Wednesday, March 02, 2011

69. The Clothes of Nakedness by Benjamin Kwakye, A Review

Title: The Clothes of Nakedness
Author: Benjamin Kwakye
Publishers: Heinemann African Writers Series
Genre: Fiction/Novel/Class
Pages: 212
Year of First Publication: 1998
Country: Ghana


Benjamin Kwakye's novel The Clothes of Nakedness is a compelling narrative directed at a Ghanaian audience, in particular. It reveals the economic hardships existing in our society; it also reveals the intricately woven relationships between the rich and the poor and how the 'seemingly' rich manipulate the poor to further that wealth-dom in this dual economic society where absolute riches exist side by side with abject poverty. The latter scenario is even more stark and pathetic if one knows that Nima and Kanda Estates, two neighbourhoods presented in the story, are real and not just fictional representation made concrete by Kwakye's brilliant mind.

The story revolves around three friends - Kojo Ansah, Kofi Ntim, and Gabrielle Bukari - who are of equal social status and lived at Nima and one manipulative seemingly rich man whose name summarises his attitude and countenance: Mystique Mysterious. Even more mysterious than his name is how the latter goes about manipulating the poor while pretending to be their benefactor and friend. Bukari, having been jobless for the past eight months, was offered a chance to be once again employed when Mystique Mysterious convinced him to drive a taxi belonging to his (Mystique Mysterious's) friend. And at a cost. The cost being that a percentage of Bukari's monthly salary be paid to Mystique Mysterious. The two became the closest of friends and partners in all vices; including those never dreamt of by Bukari. Drinking, adultery, orgies became a part of Bukari's nightlife with Mystique Mysterious, while Fati - Bukari's wife whom he had married when the former was just a child and he was in the employ of Fati's father as a driver - coped the lonely nights because his hardworking husband is with his benefactor.

Mystique Mysterious again convinced Bukari's son, Baba, to sell newspapers on the pretext of getting more money to lavish on his girlfriend, Adukwei; and again a percentage of the commission earned by the boy was paid to him without the latter's knowledge. He also employed the services of Kofi Ntim and again a percentage of the salary was demanded though Kofi, wise as he was, could bargain the percentage to the barest minimum, unlike Bukari. The only person whom Mystique Mysterious was unable to entangle in his nefarious clutches or slavery was Kojo Ansah, described as the quiet man. And MM feared him for his taciturn nature.

To get the youth on his side and also earn some income from him, Mystique Mysterious lavished marijuana and cocaine on them. This though initially was handed out free of cost, was a ploy to get them hooked onto the drugs and selling it to them after it had become a habit.

This is a complex story, not in terms of the plot, but in terms of what could be gleaned or learnt from it; for there are a lot in this story. There is the love story of Fati and Bukari who had had a successful marriage though the former was disowned by her father when the latter got her pregnant at an early age while working for her father. This also borders on the rich-poor relationship as Fati's wealthy father could not comprehend why her daughter would allow herself to be impregnated by a common driver. There is also the love story between Fati's son Baba and Adukwei. This love story, representative of the gradual changes in relationships in modern societies have become, could not survive when Baba met Janet, the daughter of her father's boss - the owner of the taxi Bukari drives. Finally, there was Mystique Mysterious covetousness for Bukari's wife Fati. And it was this strange affection, this strong uncontrollable lust that spirals the story into its denouement. A lot of mishaps occurred including arrest and detentions, murders, capital punishment and more. And when the time came for society to choose whom to follow it was clear that the poverty-stricken folks, manipulated and used by the rich, could not extricate themselves from the clutches of the rich and so, moved by the grumblings of their stomach, chose to support Mystique Mysterious in his quest to destroy those he considered his enemies - or better still friends turned enemies. 

Though this is an elaborate tale of complex relations, the language of the write makes it suitable for any person of any age to read and comprehend; and perhaps in using such simple words and straightforward construction, Kwakye had the Ghanaian youth in mind, an attempt at probably educating them on the values and choices of life. For once the youth of Nima society chose with their 'desires', their society came crumbling as good people were killed, either illegally or legally, to compensate the rich.

The question that begged to be asked is: was Mystique Mysterious an embodiment of our thoughts, was he ethereal? For though he was a man in the novel, in the end the reader isn't sure anymore. When Kofi Ntim thought he was done with Mystique Mysterious,
...he heard someone call his name. He stopped and looked behind him and saw the shadowy form of a man outlined against the dusky sky. He looked harder and realised it was Mystique Mysterious. And that Mystique Mysterious was similing. Then Kofi Ntim knew that Mystique Mysterious had not gone away. He would never go away. He would always be present in the background, watching and waiting... (Emphasis mine, Page 212)
The title of the story is taken from a Ghanaian proverb, which literally reads if nakedness says it would give you a cloth, hear its name - meaning it takes someone with something that to give out something. This is an excellent piece though I think some places stretched a bit. Besides, for some reason that is perhaps cultural, I found the conversation between Baba and his mother, Fati, to be a bit unlikely in a Ghanaian setting. As an example, concerning their discussion of Baba's (who was sixteen years) love affair with Adukwei, I was somewhat taken aback when Fati was all smiles and joy since parents would hardly condone this even if they themselves were products of it.

