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Who Fears Death
Nnedi Okorafor
DAW hardcover $24.95

review by Jonathan McCalmont
SPOILER ALERT!
In Xavier Beauvois' recent film Of Gods And Men (2010), a small colony of French monks living in North Africa find themselves confronted with a moral dilemma. After radical Islamists execute a number of European workers, the government puts pressure on the monks to abandon their monastery and return to their own country. However, in the decades that the monastery has been in existence a town has grown up around it. If the monks stay then they risk being killed. If the monks leave then they abandon the villagers at a time when they are most in need of support. Initially divided, the monks spend months agonising over their decisions. They pray. They wander the grounds. They snap at each other. They try to make sense of the politics and second-guess the Islamists.

However, regardless of how much they agonise, the monks cannot find an answer in the world. There is no obvious solution to their problem and so they must make what the philosopher Soren Kierkegaard called a 'leap of faith'. And so they do. They accept the cruelties of the world and put their faith in divine providence, staying to help the local villagers and accepting their fates with open arms and a song on their lips. They die happy, knowing that they have a place in the world and a part to play in God's grand design. Even if, like me, you do not believe in God, there is something quite genuinely moving about the story of these monks.

The world is a harsh place and as much as we throw ourselves into the things we love and the relationships we share, the world's random injustices and pointlessness can sometimes be not only shocking but depressing. To see other human beings successfully face down that meaninglessness is deeply affecting even if you know that the meaning that they found is nothing to you. This happy acceptance of life's myriad cruelties is a million miles from the angry, embittered and resentful quest for meaning embarked upon by Onyesonwu the protagonist of Nnedi Okorafor's first 'grown-up' (i.e. non 'young adult') novel Who Fears Death. It is a novel in three parts.

Onyesonwu is a child of both literal and metaphorical conflict. Living in a traditionalist village populated by people from the Okeke tribe, Onyesonwu grows up painfully aware that she is different. She is different because, despite having an Okeke mother, Onyesonwu is Ewu. The Ewu are a people whose unconventionally coloured skin and eyes mark them out as social pariahs. They are pariahs because Ewu children are only ever born as a result of the mixing of Okeke and Nuru blood. The Nuru, once slaves to the Okeke, are now in open rebellion against their former masters. This rebellion has given the world not just an unbelievably brutal civil war but a campaign of eugenically-motivated rape in which Okeke women are raped and left to give birth to Ewu children knowing full well that these children will ferment civil unrest by reminding the Okeke of the Nuru threat. Simply by existing, Onyesonwu is a challenge and a threat to the Okeke.

Despite only being a child, Onyesonwu is painfully aware that she is an outcast and that her mixed-race parentage imposes an unfair burden on her long-suffering mother and adoptive father. In order to help ease this burden and integrate more fully into the life of the village, Onyesonwu takes it upon herself to undergo the rite of circumcision. This rite - so hopelessly arcane that nobody can even remember what its purpose once was - serves to elevate the child to the status of an adult and bind together the girls who undergo it at the same time. Instant acceptance; instant friends... Sadly, even when bending the knee to the village elders, Onyesonwu cannot find peace. She cannot find peace because in addition to being Ewu, she is also a shape-shifter. Indeed, while the other girls who undergo the rite instantly gain acceptance and close friendship, Onyesonwu's circumcision only serves to accelerate the emergence of her mystical powers that cause her to be feared by the local villagers, and send her into a tailspin of existential angst.

Onyesonwu's shape-shifting abilities constitute not only a practical impediment to her gaining a place in the world but also a philosophical one. In order to find meaning in the world it is first necessary to gain some basic conception of who one is and where one is from but Onyesonwu's nature is fundamentally slippery. As an elder puts it late in the book, her essence is change and defiance so she cannot hope to ever be happy simply by 'fitting in' to the community that she was brought up in. Despite her growing bitterness and sense of alienation, Onyesonwu turns to the only sources of self-enlightenment available to her: the local wizard - who spurns her advances for daring to be a woman, daring to be Ewu and daring to menstruate. And, the local town hall - a magical place that seems to go out of its way to make it impossible for her to find the sorts of books that might allow her to research her own past and the nature of her powers.

