“The Road To The Country”: An Extraordinary Tale that Unfolds through Ifa’s Vision— Olukorede S Yishau

Shortly after the release of his novel, ‘Orchestra of Minorities,’ which has Chi as narrator, I’d asked Chigozie Obioma, while on a visit to Lagos, what or who the narrator of his next novel would be.

I’d asked the question, which we both laughed over, because of his proclivity for telling stories in extraordinary ways.
Now, I have the answer to my question: While Chi is pivotal to ‘Orchestra of Minorities,’ Ifa (divination) is central to Obioma’s third novel, ‘The Road To The Country.’
The novel tells the story of two men battling guilt which leads them to take decisions with far-reaching consequences.
While that may seem far from extraordinary,  trust Obioma to add a second layer that takes away the ordinariness with his clever choice of letting the story of one character unfold through the other’s ‘mirror’ (opon Ifa), which at first appears blurry but eventually becomes clear and meaningful.
Aside the divination touch, there is also something extraordinary about how the vision is presented. There is a sub-layer about the city of the dead, which gives the author a cosmic take on the war and the afterlife.
One of the men in the loop is a seer, Igbala Oludamisi who “sees” his wife’s imminent death but is unable to stop it.
Igbala’s guilt following her death leads him to go seeking after her fate in the afterlife through a ritual which allows him to see the life of the second man in the loop.
Igbala watches Kunle Aromire’s life unfold right from when his mother is about to be delivered of him in 1947.
Igbala also follows Kunle’s relationship with his younger brother, Tunde, and how he blames himself for the misfortune that befalls Tunde. He follows him as he plunges into Eastern Nigeria in the heat of the Biafran War from 1967 to 1970.
At the time, Kunle, a 19-year-old undergraduate of the University of Lagos, is convinced that the best way to assuage the guilt wracking him is to go after his brother who has gone to the East. With the help of the Red Cross, he gets into Biafra only to discover that the road to the country and the roads within the country are littered with hurdles. Before he knows it, he finds himself reciting: “I pledge to Biafra, my country,” “to fight as part of the Biafran Armed Forces with all my strength” and “knowing that the cost of desertion will be with my life.”
Igbala’s gaze is rivetted on Kunle as he forges a friendship with a female soldier, Agnes. Igbala doesn’t lose sight of Kunle as he falls in love with his female colleague and discovers that even in a time of war, love and friendship can birth redemption.
The book brings back the history we try to run away from: the bloody chaos of 1953 in Kano, which saw southerners (Igbos in particular)  killed and their properties destroyed, a gang of largely Igbo officers killing top politicians in the country in 1966, the reprisal in which Northerners ambushed and killed all Igbos they found, the murder of Head of State, Aguiyi Ironsi and the bloody civil war that the crises birthed.
We see how tribalism is a challenge we face as a people; how lying becomes a defence mechanism in times of trouble and how little we seem to have learnt from our yesterday. In fact, it looks like we killed our tomorrow yesterday.
Obioma starts the book in an atmosphere of tension which he builds upon progressively from page to page as we are soon infested with an unquenchable desire to see the end of it all. In invoking Tunde’s accident and his ‘disappearance’ into a war zone, we are captured and taken along in the search.
Obioma is in love with Akure, the town of his birth, where parts of this novel are set. It is where the Aromires call home. Lagos and Eastern Nigeria, especially Enugu and Nkalagu, are also settings in the book.
In this novel, Nigerian words aren’t explained in ways that distract the narration. Igbo and Yoruba words simply blend like hot butter onto the toast of English words.  The result is prose whose flow isn’t weighed down.

The novel is grounded in the worldview of Nigeria’s Igbo and Yoruba people. The uniqueness of their ways of life and patterns of conversations are well-captured. Obioma brings to life the ugly nature of war, but despite the heaviness of the topic, his soothing language pours balm on the wounds being inflicted.

In a precise and elegant voice, Obioma makes his characters sing and we dance along with them in this tale of brotherhood, grief, guilt, love, friendship and redemption.
Like the ending of ‘The Fishermen’ and ‘An Orchestra of Minorities’, Obioma performs magic with the conclusion of this hard-hitting triumph of a novel called ‘The Road To The Country’ which is also the title of a 2015 poem he published in the Virginia Quarterly Review.  By ending the novel with a metaphor where the road is compared to seen and unseen things, Obioma is sure again to leave readers closing the book and screaming,  ‘Chigozie has done it again!’
‘The Road To The Country’ has the makings of a potential Booker Prize winner. It will thus be no surprise if Obioma’s latest, like his first, ‘The Fishermen’ and his second, ‘An Orchestra of Minorities,’ tickles the fancy of the Booker Prize judges. It may as well be his Booker year!
***Olukorede S Yishau is the author of In The Name of Our Father, Vaults of Secrets and United Countries of America and Other Travel Tales. His sophomore novel, After The End, has just been released by Masobe Books. 
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