Friday, July 12, 2024

In Praise of Death: An Existentialist Reading of Smithereens of Death


By Richard Oduor Oduku

  • Title: Smithereens of Death
  • Author: Olubunmi Familoni
  • Publisher: WriteHouse Collective, Ibadan, Nigeria
  • Number of pages: 124
  • Year of publication: 2015
  • Category: Fiction

‘Life is about death; tiny pieces of dying… but when the last piece has been peeled away, the grief that remains is an open sore on the hearts of those left behind – you cannot cover it with anything, with living … It will not heal tomorrow, or the day after …’ (‘A Rain of Many Things’, p 88)

 Life is inherently devoid of meaning. Like Jean-Paul Sartre would say, it is up to man to find meaning for himself. The inherent meaninglessness does not equal doom and depression. Rather, it opens up doors of possibilities and feeds the idea that we earn our freedom by finding ourselves and creating our own meanings. Existentialism lies at the heart of Smithereens of Death. In this collection of short stories, the characters create their own sense of purpose because of the failure of externalities – God and society – to provide one.

Right from the beginning, the stories in Smithereens of Death distance us, both physically and mentally, from their subjects. The reader becomes a spectator to a world where life is intrinsically a worthless commodity. In ‘Flies to Wanton Boys’, a boy of nine moves us through a world where death is a ‘casual thing, a handshake, something that happens without emotion’. When the boy is asked, ‘How did you escape, survive?’ he laughs and replies, ‘Nobody survives here, it is just that everybody’s death comes at a different time’ (pp 12–13).

Such indifference to death is a central feature in existentialist fiction. The mark of an existentialist is to accept mortality, for it is only by accepting mortality that one can be happy. Meursault in The Stranger by Albert Camus, exudes this indifference when he says:

On a wide view, I could see that it makes little difference whether one dies at the age of thirty or threescore and ten – since, in either case, other men and women will continue living, the world will go on as before. Also, whether I died now or forty years hence, this business of dying had to be got through, inevitably.

In Notes from Underground by Fyodor Dostoevsky, the Underground Man, a lonely and spiteful but brutally honest man says: ‘To live longer than forty years is bad manners, is vulgar, immoral. Who does live beyond forty? Answer that, sincerely and honestly I will tell you who do: fools and worthless fellows’.

In Smithereens of Death, there is a deliberate structuring of narrative to project the absurdity of human existence. Death is used in the stories as a trope to project an essentially existentialist worldview. It provides the most important opportunity for self-inspection, and draws a man to conceptualise the meaning of his being.

Smithereens of Death also projects psychological death and the death of value systems. ‘Small Bites of Death’, a story on the violence meted out to house helps, is heartbreaking. When Chinelo, the house help, takes a small bite from a piece of chicken she is frying for Madam and her boyfriend, Madam – a woman who ‘not only counts the pieces of meat she cooked’ but also ‘memorizes the shape of each piece’ – hits her so hard that her mouth fills with blood. ‘She wondered why Madam had not just killed her instead’ (pp 118–119).

If you live in Nairobi and you use buses as your main means of transport, and you live in Githurai 45 or school at Kenyatta University, ‘Within an Inch of the Heaven’ (p 120) can be excised from the streets of Lagos and planted along Nairobi-Thika Highway:

Just as our preacher broke into “Blessed is the man that –” , another man, determined to seek his own blessings by less tedious means, rose at the front and began handing out worn out envelopes that read: NIGERIA SOCIETY OF DEAF & DUMBS. I NEED YOUR HELP.

The long and the short of the story is that the preacher and the fake-deaf man engage in a tussle that ends in the loss of the money ‘bilked’ from other passengers. Meanwhile, ‘The people just watched, and marvelled at the mysterious ways in which the God of Lagos worked’ (p 120).

‘Go Slow Blues’ (p 123) is not just a story about the death of gratitude – depicted by a poor boy throwing back the fifty Naira alms given to him by the lady in the ‘air-conditioned solitude of a BMW’s backseat’ because it is small – but also about the illusory comfort of wealth. In the story we find a lady, Teme, an Executive Director of a company in the city, with a big salary and a big car, but who feels small, empty and unfulfilled when she watches the people

passing by on their way to their daily hustles, pushing and shoving through the day’s striving and struggle, dragging their hopes along with them…. She envied them. She saw the fulfilment and joys of labour on their faces side by side with the frustration that crinkled their brows.

Teme was not looking forward to work that morning:

The Executive Director sinecure was becoming too light for her to bear. She wanted to work, to do real work. But her father wouldn’t let her – he had put her in this obese penthouse office, insulated from the frenetic economic activities going on beneath, with a big salary and a big car to go with it, but she felt small – negligible, empty, unfulfilled. She wanted something more, a challenge (p 122).

In this story, as in others, we find a character on a personal search for meaning in life. We may say that Teme envies those who labour because, protected from the vagaries of lacking, she does not actually know the strife they are going through, but maybe that would be too harsh. Jean-Paul Sartre depicted man as being in constant negation. However, despite the flow-out of negative thoughts, the profound ability to introspect about one’s existence is a key element of intelligence. It calls to mind Socrates’ famous dictum: a life unexamined is not worth living.

