TITLE: Bongel
AUTHOR: Maryam Bobi
Origami, 93 pages
AMAB; Cassava Republic; WriteHouse: N1000
e-copy: DLite Press: $3.99
REVIEWER: Carl Terver

At the centre of every story is conflict. In Bongel conflict or rather conflicts are the travails of a girl forced into wedlock at the age of twelve. Years later the events of the past creeps into her future to haunt the almost idyllic – as depicted by the writer – life Bongel finds herself in in Medical School. In medical school, she builds a sisterly relationship with her roommate, Kautha, whose brother she’s also in love with. But all these are threatened as the conflict mount and her emotional life goes to ruins..

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The story begins with a prologue: Bongel meets her be-charmed lover, Abdul, who is also charmed by the former’s beauty, outside her hostel; when after romantic demeanors, Abdul can no longer hold back and asks her to marry him. In the world created in the story, this would have been everything to Bongel, but it appears the fears of her past are a big lump that will forever disfigure her ‘now’. This thrusts the reader into a story which spins the now and the past life of the main character, Bongel.

The theme is recurrent. It is liberalism against orthodoxy; the renaissance against the feudal, where as a girl child from a nomadic background, Bongel has to face and battle with the old guard way of doing things, as embodied by her father, when she is forced to marry a rich Alhaji at the turn of her teenage years. She is the prize, both to her father and Alhaji; she’d bring her father fortune in form of cattle and Alhaji, a male child. All her sisters before her had gone the same way. And this comes at the expense of her education and whatever promise the future holds for her. But the story of the irreverent is told when one amongst many go against the grain. In Bongel, Bongel is the irreverent. And despite still being a child she joins forces with her mother who has become tired of her husband’s exploits with his daughters and who believes Bongel’s going to school would end her poverty, her primary school classmate, Juma and her primary school Headmistress, to form a gang of rather pitiful female foot soldiers who could but only poke at the rigid knights of a patriarchal world.

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Conflict or rather the travails continue when Bongel’s father and Alhaji succeed in sealing her fate as a child bride. Bongel is the fourth wife. She is bullied by the third wife. Alhaji turns her into a male-child-bearing machine whom he visits three times in a week on top a pregnancy. She learns the politics of succumbing to fate and endures the ills that befall her. Bongel finally gives birth to a male child but it’s a stillborn, and the absurd of the century happens when both her mother and she receive divorce letters from their respective husbands. While such turn of events highlights the extremism of a patriarchal worldview, it marks the preparation of a healing ground and a second start for Bongel at life.

So in her new life when Abdul proposes marriage, Bongel is faced with a moral persuasion to bring back her past, to tell the truth about her past. Her unwillingness to do so costs her her short affair with Abdul and the relationship with her best-friend-turned-sister, Kautha. But Abdul finds out about her past anyway, though not the whole story as told him by Bongel’s stepmother. And while his reaction is not revealed to the readers Kautha on the contrary severs her relationship with and seeks to hurt Bongel even. Bongel in turn is in a bid to reclaim the things she cherish most by telling the truth when she learns it is hard to convince people with a second story when a first and more appealing one has already been told. The story as told by the writer looking into the mind of Bongel, is a story more of emotional embattlements than about actual events. There’s dream, love, the want for friendship, and most of all fear which is the whole buck of the story and runs the narrative. There’s fear in Bongel’s childhood; there’s fear when it appeared she’d lost everything.

