The Road to the Country 
by Chigozie Obioma.
Hutchinson Heinemann, 358 pp., £16.99, May, 978 1 5291 5346 0
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Kunle​ is a law student in Lagos with little grasp of what’s happening in the country. When his uncle asks, ‘You have heard that there is war in Eastern Region, abi?’ he shakes his head. He’s a lonely, ‘hermitic’ sort of boy. Since his transistor radio ran out of batteries, he hasn’t kept up with current events. Now term is over there’s no excuse for him not to visit his parents, who live a five-hour bus ride away. When he sees their distress he understands the risk that war poses to his younger brother, Tunde, who has gone to live in the east with the family of a childhood friend, Nkechi. It’s clear what he must do: bring Tunde home at once, thereby redeeming himself in the eyes of his parents and atoning for his ‘sin’.

The sin was a game with Nkechi that led to Tunde, aged six, rushing into the road, where he was knocked down by an Oldsmobile; he has been in a wheelchair ever since. Kunle has been told, many times, not to blame himself, but guilt has ‘greyed his life like a wet cloth’. A journey into the war zone will be fraught with danger. But he’s resourceful enough to volunteer for the Red Cross, which carries supplies to the Eastern Region. When the station wagon he’s travelling in is stopped at a checkpoint and he is interrogated by a Nigerian soldier on the lookout for rebels, he knows the right answer to give, even if it’s only half-true: no, his tribe isn’t Igbo, it’s Yoruba. Safely through and over the Niger Bridge he enters a new country: ‘Welcome to Biafra!’

He has the address for Tunde, and sneaks away from the Red Cross team one night to rescue him. But his sense of direction is no better than his knowledge of war. Lost in a forest of gunfire and corpses, he’s arrested by Biafran soldiers and taken to their commander, who wears a green Fidel Castro cap. ‘So, a westerner, eh?’ ‘Yes, sa. But my mother is Igbo.’ ‘Hmm, so you came to help us?’ ‘Yes, sa.’ Which is how Kunle, the least likely of combatants, comes to be enlisted in the Biafran Armed Forces, ‘a man who must fight in a war against his will’.

To those who remember it, the abiding image of the civil war of 1967-70, fought between Nigerian federalists and Biafran secessionists, isn’t of the actual fighting, or the divided international support (the UK and the Soviet Union were pro-Nigeria, France and Israel pro-Biafra), or the battle between two colonels, Gowon and Ojukwu (both British-educated, courtesy of Sandhurst and Oxford), but of children suffering severe malnutrition. Though the death toll was reportedly as high as three million, and though Western authors, from Kurt Vonnegut to Frederick Forsyth, witnessed the struggle, insider accounts weren’t much encouraged in the aftermath. ‘Why has the war not been discussed, or taught to the young, over forty years after its end?’ Chinua Achebe asked in his memoir There Was a Country (2012), which considers whether Nigeria was guilty of genocide by enforcing starvation. Fictional accounts of the war aren’t lacking, though. Buchi Emecheta published hers, Destination Biafra, in 1982. And recently there have been several more, including Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s stupendous Half of a Yellow Sun (2006), which has a bibliography of thirty books about the war.

Chigozie Obioma’s acknowledgments are more selective, just a dozen or so titles. But he has drawn heavily, as Adichie did, on the memories of an earlier generation: his father took him to interview both Biafran and federal veterans. The Road to the Country is a painstaking novel, and necessarily a painful one too, given the abundance of corpses and vultures. Unlike Half of a Yellow Sun, with its trio of viewpoints, it concentrates on the story of one man, Kunle, whose engagement in war is at best reluctant and at worst timorous and inept. The plight of the ingénu soldier is as classic a set-up for war fiction as the detective hauled from retirement is for crime fiction. ‘It is a story as old as time itself, told across cultures and among all people: a man is thrust into something beyond him.’

