. These female voices deepen and complicate the story, a story in which two things can absolutely not be counted on: paternity and sexual fidelity. In keeping with the quasi-allegorical feel of the tale, none of these six narrators has appreciable differences from the others, at least in the telling of the tale.

The prose, spare and controlled, and as clean as a knife, is also burnished with a certain sensuality: around a mouth “wine is smudged like blood,” a child is “the size of a grain of rice,” ambition is like “a living creature, crouched and focused.” Dovey seems to have a special fondness for seafood, and there are many loving descriptions of crustaceans, of cooking fish, and even of the work of fishermen (the barber’s brother is a fisher-man). She doesn’t escape cliché completely: one character takes to politics “like a fish to water.”

But, for the most part, her prose serves the story well, and the story is essentially a report from the inside of power by people who have been mildly corrupted by their exposure to it. We see how easy it is for revolutionaries to become despots. There is little difference between the president and the Commander. Blood Kin reads, in parts, like what such a book about dictatorship by a South-African should. Some of these interlocking first-person narratives sound like testimonies from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, unvarnished confessions of what was done to whom, when it was done, why it was done. And the influence of her fellow South-African, J.M. Coetzee, is never far away, not only in the unemotional and fable-like narration, but also in specific incidents, such as when one of the characters overhears a man being tortured in the neighbouring room. It is impossible not to recall the cold-blooded Colonel Joll from Waiting for the Barbarians, who had no compunction about making other human beings suffer, allegedly in the service of the state.

Paradoxically, the strengths of the novel are also signals of its weakness. A certain circumspection in recounting violence is necessary, and we perhaps can only properly approach it if we don’t get too familiar with the stories it (violence) tells to justify itself. The burden of witnessing requires caution. On the other hand, to universalise it is to weaken the claims made by specific victims. The absence of clues about the location, or rather the presence of inconsistent clues (the country appears to be South Africa, but almost all the characters are white), creates a mystery that detracts from the main philosophical centre of the book. That centre is the question of why people are so ready to do violence to each other, eager to decapitate, unhesitating in sneaking up with the rolling pin. These quibbles aside, Dovey has written a beautiful book about a subject that many people, Nigerians not least, are uncomfortable thinking about.

One thinks back to the series of residents occupying Dodan Barracks, the broad networks of influence and power they cultivated, and the souls that were bought with money or recruited by force. It is impossible that there aren’t now large numbers of Nigerians who came close to power, and participated as auxiliaries in power’s horrors. But such is life. When power fades, its auxiliaries slip into normal life, and are happy to blend there, happy to have the past forgotten. Having consorted with killers, they retire, and try to enjoy life out of the spotlight. It goes without saying that this pattern continues right to the present day.

Blood Kin is marred, slightly, by some soap-opera plotting towards the end. But it is a fine book otherwise, an indirect tale that makes a contribution to an area of contemporary experience that urgently needs to be addressed, directly and indirectly.

Advertisements

Filed under: literature

%d bloggers like this: