We spoke briefly before class began on Monday about how Ben Okri’s “Stars of the New Curfew” reminded us of Hunter S. Thompson’s saga about drugs and debauchery in “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” and after reading chapters 1, 6, 7 and 8 of Andrew Apter’s “The Pan-African Nation,” that comparison, strangely enough, holds up. On a surface level, Okri’s and Thompson’s stories both share weird visions of bats, a self-awareness of something being off (“I think there’s something wrong with me,” Dr. Gonzo states in “Fear and Loathing”) and an acknowledgment of situations spiraling outside of the narrator’s control. Dr. Gonzo says, “I hate to say this, but this place is getting to me. I think I’m getting the Fear” — a realization that seems eerily similar to the narrator’s growing discomfort when he returns to his hometown of W. It’s perhaps an understatement when the narrator says, “I began, I think, to hallucinate” (129), but he seems remarkably clear-headed when, at the showdown between Odeh and Assi, he asserts: “We needed modern miracles. We were, all of us, hungry. We had all abandoned our private lives, our business lives, our leisure, our pain, because we wanted to witness miracles. And the miracle we had come to witness, which seemed to comprise the other side of ritual drums and dread, was that of the multiplying currency. We had come to be fed by the great magicians of money, masters of our age” (136).
But how did things get to this place, with people living in dire poverty, willing to buy medicines that promise to cure every ailment but certainly cannot, and doing anything they can to curry favor with the rich, ignorant nouveau riche like Odeh and Assi? According to Apter, it’s because oil in Nigeria appeared as one of those “miracles,” as a found commodity, something no one had to work for, and therefore its profits skewed both the country’s economy and the public’s understanding of oil’s value. The focus on oil detracted from Nigeria’s other industries, such as manufacturing and agriculture, and created a deficit in capital and labor. Ethnic lines were further divided, and although money was pumped into the public sector, it was for jobs that didn’t truly function within the greater economy. Countless dollars disappeared, probably embezzled or used as bribes or scams. Eventually the economy was built around an illusion of functionality that masked the country’s actual precariousness, and once the economy collapsed, that illusion fully took hold, manifested in 419 scams, fraud and forgery.
With that kind of historical and cultural context, it’s clearer to understand the bizarreness and money-crazed nature of the narrator’s hometown in Okri’s “Stars of the New Curfew.” These are theoretically people who have been pushed to the brink by ineffective government rule, promised help and representation but denied it, and their only options or hope manifest in favors or handouts from Odeh’s and Assi’s families. Even in their groveling, however, they are denied real assistance — “The coins rained on us as if it were our punishment for being below” (138) — and it becomes clear the money itself was a lie, “joke currencies” (140). This small-scale illusion symbolizes all the falsities in Nigeria as a whole, the kind of harmful mistruths that left “a great hunger, a great rage, amongst us” (140) and which the narrator chooses to implicitly accept by returning to his old job selling fake medicines. His conscience may cause him to recognize “our lives as a bit of a nightmare” (144), but his practicality keeps him in the system — adding to the “greater chaos” (143) he unfortunately knows is engulfing Nigeria.
Is it all just one long bad trip? Partly. But I don’t think Johnny Depp would star in this movie.