‘The Strange Story of the World’ by Chigozie Obioma

The young Nigerian novelist Chigozie Obioma has twice been shortlisted for the Booker Prize. ‘The Strange Story of the World’ is a recent short story of his set in Nigeria that distills melodrama from family history and concocts a savory tragicomedy out of the melodrama. With themes reminiscent of Nigeria’s Nollywood movies, it is a son’s retrospective look at a father who loses his job, savings and status. The father is utterly devastated: “Papa’s view of lack became extreme. Poverty was the unblemished evil, an impenetrable darkness opposed to order. A person who becomes host to this evil spirit had only one option: to root it out and cast it into the outer dark.” When the father is wounded in a fight, his wife allows the doctor to seduce her in exchange for blood, and in turn she is banished from the house, taking the narrator’s younger brother with her. It is only when the father comes home with a goat one day, hoping to perform a magic ritual with it, that the family’s fortunes turn, entirely by accident.
Melodramas of the daytime soap variety revolve around exaggerated dramatic situations, a sensational plot, and stereotypical characters. A brilliant storyteller, Obioma takes some of these materials and embeds them in a realistic and well-developed setting that reflects the values and superstitions of the society, with a narrative voice that uses an easily-digestible Nigerian English that I find captivating. The story title itself is from a musical refrain that runs through the piece. The situations involving the father are cleverly foregrounded so as to deepen the exploration of his character and relationships. The world is indeed strange, the characters’ culture seems to say: you may lose badly before you gain, and there will be sacrifices and magic. Although I am not thrilled by its happy ending, the writing is of that engaging and apparently effortless quality that will continue to win the author many readers worldwide. 

First published in Granta, November 28, 2019. Available online here