[Guest Blog Post] Mike Ekunno: Foreign Gods, Inc. – Modern story of old conflicts

by Ikhide R. Ikheloa

TITLE: Foreign Gods Inc.
AUTHOR: Okey Ndibe
PUBLISHER: Soho Press Inc.
YEAR OF PUBLICATION: 2014
PAGES: 332.

Foreign Gods Inc., Okey Ndibe’s second novel had its Nigerian release of sorts in December 2014, when its author had readings in Nigeria. The period coincided with a spike in the book’s ratings as it made many Best Books of 2014 lists. Now is therefore as germane a time as any other time to take a look at what the novel offers and l did that in the Christmas holiday ambience of Eastern Nigeria where much of the story is set.

foreign godsThe novel is about lke Uzondu’s scheme to steal the figurine of Ngene, his village, Utonki’s once powerful war deity and sell to a New York gallery from which the book derives its title. A degree-holder cab driver who had been serially scorned by American employers on account of his “accent”, Ike has fallen on hard times and the exotic heist appears just about perfect for a bail out. What would have acted as a moral fetter to the theft had been removed by the deity’s redundancy since “the pacification of Africa” by the colonialists. Ike arrives home ostensibly to visit with his widowed and long-neglected mother. He steps into the triangular entanglements woven by the clashes of the African traditional religion of his uncle, Osuakwu, the new Pentecostal faith of his mother and sister and the old orthodox faith he left behind. His proseletising nuclear family has made a switch to the venal brand of Pentecostalism which brainwashes lke’s plain mother into enmity with his idol-worshipping uncle and grandmother. The returnee lke brimming with American iconoclasm will have none of the old wife’s tale of witchcraft and is bent on fraternising with his uncle and granny. He visits Osuakwu at the shrine and partakes in the ceaseless flow of drinking and banter all the while eyeing his quarry. The night before his departure, he strikes and steals the sculpture of the deity but an unexpected hurdle awaits back in the US.

Foreign Gods is acknowledged as a heist story. But the heist only provides the narrative canvas against which Ndibe weaves a rich tapestry with spurs to immigrant identity crises, Nigerian corruption, Christian ideological differences with African traditional religion and the mercenary arm of Nigerian Pentecostalism. Like most heist stories, the reader wonders at what point the scheme will come unstuck. This forms the bait under-girding the narrative suspense and sustaining the reader’s interest. Reading Foreign Gods, you wonder whether Ike can pull off the heist successfully or there’d be a snafu. The latter has half a dozen means that could bring it about. Funding the trip is one. The deity fighting off the venal adventure is another. And then there could be other hurdles ranging from the Department of Customs’ sentinel for antiquities to the gallery developing cold feet. With other deities going for six figures at the New York gallery, the expected windfall is sufficient aphrodisiac for lke to brave these real and imagined obstacles. The author is able to bait the reader successfully till the end of the story. This is more than can be said for many Nigerian novelists who write as if they have recused their art from global standards of good story telling. Being suspenseful is not the work’s only plus. It tells a straightforward tale with a dominant protagonist who we follow without the distraction of too many sub plots, flashbacks and flash forwards. The main flashback to Rev. Stanton’s pioneer missionary work in Utonki is masterfully handled and made integral to the narrative mainstream. This contributes to the book’s uncomplicated enjoyment.

Stylistically, Foreign Gods is a reader’s delight once allowance is made for its grandiose diction. The author just manages to skirt the boundaries of bombast with his regular recourse to second degree synonyms. Given Ndibe’s pedigree in creative non-fiction, this is to be expected. It should have fallen to his editors to step down some of the diction and syntax to fiction’s mellow precincts. On pg. 271 we read: “Yet, his uncle was not only much older, he was also a man of meager musculature.” On pg. 295: “A sally of stench hit Ike’s nostrils the moment he opened the door to his apartment. It left a ghoulish impression, reminded him of feculent silt.” But it is not all bombast. Ndibe’s prose sings through the novel. On pg. 15:“Ahead, a long line of cars shat a smashed omelet of red brake lights.” And on pg. 146: “Why had he allowed his mother to drag him out to this shabby, ramshackle establishment and to peddle him to a lineup of women driven to insane distraction by dreams of American matrimony and dollars?”

For an African writer, the book is sparse on metaphors but in the dialogue at its Nigerian setting, we see a lot of the inventiveness associated with reporting non-traditional English speakers. A previous recriminatory critique of the novel by Isaac Attah Ogezi had matched a lot of Ndibe’s translated Igbo dialogues to Achebe’s masterful transliterations. This will be addressed at the end of this review. For now, it suffices to observe that the concern of the author, an acclaimed wordsmith in his own right, with grammatical propriety or lack thereof in his characters shows forth in the portrayals of the grammatical inadequacies of Pastor Uka and Chief Iba, the local government chairman in Utonki. This is a subtle sign of authorial intrusion as Ndibe tars those characters he wishes to villainise first with bad English. Foreign Gods’ nay Ndibe’s villains invariably speak bad English. If not, Chief Iba’s grammatical deficiencies would beggar credulity for a man who passed through secondary school as Ike’s classmate. This is aside the unlikelihood of two Igbo pals chatting in English Language in their village homes. Also, whatever may be said for Pentecostal preachers, bad grammar is surely one of their least deficiencies. These Ndibe’s detours to social commentary will be fully examined under message. While yet on style, Foreign Gods’ obvious Americanese is not necessarily wrong as it shows consistency in this throughout the book. However when viewed through a strictly Naija-centric prism, this becomes an issue since the default mode in our educational system and publishing house styles is the UK English. But nobody can blame Ndibe for America’s muscle in a uni-polar world which obtrudes every one of Uncle Sam’s ways including spellings into our daily lives. However young and uncritical Nigerian readers are bound to get their spellings mixed up with this insidious American linguistic flotilla. If the book gets away with its obvious Americanese, it cannot escape its Nigerianese. Standing fan/mirror are erroneously used instead of stand fan/mirror (see pp. 44, 95, 260.). Also zinc-roofed is used instead of corrugated iron sheet roofing (See pp.90, 275.).

