Odafe Atógun will insist, when asked, that his debut novel Taduno’s Song is NOT a love story but a political one. He will insist, as he did during a book chat I had with him and another writer on May 14, that the romantic element dominating the novel from the first page to the last is a mere aside in service of a larger political plot, at times sounding as if the amorous relationship between the main character of the novel and his lover somehow debases the story.
He will be both right and wrong.
The novel, Taduno’s Song, tells the story of the eponymous character, a musician of repute who returned from exile to discover that not only had his home country changed beyond repair, and for the worse, memory of him and his erstwhile influence in the musical and political scene in his country had miraculously been wiped out except in a few exceptional cases. His ex-girlfriend and lover had been kidnapped, and his fellow citizens had all slipped into despair and despondence under an oppressive military rule. The environment is totally dystopian. Not only had amnesia prevented people from remembering anything of note, including Taduno’s identity and his erstwhile role in their lives, their despondence had also brought them into a kind of torpor conditioned by fear. The country was Orwell’s 1984, with Big Brother being a military president, in the skin color and military uniform similar to the ones Nigeria dealt with for about four decades.
The author is wrong because the story is one sustained primarily by love and the pursuit of redemption. From the first page of the novel right to the last sentence, the relationship between Taduno and Lela, his lover, kept us interested and invested in the outcome of the tale. Does she survive? In what form? Does he succeed in freeing her from her many bondages? Does he free himself and his people? Does love survive and in what form? Does he himself survive and in what form?
If the writer had intended to deliberately keep us from paying attention to this romantic angle, he succeeded only by sabotage, by investing very little in developing the lead female character’s personality beyond a unidimensional caricature of a helpless heroine who surfaces only once in a while — which, again as admitted, was a deliberate choice. So, he’s right. We are denied a chance for parallel experience of the political and the personal which don’t have to be mutually exclusive. To care about the political/activistic intentions of the lead character (and his author), we also need to agree that he’s like us, and not extraordinary, that he feels like us, bleeds like us, and loves like us. Along with his single-minded pursuit of justice and redemption for his own life, and his lover’s, we expected to be carried in his soul, and those for whom he genuinely cared. Remove that personal and human dimension and the story becomes stale. Even Animal Farm, also an allegory, gave us more rounded animal characters.
And so, this is a love story, though one betrayed by the insufficient embrace of that crucial dimension. In twenty-eight chapters, the writer guides us through a dystopian experience that is at times familiar (from having lived through a military government) and at times fantastical, but all the while being a story of love and sacrifice.
It is, however, also a political allegory, to reluctantly and finally agree with the author’s intended direction. According to Atógun, the work is a tribute to Fẹlá Kutì, a musician of repute whose art changed a country and inspired the world. Taduno, like Fẹlá, wielded a musical instrument like a weapon of mass destruction. Like Taduno, Fẹlá was persecuted, reviled, and celebrated in equal measure. But unlike Fẹlá, Taduno had no noticeable vice, no drug or sex habits, and was fiercely monogamist. There are also many other significant differences in the character’s life and Fẹla’s. To the author, however, the allegory is not much about the real-life musical hero but the power of art, through music, to make political change. A fair point.
It is the elements of fantasy in the work that, in my opinion, gives it an enduring character, eliciting comparisons to Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis (and, by extension Igoni Barrett’s Black Ass). Letters arrive from Taduno’s lover without an address or a courier, and find him wherever in the world he currently lived. He once attempted to reply one of such letters by placing it in his mailbox, hoping that whichever supernatural forces brought the original letter to him would take his response back. He was disappointed (and I cynically elated) to find that the magical force worked only in one direction. Little flights of fancy like this spring up around the book, and enriches the reader’s experience. Like walking in his shoes after his first night back in his hometown to discover that no one recognized him anymore, even his neighbors, though he recognized them all and remembered all their life stories and previous encountered with them, the story takes the reader outside of himself into a world of true suspended belief.
The combination of a powerfully realized love story with fully developed characters, a relatable political allegory that continues to be relevant in all environments, and elements of magical realism competently deployed in a story set in Lagos Nigeria makes this work a potential classic, but the reader’s experience will be the ultimate judge of the author’s success or failure in the marriage of these elements.
Taduno’s Song approaches sublimity in bits, none more impressively than for being a debut novel, but that will never be enough. The author’s follow-up novel, Wake Me When I’m Gone, has already been optioned and on the way to the press, so we will have to wait some more for a fuller account of his artistic arrival.
About the Author:
Kọ́lá Túbọ̀sún’s work has appeared in Aké Review, Brittle Paper, International Literary Quarterly, Maple Tree Literary Supplement, and recently in Literary Wonderlands, an anthology edited by Laura Miller. He is the winner of the Premio Ostana “Special Prize” 2016 (awarded in Ostana, Cuneo, Italy) for his work in indigenous language advocacy.