Book Title: Smithereens of Death
Author: Olubunmi Familoni
Genre: Prose (Short story collection)
As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods. They kill us for their sport
Gloucester in King Lear
There is no doubt that Smithereens of Death is a product an intellectual appraisal of the world. I like the way Tade Ipadeola, award winning poet describes the author, while reviewing the book last month. “Bunmi Familoni is like the man who was taught Mathematics, who then goes ahead to invent Trigonometry on his own, Familoni is a consumate artist, who has the basic instruments available to every writer, yet creates a complex physical , spiritual and psychological collage of stories and voices
. The perceptive reader soon discovers the amount of research that has gone into the writing of Smithereens of Death, from the title of the collection to the very last story in it. But Familoni’s research is not at all like a scientist’s attempt to create data using sterile facts and statistics, it is creationist in nature. Though the stories in Smithereens are short, they are rich, varied and vivid, drawing the reader into Familoni’s world, a world which a reflection of his rich experiences and his eclectic tastes. As a testament to his creative genius, the stories themselves are smithereens, bits and pieces. Familoni does not give the reader time to know the characters and bond with them. The characters are like Smithereens, they are far too physically and psychologically broken for them to have any significance, or value, or identity.
Reading the collection the reader is tempted like Festus said to Paul in the biblical book of Acts of the Apostles 26:24 ” You are mad; too much learning is turning you mad.” But Smithereens of Death is not a product of madness by any stretch of the imagination, but then perhaps it is, because it is in fact a product of anger, and “anger” they say “is a form of madness.” Familoni is angry. His anger is borne out of studying life and seeing the pointlessness of it all. It is the kind of anger which mirrors the absurdist movement of Franz Kafka, Samuel Beckett, and Eugene Ionesco. Like Beckett’s masterpiece, Waiting for Godot, Smithereens is not a satire, its anger is not directed at anybody in particular, it is anger directed at the world. The anger of Smithereens of Death is not the righteous anger for change, or anger expecting anything to be done about the cause of the anger. It is an ineffective anger which like a fire trapped within walls burning brightly but having no effect. Familoni’s anger is best expressed by William Shakespeare in Macbeth
Life is but a walking shadow, a poor player that frets his hour upon the stage. It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing
(Macbeth: Act 5 Scene 5 line 17-28)
Smithereens of death is not a satire, its anger is not anger for change. There are no possibilities of redemption to be found on these pages, the anger here is ultimately ineffective, it is “like the hate that overwhelmed my heart and lay heavy at the bottom of it, I did not know what to do with it…” A Corpse’s Picture (pg 20)
In satires of writers like Soyinka the writer tries to break down a set of unacceptable forms within the immediate environment of the story, and advance a set of forms which are acceptable to him. But the absurdist doesn’t care about any forms; he violates them as he wishes. After all what is the value of forms if the world as he perceives it to be going to shit. And the disregard for forms manifests in different ways in Smithereens of Death one of which is the irreverent swearing. At first glance the reader wonders why the characters a so liberal with swear words, but a further examination of the book reveals that the swearing follows a pattern. The characters that swear do so because they are angry, the angrier they get the coarser their language gets. The tirade of the man in The Cost of Dying (pg 54) is a manifestation of the author’s inner anger, which drove the writing of the collection.
Death and God/ Religion are forms which are meant to be taken seriously . In line with the writer’s anger, one cannot do but draw parallels between Smithereens and another collection of short stories, which also dwells heavily on the theme of death, Ayo Sogunro’s Sorry Tales. While Sogunro, treats death as a form of punishment or reward, much like Soyinka, there is a big deal to be made of death, like the death of Olunde in Soyinka’s Death and the King’s Horseman, and Senator Boniface in Sogunro’s The Wonderful Life of Senator Boniface which marks a monumental change in plot progression and in the characters themselves. Death is always a jarring spectre that snatches away a major character and leaves the other characters and the reader gasping. Familoni however treats death as a minor inconvenience, much like Beckett’s Waiting for Godot and Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis. In Smithereens, Death is at best a minor speed bump on the road of life. In fact, he is so casual about Death, physical, or psychological, that the reader often misses it when it happens.
Another point which is significant is the writer’s narrative style, especially his use of the first person I narrator. Normally the I narrator is used to make the story’s experience more personal to the reader, but Familoni instead twists it around to achieve the opposite effect, the one of making the character detached from the character and indeed from the events happening around him.
While Familoni must be praised for pouring his own eclectic mix of experiences into the stories, it seems he has poured far too much of himself into Smithereens of Death. His intellectual profoundness liberally seeps into his characters, but unfortunately seeps out of the wrong ones. An example is the character Sniffs in Stripped (pg 60). Sniffs comes across as rather too stiff, and intellectual, his rationalization of the world looks rather out of place within the context of that particular story. Same for the Helmet character in The Colour of Darkness, (pg 64.) Freud? Pope? Even full time professors of psychology, struggle to understand Freud. It is testament to the intellectual depth of the writer, but it sits on the characters like ill fitting clothes. Same goes for the man’s tirade in The Cost of Dying. The old man’s tirade is particularly, noteworthy in that apart from it being far too intellectual for the context, a fact pointed out by the Faith character; It is a departure from the essence of the collection. In that instance, Familoni departs from his angry stance and becomes didactic. While such a shift is natural in satire, it is the antithesis of the very essence of Smithereens of Death.
All in all Smithereens of Death makes a very refreshing read. Familoni is a special breed of writer who is not often found in African literature, because of the socio-political nature of the country Nigeria and indeed the continent Africa, satire is a far more appealing genre to the reader, but Smithereens of Death much like Waiting for Godot and Metamorphosis has the potential to be a classic, and indeed first of a new generation of voices in African literature.