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Maryam Bobi talks about her novella, BONGEL, with Praxis Magazine's Saddiq Dzukogi.
Maryam Bobi, Author of BONGEL

While the story spins beautifully yet tragically so, the travails of Bongel as a child bride and the fears later in her life, buried in the layers is a form of protest literature: no to the industrial complex that see the girl child as a bringer of fortune (a ‘prize’ to be bought with a dowry); and no to patriarchal systems. This is reflected in the dialogues as they in some part take the form of a sermon or speech. But these aspects of the story are reserved as undertones. With such approach the writer escapes the hackneyed storyline of the ‘ills of society’. Instead Maryam Bobi tells the story with a freshness introducing her readers into the world of the likes of Bongel

But as with every story Bongel suffers its setbacks, mostly with structure. These setbacks though are only signs of a nascent writer. Nonetheless Maryam Bobi shows promise that challenges her contemporaries. To start a literary conversation, the story is taken out of stock with the leitmotif of the African tale of a child battling overbearing forces. The narrative is spun in such a way that exposes the writer’s immaturity, taking the form of a formulaic, innocent path of story writing of a kind of immediate fiction where everything happens as it is expected. Traces of romanticism are apparent in the pages, save for some tragic events. Everything is full of grace, almost fairytale-esque as characters are extolled and kept in their ivory-ordained place except the villains. Instead of being compressed, the story is fast-paced in some parts such that narrative is propelled to the next plot.

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On pages 67-68, it is quite confounding to find Bongel passed out when Alhaji tried to consummate his marriage with her. Readers only get to find out again that she was thought dead by family and friends. The paragraphs in this section follow themselves in a run-on as in other places, too. I think proper paragraph breaks, not indentation, would have aided separation of plot.

Point of view, too, is not coherent. And with tenses, simple present seems to be in conflict with simple past in some parts.

And there are cases where the word ‘this’ should have been replaced with ‘the’. For example, we read on pages 54-55 that while her marriage ceremony went on outside and she mourned in her room: ‘Bongel wished she had some special powers to summon a dozen spirits to lash [this] partying horde…’ This is repeated elsewhere.

A writer can be forgiven many crimes but not that of language; for it is the very fabric, the centre of equilibrium of a story. Maryam knows her English too well; perhaps it is why she hijacked the whole use of language both in the characters and the exchange of dialogues.

If the reader is meant to believe that the Hausa and Fulani-speaking characters are speaking in their native dialects and Maryam Bobi records this in the dialogues as Hausa or Fulani written in English, then it is strange for Bongel’s nomadic mother to tell her daughter that her husband ‘can be a stubborn ass’ (p.42); A primary school girl uses the word ‘portmanteaux’! (p.33); and the unnerving is when Bongel’s father in a diction reminiscent of the Witch in Snow White asks his Bongel ‘Are you not the favoured of them all?’ (p.57).

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No respect for the dynamics of language been engaged by the characters either. The Headmistress speaks officialese to Bongel’s father, some part read: ‘This is an anomaly the government is trying to correct’. The same thing happens after Bongel was delivered of the stillborn, the doctor in a chat with Bongel’s father spoke yet medical jargon about an infection Bongel had. Yet to a critical reader, it is surprising that Bongel’s father was able to survive the intellectual baggage heaped on him. On the premise that characters in the novel are English-speaking they display a proficiency, a kind ‘straight-outta’ Cambridge. I think language in Bongel wasn’t given its deserved respect.

There’s a case for symbolism, or the overuse thereof. It rains in the pages of Bongel so often with the mention of ‘dark clouds’ the reader might wonder if the story was set in August; the reader is constantly reminded of rain, and it is with Bongel (the character) that the writer does this. If it is not symbolism then spicing up stories with weather metaphors for ‘spicing’ sake doesn’t do a story any good and can be misplaced. Perhaps as we later find out in the story, love wins the day as Abdul chooses Bongel over the single story. It seems finding love was the silver linen to all of Bongel’s dark clouds (fears).

For a first novel Bongel earns some repute as a story. I think to find her footing in the Nigerian literary space as an emerging writer, Maryam Bobi should’ve invested more than just writing a fine story into Bongel. Doing enough is not enough. And how all these structural conflicts in the story bypassed the all-seeing eyes of editors begs to question the faithfulness of such literary cause, begs to question why such a fine story as Bongel should suffer such setbacks.

IMPORTANT: Get published here!

On the cover of the book is a logo, Minna Literary Series. This means an industry of published stories is cropping up into the Nigerian literary scene after Maryam Bobi. I expect more in the effort invested into this industry.

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