Broken Men Who Never Heal: A Review of Bongani Kona’s “At Your Requiem”

AiW Guest: Iquo DianaAbasi

“I rewind time to conjure you back to life.”almost-bare-jacaranda-tree

The above words on the opening page strike a note of foreboding and thus set the tone and pace for the story. Indeed the whole tale rests on this conjuring back to life through a narrative that is often not straightforward. We are taken to the past, with memory gushing through like a burst dam, refusing to be contained. At other times, we have voices in the present interrupting the memory process in sudden squirts and bursts.

One often gets the sense that the present feels more like an out-of-body experience to the narrator, Christopher, as he struggles to piece together the bits of the past that culminated in the discovery of his cousin, Abraham, hanging one meter above the ground, his vertebrae broken with the aid of a nylon rope tied to a Jacaranda tree.

You want to hate Christopher when his memory reveals how his last conversation with his late cousin ended: “You’ve always been a weak son-of-a bitch, a mommy’s boy, Abraham! I don’t fucking care if you go and kill yourself.”

Then you read further and your anger dissipates into pity, and some kind of pain.

At its core this is a tale of abuse (of mind, body and substance)—of a loss of innocence and the unnerving damage that child sexual abuse can have on the psyche of the adolescent or adult male.

But let us attempt a return to the roots.roots-1388695751osm

Though sibling rivalry is not uncommon, this is an interesting case. Born two months apart, Christopher and Abraham are cousins who look alike, from their broad shoulders to their jaw lines and dark brown eyes. Their only reason for living together is the death of Christopher’s mother. Their home on St. Patrick’s road is missing one thing: a father, who, though absent, remains a looming presence in their lives. Aunt Julia, Abraham’s mother, transfers her hatred for her estranged husband to her son. She openly favours her nephew—literarily making him her “husband” by inviting him into her bed from childhood.

Of this, Christopher says: “One night Aunt Julia was naked when I got under the duvet. It was winter. I remember the percussion of raindrops splashing against the tiled roof. She held me close, tight, my head pinned against her breasts.

I pushed her away, or tried to, but she held firm. She unbuttoned my pyjamas. I lay in there, limp, my eyes wide open. I felt her bony fingers, cold against my chest, circling lines around my ribcage. ‘My beautiful boy,’ she whispered, as she kissed my belly button. ‘You’re my little husband. Who’s my little husband? You’re my little husband.’ I think I cried, but I’m not sure.”

Again we read,

“Even now I can’t find the words to truly speak of what happened, and my memories are corroded with shame.”

Dark and startling, these memories provide some understanding of what pushed Christopher and Abraham to alcohol and drugs, respectively, as they became adults. The story also raises the pivotal question about whether male children ever know (and accept) that to be introduced to sexual activity in childhood is nothing less than abuse. Strange as it may sound, this same subject was raised on a platform by a female friend of mine last month. And though many men on that platform agreed to having had their first sexual encounter as pre-teens, with an older female (often a relative), only a small number saw it as abuse.

Gloomy as this story is, it does attempt to show abuse as it really is: the actions of a sick or broken person needing healing, crying out for help in the one way they have become used to—by breaking others in their path.

The church requiem is a place for reliving the past. It is also a place for tributes to and joyful memories of the deceased, whose voice we get to hear only through the tributes paid to him by friends at the requiem, and through the pervasive memory of Christopher.

It is baffling, however, that after years of rehab and staying clean, Abraham, the one who had made the most progress on the path to healing—the first to stretch a helping, even forgiving hand to his rival cousin—would take his own life after learning of Christopher’s role in Aunt Julia’s death. I suppose Abraham could be excused as fragile—as indeed all traumatised minds are.

For the surviving rival, Christopher, this is a time of honest introspection, though he will not share with others at the requiem the truths he comes to embrace. The narrator chooses instead to speak to the departed one in the spurts of memory that overtake him during the funeral rites. His honesty seems laced with a rising urge to plead forgiveness from the deceased:

“Look what happened when I told you the truth about how Aunt Julia died? I was jealous of what you had when I came to New Haven. You had found peace of mind with all these folks around you. It’s like back when we were kids after my mom died. I wanted your mother’s attention. I wanted her to love me more than you.”

The story closes in a neat cycle, and one can hardly fault the writer this decent return to the beginning. But, o800px-Waldo_fire_approaching_Mountain_Shadows_1ur narrator is unable to conjure his cousin back to life, and he leaves us in futile agony:

“Some wounds are too deep to heal Abraham…What happened between us burned through our lives like mountain fire in a high wind. There’s nothing left. Everything is ravaged.”

To the sensitive reader, the question might loom like a menacing shadow: Is healing after abuse impossible, even with rehab and the passage of years?

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Iquo 600x612Iquo DianaAbasi Eke writes prose, poetry and scripts for radio and screen. She often performs her poems with a touch of culture-rich Ibibio folklore. Her first collection of poems, Symphony of Becoming, was shortlisted for the NLNG Nigeria prize for literature and the ANA poetry prize, both in 2013. Stages she has graced include the Lagos International Poetry Festival, Ake Arts and Book Festival, and Wole Soyinka @80. Her writings can be found in The Kalahari Review, Saraba Magazine, and on her blog at iquoeke.blogspot.com. The mother of two resides in Lagos where she is writing a collection of short fiction. Her novel is due out in the last quarter of 2016.

Bongani Kona‘s work has appeared in Mail & Guardian, Rolling Stone (South Africa), Sunday Times and elsewhere. He is also a contributing editor to Chimurenga, a pan-African publication of culture, arts and politics, and is pursing a master’s degree in creative writing at the University of Cape Town.



Categories: Blogging the Caine Prize, Reviews - Books

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