When Europeans left Africa, many predicted their replacement by tyrants as bad or worse. Several nations found themselves under the thumb of a "Big Man," capricious and cruel. In his novel Taduno's Song, Nigerian author Odafe Atogun imagines such a post-colonial dystopia. Atogun also imagines efforts to resist it.
Taduno is a musician in exile from his native Nigeria. Upon his return, he finds that no one remembers him. This is fantastical, even Kafkaesque. For Taduno had been so beloved that his protest songs had almost toppled the regime. He left behind a girlfriend, Lela, kidnapped by the "gofment" and languishing in prison. He endeavors to reclaim his identity and to free Lela.
But the president has other ideas. He makes the lovers' freedom conditional upon Taduno becoming a mouthpiece for the regime. Rather as in 1984, the president expects not just obeisance, but love. When Taduno resists, he is thrown into prison and almost driven mad. Yet the brutality of his treatment only shows how fearful are his tormentors.
Taduno is thus forced to choose between his love for Lela and his love of country. Taduno yearns (as Vaclav Havel put it) to "live in truth." But he's not immune to the president's many enticements. Atogun doesn't reveal Taduno's choice until the last page of this compact, fable-like novel. But the conclusion shocks all the same.
The above comparisons to Kafka or Orwell aren't idle. Taduno's predicament is desperate. But Atogun is not without Kafka's often humane and comic touches. Like Orwell, Atogun excels in plain language, in reducing situations to their bare essentials. Yet the author resists reducing his characters to mere political symbols. They are compelling as people in their own right.
As Africa's richest country, Nigeria has lately become a cultural powerhouse. Its output runs the gamut from Nollywood films to books by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. And as a democracy, albeit a fragile one, it may resist the allure of its own Big Men. Atogun's novel is likely to become a small classic of protest literature. It is both a warning and a sign of hope.