In ‘A Corpse’s Picture’, we learn about the interplay between trauma and memory, and how trauma mediates the ability to store, retain, and retrieve information. Sigmund Freud theorised that when an event is so traumatic, that it cannot be forgotten, it is repressed and kept in secret for shame or fear. Such repression removes the memory from the conscious mind. Though it exists, it may not even be accessible by the patient. In Smithereens of Death, the narrator says: ‘But I didn’t kill it; I just folded it up and tucked it away in the depth of my memory from where I could dig it up once in a while, to caress it on the darkness of my thoughts’ (p 31).

Perhaps, no other story in the collection exemplifies the search of meaning more than ‘A Master of Himself’ (p 92). The narrator – an emotionally-detached, acutely rational, and open-minded man – literally sits ‘on the fringe of’ a conversation between three friends: Broda Ignatius, Reader Richard and jolly Cletus, ‘hearing, the words being said but not paying them any mind’, instead focusing on his hot pepper soup. The three friends are engaged in a discourse on the concept of God. Richard has a firm commitment to scholarship and a search for truth and is impatient with religious perspectives. He is irked by the standard contribution from spokesmen-of-God, like his friend Broda Ignatius, who insists that ‘Jesus is the Truth’.

‘A Master of Himself’ is the narrator, and we see Broda Ignatius, Richard, and Cletus through his sieving eyes. He tells us that, ‘The argument has worn Ignatius out, especially since he considered it lost, himself the loser, the foundation of his faith being confuted by his infidel friend’s polemic tenacity’. Richard and Cletus convince the hesitant Broda Ignatius to come with them to Abeke’s place, but Ignatius seems to have had one too many, ‘He tried standing up, tottered forward, and fell back into his seat heavily’. Cletus calls Risi, a barmaid at Madam Caro’s bar, to come and help Broda Ignatius to his feet, and she ‘appeared; a shy smile, which bellied the amount of cleavage on display, played on her luscious, liberally lip-glossed lips’. Cletus entreats Risi to take ‘gooooood care’ of Broda Ignatius as his wife is ‘away on a mountain visiting God, or it is the man-of-God, I don’t know… Sha take care of him well’. And Risi takes care of Broda Ignatius – a man who has been preaching about sin, hell, and damnation – very well.

When Risi later vomits into the narrator’s pepper soup, her pregnancy becomes public. Madam Caro demands to know who is responsible, ‘So na who give you di belle, ashawo girl?’ ‘Igna. Broda Ignatius’, the girl says after several beatings. Broda Igna blames it all on the alcohol. The hypocrisy and self-righteousness that Broda Ignatius displays reminds one of Christopher Hitchens’ observation in God is Not Great, quoting from Shakespeare’s King Lear, ‘The policeman who lashes the whore has a hot need to use her for the very offense for which he plies the lash’.

Existentialists hold that the individual is fully responsible for their actions and not subject to the demands of preconceived moral notions. When the narrator asks Cletus and Richard why they waylaid Broda Igna with sin, Cletus, in his characteristic deprecatory humour, dismisses the concern by declaring:

Seriously, my man, forget Ignatius, a man who has allowed rules, laws, commandments, whatever you want to call them, purportedly laid down by a foreign god, a Western god, to restrict him and determine the limits of his liberty deserves whatever troubles come upon his head. So forget Igna, his God will help him (p 102).

Familoni’s prose is dense. It is unlike the short sentences favoured in contemporary fiction, due to the influence of creative writing pamphlets. His sentences are garnished with dark humour reminiscent of Joseph Heller’s Catch-22. At some point, every line is an experiment in how extreme the depiction of an event can be. Every page is a testament to the author’s daring and his willingness to sometimes risk incomprehensibility by writing circumlocutory sentences. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it does not. In ‘A Blackness Like This’ (p 103), the story begins with this paragraph:

The abrupt gory separation of our parents, of which no finger could be laid on its origin and for which no reason was given, signalled, for me and my elder brother, the end of our milk-and-honey childhood and the commencement of miles of multiple miseries as, carted off to a ‘Home’ for abandoned little boys by our mother in an incomprehensible act of connubial vengefulness, we were thrust into an early similitude of violent manhood [italics added].

Still, there are long sentences which enthral and reveal a character in such a way that nothing would have done better. In ‘A Master of Himself’ (p 93) we read this description:

They drank in silence, for a while. It was during this their brief silence that I began to pay attention to their looks: the spokesman one was dressed in that near-shabby state of a person whose house was nearby and had only come to walk his friend halfway up the street in farewell; the threadbare Google t-shirt that stretched into amoebic shapelessness on him hung above elderly jeans whose blue had been washed down to white in front and a very pale sky-blue in other places, and his rubber Dunlop slippers only confirmed the proximity of residence, ….

In Smithereens of Death, you will meet the illogical and absurd, and the mysterious and incomprehensible, all weaved into a functional mat by humour, and laughter – but it is the laughter of a mad man laughing at his own nakedness. The prose is rich, stylistic – Familoniesque, but the stories end too soon. One feels the author should have dug a little deeper, moulded a little more. Many blossoming stories, with the potential to be great are strangled and killed, and so Smithereens of Death reads like a file of vignettes and snapshots, like the incomplete lives it tries to map.

Photograph: Untitled, by REM

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Richard Oduor Oduku
Richard Oduor Oduku
Richard Oduor Oduku (@RichieMaccs) is a poet and writer. He studied Biomedical Science and Technology and works in Nairobi. He is a Founding member of Jalada Africa and HisiaZangu and has published in Kwani? Jalada Africa, Saraba Magazine, Storymoja among others. He also contributes to the Star Newspaper.

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