Categories
Uncategorized

The Strange Story of the World by Chigozie Obioma

‘Mama leaving home with my brother Folu was the last straw, the final stage in the process of Papa’s descent into that great darkness.’ 

The Strange Story of the World is a short story written by Nigerian author Chigozie Obioma. It follows the narrator’s father and his decline in wealth, status and pride, with family fallout and a magical ritual involving a goat that he hopes will solve all of their problems. Obioma’s debut novel The Fishermen was a finalist for the 2015 Man Booker Prize and An Orchestra of Minorities was shortlisted for the 2019 Man Booker Prize. So you’d be fair in thinking he’s quite a big deal! Let’s see what our writers thought of the story, the family and the all important goat…

A brown and white goat looks out over a wooden fence. It had grey horns and golden eyes, and is looking to the side. There is green grass and a blue cloudy sky in the background.
Ready to hear a lot about a goat? Image credit: Pixabay

Jay

Make no mistake, The Strange Story of the World has at its core a war – one family’s war on poverty. Chigozie Obioma’s raw and gripping short story opens on a changing landscape for one Nigerian family – the bank, where the narrator’s Papa works, is closing. 

The narrator speaks at length about families they know that are becoming rich – all of them, seemingly, by luck or nepotism. One wins the lottery for an American visa, another gets a cushy job from a family member. All of this while the narrator’s family are now struggling to put food on the table.

Obioma’s presentation of poverty is stark and presented in sharp realism; specifically the portrayal of poverty as being something that other people escape. It seems to come so easily for them, while the narrator, their parents and their brother have to live with their newfound squalor. 

The plot takes a cutting turn when Papa injures himself, and the family find themselves unable to meet the medical bills. Mama prostitutes herself for the sake of her family – the scene is presented with Mama in a desperate catatonia, as the doctor leads her to a quiet room, in front of her young children’s eyes.

With this development, Obioma takes aim at another facet of poverty so little explored – the stubborn pride of the poor. Papa is outraged, humiliated. Unable to take up the grudge with the doctor, he becomes enveloped by what the narrative calls ‘the great darkness’. 

Papa’s outrage at Mama’s infidelity is not primarily about the sex, it’s about the money. The fact the sex was to pay off a debt left him – in Papa’s mind – firmly below the doctor. Obioma’s narrative seems to make a conscious connection between poverty and Papa’s masculine pride, a trait that’s shown to rub off on the narrator when he’s forced to yell at two passing rich girls to hide their family’s shame.

 That whole scenario comes about from an aspect of poverty that’s been the plot of movies, TV shows and books (Only Fools and Horses, Shameless, and The Count of Monte Cristo, to name a few) – the idea of the get-rich-quick scheme. 

Readers, I’ll level with you. I grew up on a council estate, in a deprived area. Obioma’s representation of their family’s scheme – a religious ritual involving exhausting a goat to death – is an incredible display of the desperation and resigned cynicism that permeates those situations. 

The goat escapes, and the narrative takes an almost comic turn – a passage describes a cartoon-like episode with the goat barely missing being hit by a truck and just walking away afterwards. It takes you off-guard, and just as you untense your shoulders from the discomfort of it all, it hits you. Rather, a car hits Papa. 

Of course, it just so happens that the car was being driven by a rich couple, who rush Papa to hospital and pay all the medical bills, giving the narrator a month’s salary worth of money as if it were no big thing. The couple take the family to dinner, and offer Papa a job with a jaw-dropping wage.

It seems to come from nowhere – but that’s the point. True stories of those raising themselves from poverty and achieving wealth are depressingly rare – more often, it’s a kind hand holding a wad of cash. It’s easy, all you have to do is be hit by the right car – just try not to starve to death before you can.

The author of the short story, Chigozie Obioma, is smiling widely. He is a Nigerian man, with a bright orange necklace and black shirt patterned with white flowers. He is at an event, sitting in an armchair and holding a copy of a book.
Chigozie Obioma Image credit: HORST GALUSCHKA

Jayne

I have mixed feelings regarding this short story; a tale of poverty, and would you believe it, a goat. 

Starting off, I was intrigued. The writing is impeccable, the tone something familiar and friendly like a mate in the pub who has just said ‘have I ever told you about my dad and the goat?’. Juxtaposing this quite upbeat way of writing is the disheartening topic of poverty. 

Honestly, I almost couldn’t finish the tale. Each paragraph seemed to add more and more angst to Nathan (the father’s) plight and I wasn’t entirely sure I could handle any more sadness befalling this poor gentleman and his family. Mostly, the only thing that got me through it was the reminder that had been given to us in the opening; The story of how my father became rich. Thus guaranteeing that somewhere I was going to get a happy ending. 

