Only one who hasn’t been to war romanticizes it. So also, only a veteran of war would get away with writing about it with levity – just like people hit with grief are allowed to laugh at their sorrows in self mockery. Such laughter does not reduce from the seriousness of their situation. Urichindere (written by Dikeogu Chukwumerije) is a funny, sad and painful book about the experiences of a boy in a Nigerian boarding school. Boarding school in Nigeria is a serious situation. It is set in the early 90s, when the extent of Nigeria’s structural damage had become too great to be ignored. But beyond that, it is about the tensions that gripped Nigeria for a long time and are only imperceptibly being loosened.

The bulk of the story is about the boy’s experience in a boys’ boarding school, a thinly disguised Kings’ College in Lagos. Many of the adventures he had, what he experienced, the relationships he built and the entire atmosphere of the school will be instantly recognizable to any boy who attended a boarding school. Actually, some scenes in the book transcend the Nigeria of the setting and resemble scenes from books of decades ago in another environment. There’s a book by Roald Dahl called Boy. It is about his childhood including when he was in secondary school in Britain in the interwar period. Events in Urichindere closely resemble those in Dahl’s book. Both books state an obvious truth in a simple, non hysterical way. Boys; men; will always fight for dominance among each other. This conflict, destructive as it may sometimes be, painful to those on the receiving end, repugnant to onlookers, mysterious to women, is essential not only to the definition of what it is to be a man, but also to society. This is because in conflict there is hope for growth and advancement.

At its core, I understood the book to be about that thing that males cherish above all – balls. Or to put it more politely, bravura. It is the attitude that Al Pacino shows in the movie Scarface, when he goes to negotiate his first cocaine deal or decides to woo the woman that is clearly his boss’s. Esquire, a men's magazine wrote a review of For Whom the Bell Tolls; a book written by that most manly of authors- Hemingway; about that most manly of pursuits – war, the reviewer says: “{this is} a lesson in manhood. Even when you are damned, you press on.” So it was in boarding secondary schools, you just had to keep going because there was no alternative except to go crying home to your mummy. And which growing boy will ever admit to that? In the book, there are instances of the boy refusing to fall despite all the blows he receives, the brutality and unfairness of his seniors and the entire school system that was blatantly oppressive. The boy develops an attitude like that of a boxer who keeps throwing punches even though he is blinded by swollen eyes and bleeding cuts. And just like in war or boxing, his adversary grows to respect his spirit. And this deep sense of self that enabled him to ignore physical pain in defense of his honor is evident later in the book with the stance his parents take in the face of a threat of annihilation by the state. The story is rich in understatement and subtlety; here, a small incident that shows how the brutality of army rule has wiped out the sense of the rights of citizens. There, an anecdote that tells of that deep acceptance of what you’ve always known, a certainty that all is right with the world because this, this is mine. And then of course that attachment called love for what is imperfect but still cherished because of the familiarity it bears. The book is a long poem to the love the author has for Nigeria because after all is said and done, it is home. And he knows how to navigate its waters better than any other in the world.

The story is smooth; there is a seamless transition from the self absorbed cares and carefree ways of a child to the growing awareness of events in the world. How the world is unaware of you and will crush you in its heedlessness. He learns about men and women and how they hunger for different things from one another, misunderstand each other and end up resigned and dissatisfied. There is much about friendship, the most satisfying friendships are those where there is mutual respect and this is evident in how it grows between brothers and how it can be maintained even with an enemy. The story is also uproariously funny, so funny that I had a headache from laughing. This is not an exaggeration. I did not put down the book till I finished reading it. This decision to read to the end was helped by the book’s excellent print quality.

The book is liberally sprinkled with the Ibo language. It reminded me of all those books I read that have French or Spanish or some other European language leavened all through the text. I suppose the authors have some notion that non intelligibility adds something, maybe authenticity to the story. It usually annoyed me no end. And for that reason, I felt a sense of satisfaction at seeing Ibo in print. Let us see how all those snooty Europeans deal with another language sitting pretty in an English text. Even the title of the book – Urichindere – is a jawbreaker of a word that non blacks will have trouble pronouncing. I suppose you cannot get more authentic than that.

Many times, people say things without knowing their meanings. Like when Nigerians say: “I am proud of Nigeria” just because they hear nationals of other countries saying the same thing. Other people have pride because there is something to be proud of - like a Russian being proud of Sputnik; or an Egyptian being proud of a 3000 year old history. What is there to be proud of in Nigeria? What have we done that is worthy of adulation? We are probably the most disappointing state in the world. Potentially rich and powerful, but in reality, inconsequential and frittering away our potential every chance we get. However, this book made me proud because it represents the continuation of the development of a distinctive Nigerian culture. The pride I felt is similar to what I feel when I listen to music of the 60s and 70s, because that was authentic, homegrown music, like no other in the world. This book is a continuation of that process that began with books like Efuru (Flora Nwapa) and Jagua Nana (Cyprian Ekwensi). It is different from other books by contemporary authors. Others try too hard to seem poignant, have a drab, intensely sad, joyless feel. It is like the authors are trying to show the rest of the world either that Nigeria is as portrayed – hopeless, or trying to show that we are the way we are because of insurmountable obstacles. They are too full of sadness, piling tragedy upon tragedy as if the writers are aiming to write a sequel to the Book of Job. Alternatively, others seem to be like black American films – those sorts of films where the actors are trying so hard to appear white but occasionally saying things like “gurl” to show that they are from the hood. In most cases, the characters are flat, the story bland and the writing style uninspiring. This flaw extends even to the films and music produced by Nollywood, many of the products are too clichéd. This book avoids all that; the title character and his accomplices are a distillation of the children you would find all over Nigeria. The stages of his growth and maturity are recognizable and the story is engaging and believable, probably because it is based on relatively recent events. However, this does not detract from the story. This book is just itself; the story is its own object. Like Things Fall Apart (Chinua Achebe), it focuses on itself and in the process does what good art does; it discards frivolity and shows reality a reflection of itself that is stripped of adornment.

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