Bullets zip past. Shells crash down. Bodies pile up. There’s the ‘odour of the battlefront: mud, urine, blood, gunpowder, sweat’ and ‘a continuous realm of noise, of rumbling and rattling, of cries and screams and clicking of triggers and chamber bolts’. Kunle is wounded several times. Awarded a lance corporal chevron, he’s acclaimed by comrades (‘the last time he’d been celebrated this way’, he reflects, was ‘when he’d won the debate competition in the primary school’). In retreat from the enemy, or ‘vandals’, he wades up to his shoulders across a river. In quieter moments he listens to men wiser than he is argue about the intricacies of war, not least the involvement of white men in a Black conflict. ‘Is it not because of Wilson and Britain that we are losing this war?’ one man asks. ‘Yes,’ another replies,

but also, look everywhere. The only reason we are alive and still fighting is because of white people. Look at the fathers – Caritas, Irish Council of Priests, Holy Ghost Fathers, and all the people coming in to give food. How many foreign pilots have died trying to help our people. Eh? More than fifty! At least fifty. And who is killing us? Our own people – our brothers.

Despite the loss of life and ceding of ground, Kunle is struck by a sense that ‘the cause he’s been unwillingly roped into may actually be a good one.’ But soon afterwards, conscious that the people now killing one another were good neighbours just a few weeks ago, ‘he feels a sudden force pulling him away from his resolve to stick with his comrades … And in the misery, the longing for home returns.’ The thread of the novel is vacillation: ‘One moment he is happy, and then a sadness cycles into his day.’ His turmoil is frustrating, for the reader as well as for him: the same note over and over. But the lesson he learns is that turmoil and frustration define war; the novel is as much Bildungsroman as battle song. After a failed attempt to escape one night, he lies awake reading a stolen copy of Jane Eyre.

War deprives him of solitude; the shy boy comes out of his shell. Of his three comrades, Felix, Bube-Orji and Ekpeyong, he is closest to Felix, a poet. Half of a Yellow Sun features a poet too, Okeoma, inspired by Christopher Okigbo, one of the Biafran war’s saddest casualties. Felix is upbeat about the chances of victory and fierce in the cause: when he discovers new Nigerian banknotes on a civilian suspected of being a saboteur, he shoots him dead, which leaves Kunle feeling anger and ‘revulsion’. They argue but are quickly reconciled. In war the great fear is dying alone: you want ‘companionship, even in its most cradle form’. Conditions are squalid: the recruits ‘cry constantly, leave snot smeared on their faces, wet and shit themselves’. The solace for Kunle is friendship with fellow soldiers, though one of them, a new arrival, Agnes, is not a fellow at all.

Agnes’s strength and self-containment remind him of Nkechi, his childhood friend; despite their long separation, he still harbours romantic feelings for her. When relations with Agnes become more intimate, he’s baffled. ‘Why does she like me?’ he asks Felix, who has an earnest poet’s response: ‘Because you are mysterious … what do you think is a great poem or even art? It is one that you cannot easily interpret.’ Consummation is inevitable. Kunle, a virgin, needs to discover sex and the novel needs jouissance to offset the carnage:

Their mouths clatter in a rushed, frenzied kiss. She is raw and grasping, trembling at the concussions. He steers her towards the big tree and slides into her from behind … As he reaches the threshold of pleasure, he finds that her moaning voice – shaped by the acoustic beats of the distant concussions – feels like a violent thing. After he has dropped down among the dry leaves, she laughs at the sheer madness of the act.

‘We are doing it inside hellfire,’ she says.