By the end of the first section of Who Fears Death, Onyesonwu is hysterical with rage. Having spent months trying to work herself into the good graces of the town elders she turns on the town and angrily denounces them for failing to act upon the news that the Nuru are killing and raping Okeke. This is news that she herself picked up months before and decided to do absolutely nothing about. In a fit of rage worthy of the most flouncy of opera singers, Onyesonwu has her entire village experience what it is like to be raped. You won't accept me? You won't help me accept myself? Fine... Fuck you.

At this point, Who Fears Death changes both shape and register. Having found no answers in her local community, Onyesonwu decides to set out into the wider world. If her sudden interest in the suffering of the Okeke outside of her village and the murderous schemes of her biological father seem completely disconnected to anything we know of the decidedly unsympathetic and solipsistic Onyesonwu it is because they are; Onyesonwu's decision to kill her father and save the Okeke are Kierkegaardian leaps of faith... they are attempts to construct a sense of identity and find one's own place in the world by acting as though the world has a particular shape and a particular meaning. Like Beauvois' monks, Okorafor's Onyesonwu is responding to the absurdity of the world by simply denying it - not by seeking to overcome it with generosity and good grace but to overwhelm it with anger, rage and a venomous sense of entitlement. You won't help me? You won't help me accept myself? Fine... Fuck you.

The second section of Who Fears Death plays a very similar game with the traditional fantasy quest narrative as Gene Wolfe's Book Of The New Sun. As Onyesonwu and her friends make their way across the desert to battle Onyesonwu's 'dark lord'-like father Daib, a series of quasi-spiritual psychodramas play themselves out along the way. First, the group is attacked by a group of animals working together. Then they are befriended by a different group of animals. Next, Onyesonwu is called upon to heal a sick woman only to realise that the more humane thing to do is let her die. Then she discovers the magic that will allow her to heal her friends of their circumcision only to realise that this simply gave the different members of the group the excuse they needed to go off and live their own lives. As with Wolfe's beautifully drawn series of messianic vignettes, Okorafor's psychodramas feed into each other and the characters lives, lending substance not only to the characters' inner lives but also to the symbolic density of the book. At least in theory...

Unfortunately, Nnedi Okorafor is no Gene Wolfe, and while her psychodramas are just as frustratingly evasive in their psychological allusions, they lack the pure demented beauty of Wolfe's fragmented symbolism. There is nothing here to compare with Severian's retrieval of Dorcas from the waters of the lake. There is nothing to rival the meta-textual complexity of Severian's relationship with Dr Talos and his plays-within-stories-within-legends. While it may seem unfair to compare Okorafor's first adult novel to what is arguably the masterwork of one of science fiction's great literary stylists, the problem is not one of prose style or of even artistic flourish. It is a problem of contract.

In an article published in The New Yorker on the fiction of William Gaddis, the novelist Jonathan Franzen lays out a distinction between what he calls the 'contract' and 'status' forms of reader-writer relationship. The status book demands of its readers an absolute submission. Status novels are frequently difficult reads and make few concessions to the comfort or access of their potential readers. One reads a status novel because it is a great work of art and if you cannot see it then it is your problem and not the book's.

Conversely, 'contract' novels are said to be written with an awareness of the reader's needs. Sympathetic characters, readable prose, frequent chapter breaks, accessible themes and metaphors are all included on the understanding that there is a contract between the writer and the reader: the reader puts down his or her cash and the author entertains or enlightens them. As he struggles to work his way through Gaddis' back catalogue, Franzen is aware that he is engaging with the work of a great artist and that Gaddis has no apologies to make to him but he also feels that, as a reader, he should get a little something for his efforts. Some entertainment... Some insight... Some flash of brilliance that will make his mind explode with transcendent joy. Something... This is the same feeling that dogged me as I made my way through Who Fears Death's middle third.

Okorafor's oddly symbolic psychodramas fail to connect with any recognisable principle of human psychology. Stuff happens and Onyesonwu's powers increase as she learns from those lessons but beyond some vaguely muttered half-truths about parents nefariously creating children to serve their own selfish ends, there is little here for the mind to gain traction on. However, this lack of insight into the human condition is not necessarily problematic if your mystical dalliances offer something else. Something beautiful...