Not before I was dragged through the emotional ringer, though. 

I am not entirely certain which moment cut me the deepest, perhaps the mention of a younger brother begging for a new bike like the one his neighbours had, or even the haunting description of Engineer knelt on the floor verbalising his pain in the form of a song. 

Even when we think we are finding the light at the end of the tunnel, the goat appears in the story and brings with it assurances of a happy ending; things still go awry. The goat escapes, and the sense of defeat, of guilt, that the narrator feels for his part in it, made my stomach roll in the best way possible. 

I longed to be able to reach through the page and help.

To be honest, I also spent a ridiculous amount of time worried for the health of the goat, seeing as the poor thing probably just wanted to nibble on some grass and live a nice peaceful life. Much like I frequent ‘Doesthedogdie.com’ before watching any film, I may have caused a small riot if this funny little marathon-running goat had come to any harm.

Alas, the goat lived, and it delivered on the promise of a happy ending too. Though how those happy endings come to us are not always easy. It took Nathan being ploughed down by a rich couple who then offered him a job seemingly out of guilt before he got rich–but in a way, he got his wish so is the price paid worth it?

The way in which Obioma has managed to make me so invested in this family is a double-edged sword. On one hand, it is the mark of a talented writer that I feel such a connection, but on the other the dull ache I feel in my chest with each new hardship is hardly enjoyable. 

I think, though, that may be the point. Being from a working-class family, a family that spent its formative years on the poverty line, using the excuse of visiting grandparents to ensure that we got warm meals when we could no longer afford even a loaf of bread, the whole tale reaches into the dark recesses of my brain and drags out a lot of memories I didn’t realise I still had. 

It reminds me how bleak things can be in a penniless situation. The story itself should serve to remind everyone how large the gap is between the wealthy and the poor, that each of us is only ever a few steps away from being in this situation and not all of us have the good fortune of a goat to help us.

A street in Nigeria. There are many forms of transport: a car, motorbikes, a cart and a tuk-tuk. There are lots of pylons in the background. The road is dusty and the sky is grey.
Image credit: Pixabay

Wayne

A desperate father and his son chase a possibly magical goat through the streets of an unnamed Nigerian city in an attempt to reverse their family’s fortunes? Just the kind of strange I usually like. 

Like the goat, twice Booker Prize shortlisted novelist Chigozie Obioma leads the reader on quite a dance. While (spoilers) said goat escapes, this short story fails to break free from the Nollywood melodrama tropes it uses as its set-up. I struggled with the first third. I didn’t care for the world-building or the characters. My lack of sympathy or empathy for their predicament was justified come the ending. But we’ll get to that.

The writing style was a little awkward and dry. The story seemed to jump track just when a nicely turned line or development piqued my interest. Nor did it feel short. The latter was down to the level of description. I found it heavy-handed and off-putting. I could picture the scene clearly, but I didn’t feel like I was there. Some things – like the goat’s “pinkish buttocks” or its “prominent hump” – are best left to the imagination. 

When the goat – not a word I imagined I’d type so often in one review – appeared I thought great. Here’s the Neil Gaiman-esque peeling back of the characters’ world I was expecting. Its values and workings viewed through its beliefs and superstitions. But there were just half-hints, dead-end teases and the unfulfilled promise of a much more interesting story. 

Overly exaggerated situations and stereotypes work when seen through the fantastical or a subversive eye. This felt to me more like a limp tragicomedy – emphasis on the tragi-part. 

The beginning is an unrelenting unfurling of woe that’d be too much for Oprah. Poverty, a brush with death, infidelity (albeit to avert said death), parental abandonment, desperation, madness. It’s going to take more than a philandering doctor having a case of hungry bum in church or the narrator’s father stepping in goat shit to lighten this mood. And it needed that lightness of touch, that revelry in the absurd, to balance out the story. 

What I could connect with was Obioma’s look at one of society’s biggest problems – wealth. Who has it, who doesn’t. What we’ll do to get more, what’ll we do to hold on to what we have. How it’s hard to come by, how easy it is to lose. In a time when the divide between the rich few and the poor many has never seemed bigger, when the powerful minority push the disenfranchised majority to greater poverty, this is a universal fear. 

He doesn’t take a subtle approach. Disappointingly, his argument is undercut by the fact that the family is restored to wealth and reconciled by the father’s poor decisions and pure chance. A bit like an anti-version of those good karma videos that pop up on Facebook. None of the characters seem to have learnt anything from their experiences and instead idly revel in their riches rather than count their blessings or pay it forward. Which perhaps, given the current state of the world, is the most realistic bit of the whole tale.

Overall, not for me. But intriguing enough for me to look up his other work. I’d love to know what the goat did next.

The Strange Story of the World is available as part of a Granta online edition here.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s