Ben Okri, in addition to providing one of the most haunting and evocative titles of this year, has a sure hand with his chosen genre, the short story. Not a word is wasted, not a phrase out of place. His sparse, economical style is put to work on a landscape rich in horror and oozing with nastiness. Constructed like a novel, each short story in Stars of the New Curfew fits neatly into the whole, building up a composite picture of a country – Nigeria – in the grip of terror.
We begin with the bewildered world of a child, Ovomo. He watches three strange soldiers who have come to disturb the village and ‘listened without comprehension to the day’s casualties’. Later he sees the soldiers murder a ‘witch’ and his father instructs him to thank them for bringing him safely home. The day is over and he can no longer tell the difference between friend and enemy. Not surprisingly, he is ‘overcome with delirium’. Not surprising because all the characters, old, young, male and female, share this problem.
In ‘Worlds That Flourish’, a bereaved husband behaves like a blind man, struggles to remember his own name and half recognises total strangers. A town celebrates the birthday of the governor, not knowing or choosing to ignore the rumours of his corruption.
The governor, an ex-boxer, unveils a statue of himself, ready to stand with other monuments. He’s in good company: ‘The statues were often of ferocious ancient figures; kings, queens, tyrants, rulers who were slave traders and who wreaked terror on their people, and who scaled the terror with in credible nets of superstition and dread rituals.’
Although, at one level, Okri is describing the aftermath and effect of the Nigerian Civil War, by avoiding specifics he creates a fiction with the surreal quality of a fairytale. The struggles – imperious on one hand, feeble on the other – between the empowered and the powerless operate at the crudest level.
The impoverished Emokhai of ‘In The City of Red Dust’ is literally being bled to death: the only way for him to make money is to become a blood donor. Elsewhere, the rich behave like spoilt children at a party to which only they’ve been invited but which the others are allowed to watch:
‘If one of them bought a Rolls Royce, the other would buy two. If one of them imported a Citroën Special the other would import the same, but with more ostentatious gadgets… And the town of W, with all of its real and manufactured excitements, had the bitter feuds of the two disgustingly rich families added to it.’
It’s a phoney world, one in which a Rastafarian has false dread locks under his hat, censorship operates too well and there is a fortune to be made selling rubbish to the poor. The hero of the title story is the supreme pedlar of promises. He sells POWER-DRUG with such eloquence that his awed and ailing listeners come to regard it as a ‘rare elixir’. He cynically observes to himself that the list of ailments supposedly cured by the medicine reads like a complete list of the illnesses and afflictions of the poor. Hardened though he is, his conscience troubles him, sending nightmares which alarm him until he understands them. He and the rest of his troubled country have to choose between corruption and vulnerability. ‘I had to choose if I wanted to be on the block or the buyer, to be protected by power or to be naked, to laugh or to weep.’ The ‘multiplying currency’ and the ‘great magicians of money’ have become the masters. Okri has depicted these frightening new stars with unusual brilliance.