Stars Without A Constellation
The speculative novel that is also psychological and genealogical and noir and sociological and staggeringly international is rare. But it is precisely the kind of novel that Deji Olukotun has made his debut with. In terms of the ambition that should propel a 21st century novel about Nigeria, it is an exemplum. Whether the novel succeeds in braiding all the strands into a consistent fabric-texture is a question that every individual reader must answer individually. I found this novel intriguing, on many levels, and I emphatically think that not only the world deserves to know about this endeavour, but also Nigerians, the very people the author has sought so hard to describe.
Nigerians in Space (Unnamed Press, California; 2013) is a pioneering effort, in many ways. It grapples with our questions about why we are in the dismal position we are in the face of so much blessedness that other countries of the world hanker after. The fault, Olukotun appears to conclude, isn’t in our stars or in the moon. It is in ourselves, in an occluded portion of our lives, that we are middling underlings when we should be powers. One of the merits of this book is that it doesn’t take anything as a verity until it is demonstrated, even if Shakespeare were to be the first to posit the proposition which this author ponders. It does share some RNA with other sidereal novels though, faint echoes of H.G Wells can be heard urging the characters to be brave in order to face the new world.
Beginning in America, where we meet a Nigerian scientist working in NASA and who is already within inches of the glass ceiling which that society sometimes employs to contain the alien star, the author outlines the conditions that may make a beguiling apparition appealing to an otherwise bright mind. The Nigerian scientist is becoming aware of his narrowing options in America. He has an offer almost too good to be true, from Nigeria, to literally live his dreams. He has no reason to doubt the offer because it is coming from home, and your own are not supposed to fail you. He opts to go for the dream.
What follows from the moment the protagonist makes away with the moon rock sample from NASA is the real stuff of nightmares. Everything unravels. But it is the way in which Olukotun describes the unravelling that interests me. The first casualty of Dr. Wale Olufunmi’s error is his own family. Unable to comprehend what Wale is really up to, running from country to country and all the while stating his sole destination as Nigeria, his wife abandons Wale and their son together.
The plot of the novel reveals the involvement of many other Nigerian scientists and engineers in what proves to be a pipe dream. Almost all are done in, some more gruesomely than others. As they fall, the author elicits a startling aspect of the phenomenon he is describing, namely, that the problem isn’t men or money. Indeed, the abundance of talent dazzles. I daresay that a Nigerian who has read the book or who has read this review up to this point can quite easily identify with the author’s luxurious sense of options when it came to Nigerian talent in the diaspora.
The plot takes the reader to Europe where even more Nigerians and Africans are living in various forms of exile. Those involved with the Space Project are bumped off one by one. The protagonist realizes he is in danger and flees to a freshly emancipated South Africa where the story is taken to its denouement. There are a cast of fringe characters in the novel, all of different nationalities, from Americans to Zimbabweans. They illustrate how, in a strange way, Nigeria touches everything.
What the author did with the story is to, in the words of William James, the Harvard psychologist and philosopher, telescope it in a way that compenetrates the implications of Olufunmi’s choices with the actual, non-fictional accounts of life in Nigeria today. In his benchmark book, A Pluralistic Universe, James shows how this is possible and how the logic of this process of telescopy and compenetration plays out. William was the brother of Henry James and I want to hazard a guess that he had ample material for these thoughts from his brother’s life.
There is a sense in which anyone literate in English will be able to understand Olukotun’s book. But there is a reinforced reality in the book for Nigerians in diaspora who are literate in English and who are fortunate enough to read the book. There is another dimension altogether of the book for Nigerians living in the mother-country. The reason for these reinforced sense of things for Nigerians is that the plot penetrates into their daily lives and the hitherto distant details of their lives are brought into sharp relief by Olukotun’s telescope.
Among the things that Deji Olukotun has done, in this novel, is an anatomy of that divide between potential and actuality, promise and fulfilment, responsibility and perplexing irresponsibility. The novel is also a visceral plumbing of the depths of dreams and nightmares and how one sometimes morphs into the other. This novel is also a fine example of the relationship between the nation and the imagination. Olukotun wove these essences into a sprawling, sometimes rambling, story that spans three continents, almost as many decades, while stretching believability at the seams. A problem I have with the narratology is the almost disorienting transitions.
But not all who wander are lost. From the beginning, Olukotun knew what he was after and the reader will come to the same conclusion at the end of the novel. Not many novels with as many scientific characters and noir elements eventually manage to do what Nigerians in Space does: become a metaphor for the failure to evolve a national dream.
The genealogical dimension of the novel describes the life of another generation of Africans after Dr. Wale Olufunmi’s. Among these are the mysterious Melissa, Dayo who is Wale’s son, coloured South African street children, and a literal host of others. One consistent character, also inscrutable, in all the story told is Bello. He is the catalyst for the various actions in the novel. He exists in the story like a dark Melchizedek, without age or time but with unabated power to change lives and shape destinies. At the very end of the book the reader discovers that Bello is himself captive to a shadowy cabal, a corrupt conclave that will stop at nothing from achieving its occult objective.
On another level of abstraction, Nigerians in Space is a perfect ontology of a national malady, which, the author convinces us, has implications way beyond national boundaries. It is a malady that can be understood as a national form of schizophrenia. This much is implicit in the most telling description of the cabal responsible for all the destruction in the narrative: the ibeji. Finicky cultural activists or literal readers might raise a finger or kick at the use of the ibeji motif for the cult of retrogression. Herr Hitler ruined the swastika for some. But a close reading of the text shows that the author intends a diagnosis of the malady in thus describing our state. Mirrored in our national psyche is a very evil twin that thwarts every dream that the good twin conjures.
A harsh reading would say that the aspirational collapse is due to no arcane cause but a simple failure of logic and a tendency to lean toward wishful thinking and hare-brained schemes. This, painfully, is also true. But Olukotun’s insight is precious and worth all discourses that may be directed at it. This is because the problem, as our greatest poets and novelists have posited, is the abiku or ogbanje phenomenon which ensures that thoughts and dreams perish before fruition. Olukotun’s take is fresh and beguiling because it is the ultimate paradox when one thinks of it. There is a Nigeria that is all-dream and palpable and present. But that Nigeria is also riven and unstructured. There is another mirror-Nigeria that is shadowy (as far as mirrors can capture shadows), it is a revenant entity and a stable of nightmares. That other Nigeria is however structured, united and determined. As far as I know it, this is the first time the Nigerian conundrum has been presented in this form. Also, the character of Melissa, misunderstood for a while, blossoms in unlikely circumstances. Melissa as Africa is also a tempting touch.
But I’m all frisky from the frisson of Nigerians in Space, and you must not believe me entirely about the phantoms I see. But do believe me when I say Nigerians in Space is truly a touchstone for a different discourse about us, such as we are, stars without a constellation.
Ipadeola is an award-winning poet