THE PAGANS' MEDALS by Oliver Akamnonu


New "Taste of the West"
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Traditional African religion and Christianity clash in this sprawling, somewhat didactic saga of modernization.

Emenike Nnoli, a prosperous farmer in colonial Nigeria, pins his hopes for the perpetuation of his lineage on his third wife’s bright young son, Nadike. Although Nigerian village life is warm and close-knit, it’s also impoverished and dangerous. For example, the book opens with a cumbersome picaresque in which 5-year-old Nadike is briefly abducted and almost sold to slave traders, who are still an accepted part of society. In this environment, Emenike supports the growing presence of Christian churches, which seem like a force for civilization and moral uplift; they also provide access to the white colonial hierarchy. But the church frowns on allegedly “pagan” customs, such as polygamy and ancestor worship, which Emenike holds dear. When Nadike enrolls at a Roman Catholic school, he gets caught in a tug of war between his father’s traditions and the new Christian doctrines. In the novel’s most gripping section, this tension leads to a physical confrontation that puts Emenike in a hellish Nigerian prison, where he’s savagely beaten and subjected to disgusting humiliations. However, the narrative quickly shakes off that unpleasantness, as Nadike becomes the catalyst for a rapprochement between traditionalists and Christians. In this revised version of his 2008 novel Taste of the West, Akamnonu presents a nuanced, sensitive account of Africa’s conflicted journey toward Westernization and modernity, which are both welcomed for the progress they promise—Bicycles! Airplanes! Honest government!—and dreaded for how they overturn age-old social customs. He offers nicely observed, often comic scenes about the subtle chafings, accommodations and hypocrisies as the two religious communities adjust to each other. The sociology sometimes gets in the way of the storytelling, which pauses for lengthy ethnographic disquisitions on everything from marriage mores (a barren wife is expected to “marry” new brides for her husband to impregnate) to festival rites to the complications of “inguinoscrotal hernias.” In literary terms, Nadike’s tale isn’t overly compelling, but its anthropological context may hold readers’ attention.

An illuminating, if somewhat stiff, tale of a family wrangling with change, enriched by engaging lore on African village life.

Pub Date: Feb. 12th, 2013
Page count: 454pp
Publisher: Amazon Digital Services
Program: Kirkus Indie
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