okeygoodMessage-wise, Foreign Gods is, maybe, the fictional extension of its author’s well-known pet peeves. Ndibe is perhaps, Nigeria’s most polemical op-ed writer. His tirades against an underwhelming Nigerian state are well known. It would be inconceivable for such a person to pen fiction in which his real life concerns were not reflected. There’s yet no universal consensus around fiction’s role, even duty, to purvey a message but even art for art’s sake is a message on its own. It is how the message is mediated in a work of art that separates the amateur from the virtuoso. Ndibe does not spare the corrupt Nigerian system in Foreign Gods. Ike’s home coming to pilfer Ngene provides the perfect setting for the reader to experience Nigeria through the protagonist. And Ndibe did not disappoint. Corruption is what welcomes every visitor to Nigeria right from the airport and Ndibe emblazons this in both Ike’s arrival and departure. The customs and immigrations desks brazenly ask for bribes and display mannerlessness. However, the salient aspect of bribery serving as penalty for criminal infraction may have been unwittingly portrayed in Ike’s importation of commercial quantity gift items and seeking to export a piece of antiquity without license. Both are offenses under the law but instead of having the law take its course, its human agents in Nigeria privatise the criminal justice system. The fact that Ike was committing an offence but nonetheless feeling sanctimonious towards bribe-taking officials, is perhaps, one of the ironies of Nigeria’s corruption conundrum. The privatisation of punishment through bribe collection may therefore not be altogether misplaced in so far as it acts as marginal disincentive to crime. But the economic importance of bribery can wait for another forum. However, the same thinly-veiled social commentary on demerits without a thought spared for merits is discernible in the characterisation of Pastor Uka, the Pentecostal pastor, without any redeeming feature. Without going outside to purloin positive roles of Pentecostal ministries, is it not within the possibility threshold of the novel’s plot to imagine that Pastor Uka could have played some good roles in giving Ike’s mother some emotional stilts to make meaning of her miserable existence? In any case, not being imbeciles, she and the other proselytes to the new sect were fully compos mentisin respect of value judgements about their old Roman Catholicism and mercenary Pentecostalism. Another school of thought may hold that Ike has little moral grounds to despise a religious community that had provided a support system (for whatever it is worth) around his hapless mother while he made out with American gold-digging vixens. Again this channels the pot-calling-kettle-black conundrum of Ike’s airport experiences with the Customs.

No review of Foreign Gods can afford to overlook Isaac Attah Ogezi’s critique. In his deceptively-titled: “On the Fringes of Existence: the Immigrant Question in Ndibe’s Foreign Gods Inc.”,Ogezi went to great lengths to show similarities in phraseology and use of adages between passages in Foreign Gods and Chinua Achebe’s works. Ndibe in his riposte dismissed Ogezi’s critique as “jejune” saying that most of the expressions belong to the public domain in the lgbo comity of adages and expressions. After reading the novel, neither accuser nor accused would be totally wrong. While nobody can accuse Ndibe of plagiarism, what may be at issue here is a case of literary conduction with Achebe. This is the literary equivalent of the phenomenon in Physics whereby a piece of iron develops magnetism after being stroked in the magnetic field of a magnet. Ndibe enjoyed mental and physical affinity with the late literary icon and it is not inconceivable that the mentor spat into the protégé’s pen’s mouth, to paraphrase another Igbo expression. Plagiarism that is not of exact words can be tricky as thoughts cannot be plagiarised. Also proverbs, adages and sayings come in standard forms but when translating to English, differences should be noticed between an earlier work and a later one. Achebe’s classic trilogy has almost entered public domain status and many African writers unconsciously write like him. But nobody should give the impression that all there are to the smorgasbord of Igbo colloquialisms don’t go beyond:“am l speaking with water in my mouth” and “slapping thunder into one’s eyes”.

Mike Ekunno is a freelance book editor and creative writer. Mike writes fiction for fun and creative non fiction for rage. Only search engines have called him a poet which elicits a smirk from him. His writings have berthed in The Transnational, The Hamilton Stone Review, The African Roar Anthology 2013, Warscapes, bioStories, BRICKrhetoric, Dark Matter Journal, Cigale Literary Magazine, Thrice Fiction Magazine, Middle Gray Magazine, Miracle e-zine, Sentinel Literary Quarterly, Ascent Aspirations Magazine, The Muse, Bullet Pen and Storymoja, the last two coming with wins in continent-wide contests. He enjoys Old Testament stories when not reading creatively or writing