Overall, this is a great book especially if one reflects on the subject matter. This is Kwakye's first novel and it is no wonder that it won the Best First Book Prize of the Commonwealth Writers Prize for Africa Region. I recommend it to all.

Note that though I read this story because it is on my challenge list, I also was goaded, prodded, pushed and pushed over by Geosi of Geosi Reads. And I am grateful I read this. His latest novel, The Other Crucifix, would be reviewed, perhaps, during the Ghana Literary Week at ImageNations.
_______________________________________
Benjamin Kwakye
Brief Bio: Born in Accra, Ghana, Benjamin Kwakye attended the Presbyterian Secondary School (Presec), Dartmouth College and Harvard Law School.

At Dartmouth, he majored in Government (with an emphasis in international relations), spending trimesters in Arles, France, and at the London School of Economics and the United Nations Association in New York. He wrote and published poetry while in college, served as editor of Spirit (Dartmouth College’s African American Society’s literary journal), and received the Society’s 1990 Senior Honor Roll for outstanding leadership, distinguished service and intellectual and artistic creativity.

His first novel, The Clothes of Nakedness, was published in 1998 by Heinemann as part of its African Writers Series. It won the 1999 Commonwealth Writers Prize for Best First Book (Africa Region) and has been adapted for radio as a BBC Play of the Week. After the publication of The Clothes of Nakedness, he became Resident Novelist of Window to Africa Radio and Afriscope Radio with Cyril Ibe. As Resident Novelist, he reviewed a number of African and African related titles on the air. (Source)

10 comments:

  1. Wow! You finally read it. Glad you liked it. Just saw it so will get back soon!

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  2. You made me, Geosi. Would be waiting...

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  3. Nana, clearly, you did read the book critically. Where do I even start from. O.K. O.K. See, you brilliantly did well by unveiling and capturing that passage you quoted from page 212. For me, that is a brilliant find - for anybody to read the book without capturing that aspect would mean that person did not read the book at all. Is MM ethereal? I think the author hinted that in my interview with him that "perhaps readers should endeavor to see Mystique Mysterious as something other than a mere human being." See, the thing is that, is MM a metaphorical creature? If so, then we ought to find out what he stands for and that I know you know. The issues presented here is on a larger scale contemporary as our culture has been influenced by many factors. With such influences and alterations, it is likely that what ensued between Baba and Fati is likely to occur in a contemporary Ghana. Or? Overall, you did justice to the novel and will be waiting for your thoughts on 'The Other Crucifix'. I wish you had the chance to read 'The Sun by Night' before you move onto the 'The Other Crucifix.' For your notice, I will alert him about this review. Great review!

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  4. Hei Geosi, that's a mouthful. Thanks. Truthfully this is a great novel and I believe it speaks more to our condition than any other novel. I also spotted passages that, perhaps, led to critics comparing him to Ayi Kwei Armah. I marked page 177 which reads:

    "A morsel of food does not suffice for one aiming to acquire the entire harvest. A parcel of the trade does not sate teh heart of one seeking to control the whole economy."

    This statement is like one that Ayi Kwei Armah would have said... it reeks of his words in Two Thousand Seasons or even in his first novel The Beautyful Ones are not yet Born.

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  5. Oh Mine...! Nana, you are a wizard...(Smiles) See, I have this passage also marked in my copy in addition to others. See, this was one question I had wanted to ask him in the interview I conducted but it escaped me. I wanted to ask him whether he had heard of critics comparing him to Armah and what he makes of it. Once again, I wish you had the opportunity to read the 'Sun by Night' - perhaps you may meet more echoes of Armah in there. I see there is a Ghana Literary Week coming up - perhaps, we are there to participate. Cheers!

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  6. @Geosi, that tells you I read the novel. lol! Since I am not reading The Other Crucifix now I might, perhaps, read that before TOC. The Ghana Literary Week would be somewhere in November, that's if they keep the old schedule. I hope I would be able to fight off any attractions to TOC before that period. Yes, let's participate to lift the GLW to another level. Cheers...

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  7. Okay, Okay you two. I get the hint. I will read this soon. Yes, The Ghana Literary Week will be held in November again this year. I will post an announcement soon so that we can all prepare.

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  8. @Kinna... This is a nice story. It would have hit my all time list if what I talked about in the post had been left out.

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  9. Yes, I'm with Kinna on this one - I get the hint and will certainly do my best to read this at some point. fantastic review!

    And I look forward to Ghana Literary Week!

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  10. Thanks Amy. Hope you have finally settled in. lol

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