With Taduno’s Song, Odafe Atogun steers the reader into a post-colonial dystopian society threatened by a formidable military rule. Atogun seems to have imbued the literary grace and musical effect of traditional griots into a modern narrative. He unearths oral tradition to spice his allusive storytelling. Using the character of Taduno, the novel’s protagonist, Atogun brings back the historical melee between two m-powers: the military power and the music power. The character of Taduno seems to be constructed out of the legendary Fela Anikulapo Kuti. However, in Taduno, the reader finds a different kind of Fela – a kind that uses a guitar and almost betrays his people for the love of a woman, and a kind more mythic than realistic.
Music vs Military
There is a quote by the legendary Fela: “music is the weapon of the future.” This novel borders on the effectiveness of this weapon and the possibility of victory.
In music, the musician and the people seem to find succour from the overwhelming misery they live in. Music empowers the people: “They all loved his music, because it enriched their lives with hopeful messages”. This frightens the government. In an interview with Kelechi Njoku, published on Brittle Paper, Atogun affirms this “A dictatorial government is often driven by its own fear. It is this fear that accounts for its brutal tendencies and drives its propagandist agenda, which becomes effective when it succeeds in taking over the minds of the people, who are perceived to be enemies of the state.” The government wants the people to live in fear and with a low spirit. But music alleviates the fear, and strengthens the spirit of the people. The government fears the possibility of an uprising and makes an attempt to destroy every vestige of music. The fact that the government is against music affirms the power of music.
In the end, music may be a weapon, a valid one, but may not have enough power to conquer the military power. Although the music adorns the hearts of the people and gives them strength, they always end up in a “lopsided fight against the military.”
The Search for Self
Aside from the struggle between the two m-powers, there is an underlying search for self. At the beginning of the novel, we meet Taduno in exile. He had run away to avoid been captured (and probably killed) by the military “gofment.” By running away, it appears he has run away from his true self as the musician of the masses, a bard that is the beacon of hope to the people.
A strange letter brings him out of hiding, back to his homeland, and the search for self begins. This search for self is cocooned in his attempt to find his voice.
His loss of self is confirmed on his return to his homeland: no one recognises him anymore – “none of them knew him even though he knew them all.” He is seen as “a nice man who has lost his mind.” But what he has actually lost is his self. This loss of self almost frustrated him: “‘Who am I?’ he muttered to himself and began to wander numbly through the house in search of clues.” From wandering through the house, he soon proceeds to wandering through the streets in a serious search for his self.
As he investigates the disappearance of his lost love, Lela, and makes an attempt to find his voice, he gradually finds himself. This self fully blossoms at the end of the novel during the musical concert.
When Love is a Crime
Sometimes, we do some things, no matter how hurtful, for love. It is love that puts Taduno at crossroads. After going on exile, his girlfriend, Lela, was imprisoned by the government and would only be released whenever Taduno returns – not just when simply returns to the country, but when returns to compose a song praising a government that has been a terror to the people. Therefore, Taduno is at crossroads of two crucial choices: to choose either his love for Lela or his love for his country-people. He soliloquises, “What is the real meaning of love? When is love a crime? He knew the answer to his second question. Love is a crime when you love one person at the expense of the whole world. Of this crime he has become hopelessly guilty.”
Now comes the big question, how can a man who loves his women at the expense of his people be the saviour of the people? “Tell me, what hope is there for the man who betrays his own people to save love?” At this point in the novel, there is a strong use of suspense, with the reader being curious to know Taduno’s choice. Atogun is able to sustain the reader’s interest to the end, where Taduno’s bold choice is revealed to the shock of the reader.
A Book of Boredom?
Honestly, I experienced boredom as I got halfway into this novel. I read four other novels while I was reading it. I continued reading it for two reasons: I wanted to read and review, and I rarely abandon any novel I start reading, no matter how boring or badly written.
Anyway, I find the prose of this novel as lazy and unattractive with under-developed characters and exaggerated events. The novel seems to hang somewhere between surrealism and realism without finding the right spot to stay, just hanging there like a question mark in the air.
There are a number of strange things that turn me off in the novel. Among them is the mysterious letter that can barely be explained. There is also the questionable possibility of the people forgetting their musical hero because he was gone for a while and then remembering him again all of a sudden. The characters are like “mumus” in the hands of the almighty writer. However, all these seem to contribute to the trans-reality of the novel.
Somehow, the character of Taduno, aside from reminding me of Fela, also reminds me of Matigari, the eponymous character of Ngugi wa Thiong’O’s Matigari. Matigari seems, however, to be a more developed character, and the novel boasts of a more concrete believability.
The (over)simplicity of the lazy prose in Taduno’s Song makes it read like a random moonlight tale that might be suitable for some innocent children sitting under a mango tree. Although the prose is spiced with some musicality and allusions, there is more work to be done on characterisation and plot. Nevertheless, this first perception will not deter me from reading Atogun’s other novel Wake Me When I’m Gone.
Kenneth Champeon reviews the novel as “both a warning and a sign of hope.” I almost agree completely with him. True, there is the warning – a warning to the musician (or artist/activist), the people and the government. The musician is warned of the consequences of certain choices. The people are warned of the terror of the military and the possibility of continuous terror if the people choose to respond to the military power with silence and low-spirit. It is a warning to the government on the power of music, the musician, and the masses. However, it is barely a sign of hope. The hope inspired by music hardly lasts throughout the novel. There is more of an overshadowing bleakness eating into the fabric of hope. At the end of the novel, the reader is likely going to experience despair than hope.
If not for the poorly developed characters and the poor plainness of the prose, maybe Atogun’s Taduno’s Song would have had the potency of being tagged another African classic.