Much like Who Fears Death, M.D. Lachlan's novel Wolfsangel (2010), follows Wolfe's Book Of The New Sun in presenting the traditional fantasy quest narrative as a sort of initiatic journey - a journey not into the world but into oneself. Much like Who Fears Death, both Wolfe's and Lachlan's works feature characters wandering through a dense symbolic thicket that never really coheres into anything that we might recognise as psychological currency. However, both Wolfsangel and The Book Of The New Sun compensate for their lack of psychological traction by making their initiatic journeys aesthetically pleasing. Indeed, by deftly interweaving symbols, signs and shapes, Wolfe and Lachlan construct the fantasy equivalent of a 'big dumb object', a mystical and metaphysical system-of-the-world which, though not 'true' in any scientific sense, has a tangible aesthetic power. A power referred to in science fiction circles as 'sense of wonder'. Like cathedrals in the air, these metaphorical systems catch the sun but never connect to anything real. We look upon them and marvel. We look upon them knowing them to be utterly insubstantial.

Unfortunately, Who Fears Death never manages to invoke much of a sense of wonder and, when you combine this shortcoming with the book's lack of psychological traction you have a problem: the problem is that, providing neither beauty nor truth, the middle third of Who Fears Death is nothing but page after page of stroppy people tirelessly bickering, fucking, and eating desert hares. It is like being stuck on a Club 18-30 package holiday to nirvana with a bunch of couples who all hate each other. This, to return to Franzen's taxonomy, is a problem of contract. Okorafor marches us across a desert of meaning and style and offers us nothing in return. No beauty. No truth. No insight. No tragedy. No comedy. Nothing...

Mercifully, the situation does improve somewhat in the final third of Who Fears Death when what remains of Onyesonwu's ersatz grey company arrive in Nuru tribal lands. What they find there is neither the mystical 'heart of darkness' foreshadowed by Onyesonwu's visions or the blood-drenched battlefield described by itinerant storytellers. What they find is pretty much a modern African town. The jarring movement from the cod-mysticism of the middle third to the vaguely science fictional magical realism of the final act underlines one of Okorafor's greatest achievements: a sense of provocative irony.

Who Fears Death is a work of fantasy: its narrative forms are fantastical, its modes of conflict resolution are fantastical, and its aesthetics are fantastical in that they are less concerned with speculation or realism than they are with the transcendent and the magical. It is also a work that alludes to both the fantastical character of African folk tales and works that are widely acknowledged to be a part of the western fantasy canon. However, despite Who Fears Death's setting and subject matter both being intensely fantastical in flavour, Okorafor refuses to keep the book in its box. Instead, she blurs the book's genre boundaries by unleashing a series of factoids into the world's language and setting that make the book feel far more substantial than your average secondary world fantasy novel.

Who Fears Death maintains a magnificently ambiguous pose with regards to the real world. Okorafor populates her world with shape-shifters, wizards and dragons but also mobile phones, home PCs and Schoolhouse Rock lyrics. The result is not what you would normally expect from a fantasy-SF mash-up but rather an oddly detached and distinctly ironic attitude towards what we should and should not take seriously. For example, because the book is set in what appears to be a fictional analogue of modern-day Sudan, our first reaction is to assume that the setting's rigorous system of racial classification is a reflection of the kind of racial Othering that we see in African tribal politics.

For example, during the Rwandan genocide, skin colour was used as an indicator of political affiliation and Tutsi women were said to be promiscuous 'gypsies' fundamentally different to hutu women. However, by dressing its races up in both fantastical and science fictional trappings, we are forced to wonder whether there might be something more to Who Fears Death's different races than mere cultural attitudes. Are the Nuru actually a different species to the Okeke? And, if so, what does that make the Ewu? The same ontological haze surrounds the book's engagement with real-world political issues such as female circumcision and retributive genocide. When Okorafor presents us with a completely feasible explanation as to why a woman would want to be circumcised but uses mystical trappings to ground that explanation, is she being metaphorical or is she being ironic and mocking the superstitious attitudes that maintain these sorts of cultural attitudes? This sense of irony is most magnificently expressed in Who Fears Death's treatment of the war between the Nuru and the Okeke.

