Abubakar Ibrahim’s “Whispering Trees” is one of the shortlisted stories for the Caine Prize for African Fiction, the second of five stories that I will be reviewing in the next couple of weeks.
The future held nothing but happiness for Salim—medical school graduation in a month and a wedding with Faulata, the love of his life, soon after. This chance at happiness is cut short when a road accident leaves him blind. His mother who is travelling with him also dies.
In a situation like this, it is hard not to feel singled out by fate for misfortune. One of my favorite moments in the story is when, pushed to the edge of reason by his suffering, Salim begins to curse everyone and everything from faithful Faulata down to the lowest creature. “I curse the mosquitoes that buzzed in my ears, the flies that perched on my skin, and even the cock that crowed at dawn. I cursed Sinnoor, my cat, who kept me company when everyone else had fled my scorching tongue.”
There is a world out there where bad government means bad roads and where human life is constantly exposed to the danger and violence of road accidents. Ibrahim is not interested in this world of big and abstract social issues. He brackets it off in order to explore the individual and subjective dimension of suffering and misfortune. “Whispering Trees” gives a deeply personal account of loss, abandonment, and disability. This is refreshing coming from an African writer. Given that the social-issue story has become a fetish for contemporary African writers, it is nice to see Ibrahim breaking away from the mold.
In the course of the story, the principal character tries to put back together whatever shred of will and life he yet had in him only to be abandoned by Faulata for another man. This second experience of loss plunges him into an even far greater depth of despair and brings him once again close to the threshold separating life from death. Hearing the voice of an islamic exorcist mingled with the voice of his dead mother pulls him out this strange delirium. With this second escape from death, Salim is blessed with a strange gift of sight. He realizes that blindness is not a handicap but a way of seeing by other means.
This is the point where the story takes on what some might see as a magical turn. Salim begins to see the dead and communicate with them. He sees people’s souls and reads the condition of their hearts according to a strange color code. Without seeing their faces, he is able to tell from the color of their hearts whether they are good or wicked.
There is certainly something phantasmagorical about “Whispering Trees.” Half the story reads like a dream. The other half like a magical tale. The dead come to life, not to mention Salim’s strange visions. In spite of all this, “Whispering Trees” doesn’t seem to me magical-realist. It is something quite different. It collapses the distinction between a magical world and a real world that underlies such a tag. It is not as if there is a real world that is then interrupted by magic and the supernatural. With Ibrahim’s story you feel solidly grounded even as you accompany the character through his flights in and out of consciousness. What comes across as magical is, in my view, the intensity of the experiences that the story tries to think through, experiences so subjective, so private that their narration exceeds the language of realism.
After all at the heart of “Whispering Trees” are experiences that defy expression—a near death experience, the state of being blind, and heartbreak. I am reminded of the saying in Nigerian pidgin English: “Who no go no know.” The gist of the saying is that certain experiences are so unique, so singular that they cannot be shared. It is as Salim says, “One simply has to die to understand the enigma of death.” Sometimes, we try, as Salim does, to narrate such an experience. But we first have to abandon the language of realism and its aspiration towards objectivity for something slightly more dreamlike and, perhaps, otherworldly, but that cannot be reduced to magic or the supernatural.
Read the review of “Whispering Trees” by Damilola Ajayi