The Phoenix, by Chika Unigwe; Farafina, Kachifo Limited, 2007
Very few writers have demonstrated excellent skill at telling a story from its end. Any reader who picks The Phoenix from the bookshelf knows the whole story from the first few pages. However, what keeps the reader flipping through the pages is the desire to see how one event leads to another. The narrative techniques used in the 183-page biographical fiction varied, beginning and ending with the first person point of view. The tone is highly emotional, sordid, plunging the reader to the world of the narrator, the imageries painted with words and the allusions to reality.
Essentially, the novella treats the racial theme with professional subtlety that is required of any discerning writer in the post-colonial context of African literature. The writer bares all the racial differences that arise from the interaction between an African and the western world. These differences constitute the conflict of the novel’s plot structure. The African is seen to be in perpetual conflict with the western world, the people and the culture. When a European finds himself in the African setting, his struggle for identity is as hard. The only difference however is in their individual position on the hierarchy of social status which often favours white supremacy.
The story tells of a woman who is saddled with the grief of two tragedies in quick succession: the accidental death of her 5-year old son and the discovery that she has cancer. Torn by grief, the protagonist, Oge lives in denial and shock for over a year and this mental state threatens the bond of her marriage to her Belgian husband, Gunter. Cutting short the cycle of sorrow in the story, the writer mixes romance with the plot to comment on the subject matter of love and relationships. Through the character of Angel, the protagonist idolises female sexuality which leads to the writer’s moral argument on promiscuity and sexual gratification.
The writer explores the imagination of the reader in creating everyday scenarios that can deepen the literary appreciation of the work.
“The couple leaves behind a faint scent of something that seems to be a mixture of some flowery perfume and cigarette. There is a dent on the chair they have just vacated.
“A woman enters and sits into the dent. I imagine it still warm under her buttocks. She adjusts her pepper-red skirt, crosses her legs and gives me a Flemish smile across the table that sits between us. It is a smile like a child’s paper-boat sailing on water. It remains on the surface, not daring to go deeper.” (pg.13)
The last line above is the narrator’s first hint at the provocative nature of white supremacy. What follow exposes the ignorance of the white about the black man’s world. The reader learns that contrary to the unfounded belief that the white is more knowledgeable than the black, the white makes the error of presumption about black identity that often culminates in racial pride. It explains, in part, the rationale behind the way the white looks down his long nose at the black man as one belonging to the inferior race. The puzzle remains that the black is not eager to correct this world-view, however faulty, in the face of overwhelming evidences. Instead, the black stays angry. This is evident where the white woman that confronts the protagonist seems to be set in her conception of Africa and Africans.
Using the third person point of view, Unigwe narrows her flow of thoughts through the minds of the readers, situating them in each character’s immediate environment and mental state in order to experience the protagonist’s sorrow. Tapping a little technique from the stream of consciousness writers, the protagonist’s mother’s episode is carefully told as a detachable part of the plot, though relevant to the theme.
The language is simple, slightly diluted with few words and phrases in Ibo. Other aspects of the Ibo culture revealed through the narration include the food, basic etiquettes, dressing and the communal nature of the Africans. Without apologies, The Phoenix is afro-centric, celebrating African culture and glorifying ‘the black essence’ which is characteristic of negritude writers. The protagonist loves the thought of the contrast between the colour of her teeth and her skin colour.
The melancholic mood of the narrator is reflected throughout the work in her reaction to everything around her. She struggles with paranoia about her future, the pain of losing her only child and the husband’s attitude to the death of their son. It is not clear what state the protagonist is at the end of the narration but at last she saw through the false reality that the Christian faith inavertedly created for her to shield her from the bitter truth of her loss.