Having built the civil war up as a Lord Of The Rings-style battle between good and evil, Okorafor uses the third part of the book to pull the rug out from beneath her characters. Far from being a dark lord-style villain, Onyesonwu's father Daib reveals himself to be little more than trumped up military dictator who clings to power through rash promises and rhetorical visions of racial vengeance and redemption. Furthermore, when Onyesonwu finally defeats the dark lord and liberates the Okeke, there is little sense that the world has been in any way saved.

Indeed, Onyesonwu's destruction of the Nuru capital not only results in the death of thousands of soldiers and civilians but also the non-consensual impregnation of most of the female Nuru population - in other words, Onyesonwu brings death and rape to the world just like her father did... it is just that she brings it to the other side. The absolute moral relativism of this ending reveals much of the book's talk of prophecy to be little more than political rhetoric. Things do not change because they are destined to do so by some great mystical plan, they change because that is what things do. There is no magical truth in the world; there is only the relentless dehumanising churn of politics and power.

Who Fears Death does not just deconstruct the traditional fantasy-quest narrative, it is also a satire of our tendency to self-mythologise to the point of engaging in magical thinking. Like Beauvois' monks, Onyesonwu and her friends cloak themselves in mysticism and superstition in order to protect themselves from the chill of the absurd. Looking into the world and finding no meaning, no place and no sense, they leap into the jaws of vast and ungainly semiotic systems; systems that interweave prophecy with psychology, subjectivity with objectivity, and fact with myth; systems that give life meaning.

Beauvois' monks die happy because they leap and are caught by a system that was designed to help people navigate between death, retreat and rejection of one's core beliefs. For those monks, the system worked. Their life had meaning and they were content to submit to it. However, as Okorafor points out in the book's epilogue, Onyesonwu's nature is change and defiance. And, try as she might, she never finds a place for herself in the mythological systems she inhabits. She is not content to be an Okeke woman. She is not content to be a shape-shifter. She is not content to be a local wizard. She is not content to kill the dark lord. None of these systems provide Onyesonwu with the meaning and the sense of place that she so angrily demands in the first act, and so Who Fears Death concludes with an attempt to both have its cake and eat it.

The book suggests that the search for meaning and a place in the world is an absurd delusion. It does this by ending the story with some mind-bending inter-textual reshuffling in which 'great books', prophecies, destinies, and semiotic systems are feverishly written and re-written in order to fit the facts of the world - a world rapidly changing. A world whose complexity and technological sophistication seem utterly at odds with the talk of prophecies and great books that haunts so much of the novel. The fact that so much of the novel's mythological content turns out to be -
a) completely wrong and -
b) easily re-written to fit the facts serves to make Who Fears Death's mythological elements seem utterly ad hoc.

This is not in and of itself problematic. Indeed, I see no problem with ending an initiatic journey with the revelation that life is meaningless. The problem is that this is not the ending that the book presents us with. The book ends with Onyesonwu flying above the world and looking down on it, refusing to play any part in the vestigial remains of the old mythological order. On a purely dramatic level this does not work, as no explanation is given for Onyesonwu's transition from a place where she is demanding meaning from an indifferent universe to a place where she is contentedly at peace with creation. Why is Onyesonwu suddenly at peace? Did she re-write the prophecies so as to make them fit the world as it is? Did she, like Meursault in Camus' The Outsider (1942), open herself up to "the benign indifference of the world"? Okorafor does not say. She does not so much close Onyesonwu's character arc as allow the book to run out of space amidst a muddle of obfuscation that attempts to present confusion as consolation.

Who Fears Death is not an enjoyable read. Its narrative is simplistic and un-engaging, its characters are fantastically un-likeable and its prose and imagery are seldom interesting let alone inspiring. It is a novel whose joys are almost entirely meta-textual in that they flow not from the content of the story so much as from the book's critical engagement with other texts in the fantasy genre. It is a hollow piece of writing and no amount of sly satirical intelligence, playful ironic detachment or ambition can overcome emptiness.

Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor



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