For all its glory, Nineteen-Eighty Four is not a particularly artful novel. Especially in contrast with Orwell’s journalism, it’s painfully blunt, hammering in the same point again and again at the expense of its narrative.
And yet, it endures. Though it trips over itself to do so, the novel reminds us that truth is sacred and must be guarded. Facts can’t be warped by power or torture as humans can, but they can be hidden and replaced, which is just as bad.
Though the novels’ settings and voices are incomparable, Okey Ndibe’s Arrows of Rain falls in the same tradition: its rough edges and simplicity are utterly forgivable in the face of its relentless advocacy for truth. (The novel was originally published in 2000 as part of the Heinemann African Writers Series; Soho Press is now making it available to a wider audience.)
In the fictional African nation of Madia, strikingly similar to Ndibe’s native Nigeria, a cub reporter sees a crowd gathered around a dead woman. Bukuru, a loner, is accused of her rape and murder, though he testifies that the crime was one of many committed by soldiers.
His testimony is met with contempt by the police and the courts, and he’s thrown in jail. The cub reporter visits Bukuru, who starts telling the story of his own time as a journalist twenty years earlier, shortly before Madia’s current leader gained power in a military coup. Bukuru witnessed the leader, then a major, rape and murder a prostitute, but, after being greeted with disbelief and contempt by friends, decided not to tell anyone else.
Throughout, Ndibe (himself a journalist and author of another novel, Foreign Gods, Inc.) skewers the excuses the powerful make for themselves when confronted with evidence of their wrongdoing. Bukuru recalls being called “misled” for one of his articles, and recalls of a now-deposed leader, “Everybody who knew him agreed that he was not a thief. He liked a good time, and enriched himself at the expense of the nation, that was all.”
Ndibe’s storytelling recalls the simplicity of a folk tale, the conciseness of a news bulletin, and the earnestness of a young adult novel. The prose is largely utilitarian, though it contains occasional flashes of beauty (“The sky’s broken water came down in monstrous sheets”) and cliché (“Newborn Madia was met with a swell of hope and expectation”). A plot twist in the novel’s final chapters, involving an adoptee’s search for his father, seems sentimental and out-of-place.
The journalists in Arrows are not heroes. They drink too much, make fools of themselves at editorial board meetings, and, like young Bukuru, stay silent out of concern for their safety and are ashamed for it. But they seek out the truth, steadfastly rejecting the myth of a wise leader harassed by a dishonest press.
Journalists are often treated with derision, usually for good reason—too many value sensation over substance, and tell scraps of a story as if they’re the whole thing, among other sins. Ndibe reminds us, though, that “journalists” include those who dig for truth, find it, and share it, not just, say, slick men on TV who wonder aloud if a missing jet was sucked into a black hole.
Unlike Orwell, Ndibe leaves his protagonist scared but undefeated, stuck with a story that needs to be told. Arrows of Rain is a tribute to journalists working in unsafe conditions throughout the world, and an ink-stained middle finger for those in power wishing to stay exalted and unexamined: “A time shall come when those who today sit on the heads of others will themselves be called to account.”
–Published January 6th by Soho Press. 304 pages. $15.95