‘Threshold of pleasure’: the idiom is seemly and old-fashioned (elsewhere there is a reference to ‘the hardening of his organ’), as if the context or the era require it. When Obioma describes wounded and dead bodies, which he does often, he’s similarly challenged. The temptation is to reach for arresting similes – as, say, Christopher Logue does when redoing Homer in War Music. But anything fancy here looks undignified. The result is an awkward mix, photorealism and metaphor bumping up against each other: ‘the charred body of a dead man whose head has morphed into something gory, alien, as of eyes and skin melted on a deformed, plastic blob’; ‘decaying bodies of soldiers, stripped naked or in rotting camouflage, flowers springing from the bodies and mushrooms fruiting between the bones’; ‘he is blinking, thick blood coursing from his neck like the mealy saliva of a stricken beast.’ Sometimes the descriptions aren’t just unconvincing but contradictory. ‘They watch the parachute drop like a stone, the white thing fluttering above the parachutist’ – can a parachute flutter and drop like a stone at the same time? And can you be ‘beaten by the crude anvils of suffering’ rather than beaten on them?

Kunle’s romance with Agnes complicates his situation: it’s another reason to stick with the war rather than run away. Further complication comes with the periodic appearances of ‘the Seer’, Igbala, who – in an episode set in 1947, twenty years before the Biafra conflict – has a prophetic vision revealing the future of a man about to be born, Kunle, ‘the rarest of mankind, an abami eda: one who will die and return to life’. Like Kunle, the Seer is searching for redemption, after an accident that killed his wife. If what’s disclosed to him in the vision were believed, the war might never happen; Nigerians, he warns, must learn to live with people from other ethnic groups. But no one is willing to trust a crazy prophet, least of all Kunle’s Christian family: ‘we don’t use idols and pagan gods in our home,’ they tell him when he visits. Still, the Seer’s investment is so intense that Kunle can feel his presence; the wall between them is ‘hymen thin’. His interruptions of the main narrative carry the promise that Kunle will survive, despite a section in which he consorts with the dead and seems to have perished from a head wound.

Obioma’s previous novel, An Orchestra of Minorities (2019), employs a similar device, with an Igbo guardian spirit or ‘chi’ narrating the story and influencing the ‘host’ at its centre. And his first novel, The Fishermen (2015), has a ‘vision-seeing madman’, Abulu, who predicts that one of the narrator’s brothers will be killed by a ‘fisherman’, which Ikenna takes to mean his brother Boja. For half of The Fishermen, which is lighter in tone than The Road to the Country despite the shadow of fratricide, the tension comes from wondering whether Abulu, a ‘devil’ who dresses in rags, will be proved right. Igbala the Seer is more solidly based: he’s not a magic realist chimera. But his vision enlarges the novel. And his spiritual promptings lie behind Kunle’s view of the war as more than a local squabble:

As Kunle listens to each of his comrades’ stories, it occurs to him that they are all wrong in their understanding of the cause of the war. This war has not merely grown out of the dark desires of evil men who had set upon their Igbo neighbours in the north, killing and wreaking destruction. Instead, it seems the war sprouted out of the natural soil of society and has been growing for many thousands of years in the old blood of mankind itself. If it had not been the north, perhaps it would have been someone else starting the fighting, or even Nigeria against other countries. War, he thinks, is something inherent in mankind: to strike another for a cause, no matter what the cause might be.

After his head injury, Kunle is given the opportunity to leave the war and go home. But he wants Agnes to join him, and she’s committed to fighting in revenge for the death of her family. Only towards the end of the conflict does he recognise that ‘for the past several months he’s been hovering’ and might now be ‘finally entering himself’.

As Obioma sees it, The Road to the Country isn’t ‘wartime fiction’ like Half of a Yellow Sun, which follows characters (mostly middle-class) living through a war, but ‘war fiction’, where the focus is on the people doing the fighting rather than civilians. Not that the novel underplays the harm to civilians: Kunle remarks that they’re often at greater risk. But the setting is the forests where battles are fought, where ‘bush rebels’ bravely resist better equipped forces. Kunle ought not to be there. But he becomes a man in the process, not just through encountering death but by understanding what matters to him in life, including family, fraternity and, to his surprise, fatherhood.

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