Many parallels can be drawn between the magic realist elements in Ben Okri’s “Stars of the New Curfew” and Andrew Apter’s exploration of the “spectacle” and “magical realism of Nigerian modernity” in the book titled The Pan-African Nation: Oil and the Spectacle of Culture in Nigeria (41). In the chapter entitled “Politics of Illusion” Apter quotes Bayart to support his main argument by saying: “The post-colonial state stems to a great extent from its own representation” (223). Apter explains that the key to understanding the “urban phantasmagoria” of Nigerian cities was that the commodity-on-display became more important than its exchange value .ie. its value became purely representational and not monetary. Apter describes the flow of petro-naira as the “life-blood” of the country that allowed the nouveau-riche to become ostentatious with their show of wealth – “the Nigerian nation was literally remade in the image of a highly valued commodity form” (23). However, this “magic barrel” of endless goodies also elicited anxieties about this “conjured wealth” because, before the oil boom, Nigerian’s prided themselves on reward obtained through hard work but, in this era of prosperity, money freely passed from hand to hand and was spent wantonly. Okri’s short story breathes life into these various anxieties.

Apter mentions that “popular idioms of money-magic generating instant cash from human blood and body parts would come to characterize the hidden evils of oil” (25). Similarly, Okri writes of the salesman’s nightmare: “when the stars were being auctioned… [they] paid either with huge sums of money, a special part of the human anatomy or the decapitated heads of newly dead children” (93). Apter discovers that the Nigeria’s oil bonanza was “sensational” and “commodity fetishism” gave life to fraudulent activities that thrived on circulating “floating signifiers” that were devoid of any real monetary value until they “quite literally…hit their mark, a credulous dupe…giving something for nothing” ( 84,254). Okri supports this idea of being “bought” with the following statement: “the credulity of the people amazed me…I seemed to have stumbled upon a limitless area of possibilities” (22).Apter then describes how the oil bonanza was mainly an investment in a “mobile fund of favors [and] obligations, and “manage[ing] the state by helping friends and obstructing rivals” and concludes that corruption was soon not a matter of moral compromise but “of survival, obligation [and] advancement” (39). Paralleling this, Okri’s protagonist has to decide if he wants to “be on the block or buyer, to be protected by power or be naked…there were few consolations for an honest man” (143).

According to Apter, the crime of effortless gain was echoed in the various witchcraft beliefs of the period and we have our very own witchdoctor who “loves bad dreams” and enjoys “eating them” in Okri’s piece (96). Apter uses the metaphor of blood to represent the oil that was running through Nigeria’s veins and rivers; a life-blood that eventually led to the breakdown of civil society and environmental degradation. This pollution and poisoning are in Okri’s story in the images of the “green river” where the night’s soil is dumped and the woman running through the streets of W screaming that “there are no fish left in the river!” (129). The POWER-DRUG alludes to this oil that was supposed to cure all but only worked in concealing “the social and political contradictions of its money-generating powers” (Apter 22). Apter adds that during social displays of wealth, one could always be outdone by rivals at ceremonies where cash would be “sprayed” on dancers and musicians just as described in “Stars of the New Curfew.” This trend is implied by the popular saying: “there is danger on the dance floor” and Nigeria did outdo themselves.


About Staciay

Second year MFA Creative Writing candidate: Poetry track.

One response »

  1. Andrew Apter says:

    Thanks Staciay, for riffing so elegantly on my book, and for pointing out the parallels with Ben Okri’s “Stars of the New Curfew.” They also say in Lagos, “Every Mistake is a Style” (also on the dance floor)!

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