Review: Taduno’s Song by Odafe Atogun

Cannongate August 2016

The novel Taduno’s Song, a strong debut by Nigerian writer Odafe Atogun, centers around memory loss of a strange nature. After the famous and politically outspoken singer Taduno returns from exile in order to continue his fight against a military dictatorship and to save his girlfriend Lela from imprisonment, he discovers that the nation he left behind no longer holds any memory of him. While his former friends and enemies remain aware that a popular singer vehemently decried the government before fleeing for his life, and that the regime is looking high and low for this singer, no one is able to identify the stranger who appears among them one day, claiming to be Taduno. Even the name itself means nothing to them anymore.

This loss of memory, in Atogun’s careful crafting, represents more of a collective inner loss, a dramatic shift in the very character of Nigeria. As Lela writes in a letter that mysteriously makes its way to Taduno while still in exile:

“In time to come, should you yield to the pull of your roots, you may be returning home to unpleasant surprises Since you left, very strange things have been happening in Nigeria, and Lagos particularly has changed in a way I cannot describe in words. I must confess, I don’t know exactly what is going on – nobody knows; all I can say is that things are changing drastically here, and the city of Lagos is not the same as we used to know it.”

This paragraph of the letter extends beyond itself, seeming to speak out to exiles the world over and particularly those from the African continent. Something strange is happening, Lela claims. Something not quite identifiable but deeply felt by everyone. It is perhaps even possible to interpret these words as those of the author himself – who still lives in Lagos – to his compatriots who have migrated around the globe.

Indeed, the novel may be read as an allegory whose most poignant metaphor is in Taduno’s lack of identity. Coming home unrecognizable – in this case, literally – is certainly a common theme in the literature of a “return to the native land.” In a scene that truly displays Atogun’s artful weaving together of the artist and his work, Taduno explains the loss of his music and his voice to his neighbor and former friend Aroli. He recalls to his friend Aroli (who does not recognize the singer but takes his identity on faith) that when he started to use his music for protest, the government ordered the destruction of all his records:

“I guess that was when every record of me was erased from all your memories. I no longer existed because there was no way I could continue to exist without my music. My music was me, and they took it away from me. That was when I gave up the struggle and went into exile.”

More than an intriguing premise or an interesting ruse, the progression of Taduno’s relationship with the community also shows a keen talent for narrative construction on the part of the author. Returning to a place in which he is not recognized, the singer has to continually recount his story and different iterations of it, different memories of himself that he no longer shares with others. And so, we the readers come to know him alongside the members of his Lagosian community. We feel Taduno’s acute frustration at anonymity, yet continue to experience him as a stranger who becomes less and less strange.

The basic thread of the plot follows Taduno’s attempt to recover his voice, in order to identify himself as the infamous singer. Having taken Lela hostage, the President (a smiling, charming, portrait of a corrupt African dictator) announces that they will release her only upon finding the incendiary musician and forcing him to perform a concert in praise of the regime. Unfortunately, they are unable to locate him, even though he continues to go about town in plain sight, because the President and all his military henchmen are likewise stricken with this strange selective amnesia. Because of the way that the predicament is presented – the rules of the game, as it were – the only way to identify this strange drifter as the disappeared singer is by his voice. In essence, the singer’s capacity to sing becomes his only marker of identity – an apt metaphor for the artist, particularly the artist of protest.

I often have the impression when reading commentary on anglophone African – especially Nigerian – fiction, that contemporary books fall into two traditions. They are either compared to Amos Tutuola’s The Palm-Wine Drinkard, a dreamy tale infused with Yoruba myth, or to Chinua Achebe’s very politically charged, classic post-colonial novel Things Fall Apart. After last month’s Born on a Tuesday, which was definitely of the Achebe sort, I really enjoyed reading something that is much more reminiscent of Tutuola.

[Quick note – this is not to say that we should set up some kind of dichotomy between the two authors, realistic/folkloric, political/mythical. They are both all of those things and more. But those two novels in particular represent different compelling stylistic traditions in African writing.]

Taduno’s Song does take political instability as its root storyline, but its prose is much closer to Tutuola’s style. There is a simple grace that is very aware of the storytelling tradition from which it comes. On entering the music studio after it has been bought by the money-hungry Mr Player: “It was as if something had died there that was once alive.” In a description of the homeless citizens of Lagos: “While the street had no peace, it did have music, and it was that which made it special in the hearts of the residents.”

It’s not a wholly allegorical novel, and it is ever so vaguely based on a political event – to wit, the June 12th 1993 presidential elections in Nigeria, whose result was annulled by the government in power, leading to a military coup. Yet it has the feel of something like Ben Okri’s formidable Astonishing the Gods. Its story sounds folkloric: a man must retrieve his identity through song in order to free his beloved from the hands of the evil President. But its themes – political corruption, violence, exile and identity, love for a woman and love for a place – are all too timely.

There is something of Kafka here. I couldn’t help but hear the first line of The Metamorphosis echoed in the the beginning of Taduno’s Song: “The morning the letter arrived he was like a man in a shell, deaf to the voices in his head from a distant place, calling him, imploring him with old promises.” Compare this to the famous: “When Gregor Samsa woke up one morning from troubling dreams, he found himself changed in his bed into a monstrous vermin [or, a gigantic insect, or a cockroach, etc.].” Obviously there is a comparison to be made between a man who becomes an insect and a man who becomes nobody. And that’s not the only similarity to an author whose oeuvre is largely known for its focus on alienation.

It is also possible to hear strains of Camus’s L’Etranger humming in the background, particularly when Taduno is imprisoned in a solitary cell. Yet, in an interesting turn, he does not have the anger or frustration which, in Camus’s Meursault, leads to violence. In the case of Taduno, he is protected by his guitar, because of the fear it evokes in his captors: “They were all afraid of his guitar and refused to touch it or take it away from him. And all the time they could hear him playing soft music that threatened to melt their hard souls.”

Taduno’s guitar, “disturbingly alive,” becomes a physical incarnation of its owner’s innate conviction. This is, of course, all too appropriate in a book coming from Africa which, along with its diaspora, is so well known for using music as the first line of defense against injustice.

In a beautiful scene that seems to rewrite the violence of Camus’s absurdist existentialism, Tanudo convinces his guard that they are imprisoned together:

“Why must they punish you by punishing me?” he said, out of pity for the poor soldier.

“They are not punishing me, they are punishing you,” the soldier replied.

“But you are sharing this grave, this underground space with me.”

In fact, as Taduno reconceives the dictates of their relationship, it is the musician whose soul is free, but the soldier who cannot leave the underground grave because he is charged with guarding the prisoner.

The novel is a wholly engrossing, impressive debut by a writer who has taken the force of multiple influences and wielded them with an uncommon grace and lightness.

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