Because I Am My Grandmother
A review of M. O. Ene's novel, Nnénna
Rudolf Ogoo Okonkwo
Friday, March 12, 2010
There are two reasons why smart writers do not review books. One is that they do not want to upset the professional critics. The other is that they do not want to crush their own self-esteem.
But that is just a problem for smart writers.
For the rest of us, we say: Those who can, write; and those who cannot, critique. It is in that philosophy that we take our solace.
I have been trying to write a decent novel for over ten years now. So please indulge me as I delve into criticism.
Now that I have wrung that out of my heart, let me tell you about Nnénna, a novel by M. O. Ené.
Nnénna is a story of how one woman turned the stone that the builders refused into a head cornerstone that her family ended up using as its rock of ages.
Gilbert, the only
child of Mrs. Obiagaeli Ike, drops out of school to join his contemporaries to
Gilbert marries Chināsa on the strength of his mother’s recommendation. When his mother dies, she reincarnates in his daughter with Chinasa, appropriately named, Nnénna. Gilbert and Nnénna establish a relationship between father and daughter that is unique and unparalleled. He treats her as his mother.
The novel, Nnénna, is about the life of Chināsa’s daughter and her relationship with her father. Nnénna plays the role of Gilbert’s mother, protecting him and, in more ways than one, keeping his family going through a special gift that she delivers to her parents.
I tried to avoid spoiling the story for other readers; as a result, this summary may not have done justice to a story full of depths and intrigues. In the talented hand of Ené, the story of a man eating his morning foo foo is bound to be entertaining. In the novel, Nnénna, Ené taps into his deep understanding of life in Enugu to craft a story that gives readers like me -- who do not know Enugu -- a virtual guide.
telling of the story makes it look like what elders do each and everyday in
towns and villages east of the
Ené is in tune
with the gossip, the language and the life of
If you are like me, and you like beautiful expressions, you cannot avoid marking up the book as you read. I check any expression that makes me ask, “So you can do that?” The ones that make me ask, “how did he do that?” get double checks. At some spots, I have triple checks. Those are the expressions I hope to steal in due course.
I had hoped to give you samples of clever phrases and expressions in Nnénna, but I am at a loss as to where to start. Let me nip pieces of the fish for you.
“You don’t dissipate the desire to defecate by farting.”
“Here I am pleading that infirmity is not equally distributed and you girls want one with elephantiasis of the scrotum to develop abdominal abscess.”
“Good teachers don’t go about with chalks. You teach by example.”
“Testing a product before buying reduces the queue at the refund counter.”
Ene has an expansive understanding of the human condition. His reflections on the travails of the human spirits are enough to satisfy any reader. Be it mother-daughter relationship or boyfriend-girlfriend relationship, he captures in an authentic voice the central premise as well as the specific dynamics. Without preaching, he drops nuggets of wisdoms along the way.
“Silly Frank, she sighed, religious romanticism must have confused him to the point of thinking that he can binge on no-water-added palm wine on Saturday night and proclaim sobriety on Sunday morning. She knew men could be as immature as you want them to be. She knew that there is something strange about this thing called love: in her books, love is a sudden attraction between strangers that forces them to reject reason from the realm of reality, a mild madness that is dangerously delirious.”
Talking about love and sex, Ené handles it tastefully. This is how he presented the scene where Nnénna and Frank are at it.
“Frank was so excited his hip went to
When Nnénna is introduced, I follow her life at school with great interest. I yearn for the points of convergence between her and her grandmother. For a while, her life runs like a perfect machine in a perpetual motion. Just as I am about to raise an eyebrow, something happens to her.
And on top of that page, I wrote, About Time!
While the ending of the novel is not easily predictable, it is one possibility. When it happens, it does not appear as something inevitable. The main mystery of the novel unravels in the mind of any discerning reader because the narrator is noticeably hiding something from the reader. That behavior by the narrator raises questions in reader’s mind and will make some readers to feel tricked.
In an effort to keep readers in the dark, how Chināsa, Nnénna, and Gilbert handled the major incident in the story is left out in the novel. This technical challenge does not in anyway diminish the novel. It only takes away what would have been the icing on the cake. Another way of handling this common creative dilemma and get greater satisfaction for everyone is to have the reader and the narrator in the dark together and when they find out they do so at the same time.
At several parts of the book, there are explanations of Igbo terms and expressions. Most are needed and done so well that it will delight readers, even those who are Igbo. Ené goes above and beyond by putting some concepts like male-daughter and female-husband in today’s context. Few of such explanations seem to me as evil mechanization of Western editors who want African writers to explain everything to them when their writers will not explain Halloween to readers outside the West. Those ones become a kind of interruption to flow of the story.
Ene uses conventional language as if he helped create them. Talking about Chināsa’s plight with men, he writes: “Hit-and-run hustlers were many, and they scored whenever they went out to play.” At the same time, he does not shy away from deploying the nuclear words. Here is an example from an encounter between Nnénna and her mother, Chināsa:
“Mrs. Olisa got in touch with him.”
“What did the universal busybody hope to achieve?”
“Mom, she was being pragmatic.”
“Pantopragmatic more like.”
Oh, and when he is funny, he is very, very funny indeed. Here, Chināsa is trying to get Nnénna to speak to her godmother, Fanny, about potential husbands she is scouting for her.
“I’ve nothing to say to the busybody.”
“You can’t talk about Fanny like that, young lady.”
“I just did. She should find a husband for herself first. Now can I go and wash my mouth?”…
“Use an entire bar of soap,” Chināsa yelled.
At some level,
Nnénna is a story of
Nnénna is a novel that should be read by everyone who loves a great story. It gives comfort to those interested in the concept of the afterlife. It will make you rethink all you think you know about reincarnation. At 182 pages, it is a quick read but the story it tells will stay with you long after you have put the book away.
When African literature fully recovers from its illness, Nnénna will take its place amongst the great ones that captures a slice of our time. Because of Ene’s use of his endowment, our time that has long gone is captured and preserved in Nnénna for generations yet unborn.
It is your loss if you do not read this novel. Not reading it amounts to a deliberate refusal to pick up another point of light as you navigate the dark tunnel that life is. For M. O. Ené (MOE), he has offered the sacrifices and the blame shall be that of the spirits.
Rudolf Ogoo Okonkwo is the author of Children of a Retired God.
His upcoming book is a memoir titled, Because I Am My Grandfather.