It’s no surprise that a number of the younger Nigerian writers who have spent significant portions of their lives in the United States focus their novels on the tensions between the two countries—not the political ones, but the personal ones that question their characters’ identities. Who are these young Americanahs (to use the title of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s recent novel)? For those Nigerians who have spent many years in the United States, how easy is it to return to the motherland and fit back into their cultures—especially if the cultural is rural, not at all similar to the American cities where most of these writers have lived? To be fair, other African writers are also blending their stories with American and African settings. But it’s the Nigerians (because of the country’s highly educated, large population) who still dominate the scene as anyone who reads Okey Ndibe’s Foreign Gods Inc will quickly realize.
Ikechukwu Uzondu (“Ike for short”) graduated cum laude in economics from Amherst College thirteen years ago and assumed that he would quickly be hired by an American financial firm. But he only had a student visa, not a green card, during his university days and—worse—his accent is so thick that no company has wanted to hire him. So Ike’s been a taxi driver in several Eastern cities for all these years though he also married an African-American woman in order that he could get American citizenship. A familiar story, to be sure. But the marriage didn’t work out (his wife continually spent all of his earnings and then some) and eventually resulted in divorce. Thus, Ike still has no decent job, just debts.
This is the information quickly provided about Ike at the opening of the novel but also one further fact that Ike is certain will solve all of his financial problems. Another Nigerian told Ike about an article in New York magazine, highlighting the successful business of an American businessman called “Foreign Gods Inc.” The boutique artifact dealer specializes in carvings, statues and other sacred objects from non-Western traditional societies, ritual objects so valuable that they can sell for as much as six figures. To hell with the fact that most of these objects have probably been stolen from traditional societies. The owner of the niche gallery clearly isn’t bothered by that. The buyers no doubt even less as long as they can get their hands on an authentic piece of tribal “art.”
When Ike read the New York article, his initial reaction was negative, but weeks later as his finances became more precarious (his wife got everything during the divorce), he changes his mind. All it really took was remembering Ngene, the god of his own village—a god of war. “The idea of a few wealthy individuals buying up so-called foreign gods and sacred objects just didn’t sit well with him. The sport struck him as the height of arrogance. If you had loads of cash, you could purchase deities torn away from their shrines in remote corners of the world. You could install these displaced, forlorn gods in your expensive city apartments or country mansions. And then you could invite friends and relatives over to gaze, in astonishment, admiration, or awe, at your odd acquisitions. What did it all prove? It was sheer decadence. When Ike read in the magazine that anybody who acquired a deity was known as the god’s ‘parent,’ he paused and suppressed a rueful laugh.”
Never mind that the West spent several centuries robbing non-Western societies (and sometimes other Western ones as in the case of the Elgin marbles), plundering the pasts of much of the world. The biggest difference today is that rich individuals can afford to acquire these sacred objects. No questions asked. It’s a little like the truly rich buying paintings stolen from art galleries and museums and drooling over them in the secrecy of their own digs.
It doesn’t take long after Ike returns to Nigeria that the reader understands that the young man himself has become a foreign god. He’s had to borrow money from his friends to undertake the trip to his remote village, so there’s not a lot of extra money to pay for bribes as soon as he enters the country. He’s immediately regarded as a rich American. Con-artists are out to take advantage of him as soon as he exits the airport in Lagos. Policemen seek further bribes along the way. A fair bit of money has already been spent by the time he reaches his village, Utonki, in Igboland. But then, immediately, villagers and members of his extended family regard him as a cash cow who ought to be able to drop money on them in order that they can rise above their daily misery. Ike is acutely aware that he hasn’t sent his mother any money in several years and her situation is dire.
Okey Ndibe’s Foreign Gods Inc is one of the most impressive African novels that I have read in years. Comic, sad—even tragic—Ndibe is a master craftsman, weaving his narrative with ethnic materials (and surprises) and a profundity that will startle you by the end of the story. One clue I’ll offer here: Ikechukwu Uzondu’s journey into his past is as moving and frightful as Brutus Jones’ fate in Eugene O’Neill’s masterpiece, The Emperor Jones. Clearly, this is one writer to watch. Moreover, his insights into both America and Nigeria will take your breath away. What a way to begin 2014.
Okey Ndibe: Foreign Gods Inc.
Soho, 332 pp., $25
Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University in Washington, D.C. His many books include The Emergence of African Fiction. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.