Title: Smithereens of Death
Author: Olubunmi Familoni
Genre: Short Story
Extent: 124 pages
Publisher: WriteHouse Collective
BE WARNED: Olubunmi Familoni’s SMITHEREENS OF DEATH is a bouquet of roses with deathly thorns beneath their lurid gowns. It is a pack of woes and death told beautifully and sometimes humourously.
The book is a collection of twenty-five stories the longest of which (A Man of Himself) is around or just a little over 4, 000 words. Much of the stories are told by a third person, a voyeur, whose eyes pierce through concrete walls and human bodies to the minds of individuals and groups.
Death, in this book, takes on a larger definition than just the loss of life. It comes to include the loss of dignity, or of family, or of hope, or of identity. And it is these other forms of death in the book that strikes me.
To the boy in Flies to Wanton Boys, identity is defined by nationality (an ascribed status) rather than by profession (an achieved status). And it is rightly so. After all, in a war, it matters very little if one is a merchant or a photographer. What seems to matter more is whether one is a soldier or a civilian, a hostile or a friendly, a casualty or a survivor.
Just the way one stops being a child once one loses one’s parent(s), war makes everybody old enough to die; to kill or be killed. “… We drink, we fuck, we smoke. Nobody is too young to be doing anything here. There is a war. Nobody is too young to die, or kill…” Pp. 12.
“Nobody survives here…” Pp. 13.
By the end of the story, even our photographer who is not shot by the soldiers because he is protected by the Geneva Conventions dies a different death. Hear the freelance photographer: “But the war had… made me an unwilling participant with blood on my hands and mind…” (Pp.15). John Pepper Clark hits it at the head when he says “The casualties are not only those who are dead”.
I like how some of the stories seem to blend For example, it is easy (and perhaps rightly so) to assume that Welcome to Hell (Pp.16) is a continuation of the previous story; that The Dying of an Itinerant Madman (Pp. 69) is a continuation of The Cost of Dying (Pp. 54) or of Stripped (Pp. 60).
Reading SMITHEREENS OF DEATH comes at a price. There is that risk of being infected with paranoia. There is the risk of sinking into introspection. You begin to wonder if you too are not dead; if you haven’t died long before now; if you are not heading towards imminent death whether in body or mind. Why not, when you read of a woman betrayed by her ‘best friend’ to the latter’s ‘babalawo’ who ends up playing with the woman’s breasts and mind (The Fly, Pp. 36)? Why not, when you read about the weirdo who butchers her husband and cooks him up for the pigs (Enough, Pp. 51)?
Some of the stories in this collection appear so dramatic they begin to border towards the fantastical. Take, for instance, The Cost of Dying (Pp. 54) where a bereaved discusses his family matters with a strange kid, endures the boy’s rudeness and still affords the luxury of engaging the boy in intellectual discourse to the point of quoting Emily Dickenson. Granted, grief does strange things to the human mind. Who doesn’t remember Hamlet talking to a skull? Who hasn’t read of prisoners keeping, and talking to, insects? It is most probable that Olubunmi Familoni employs this style to reveal more of the background stories to the reader. And if that is the case, it appears to have been successful.
This book is full of intellectuals who know philosophy and literature and poetry and chivalry. You wow at the pair of scavengers (Stripped, Pp. 60) each of which thinks the other should have been a writer owing to his high imaginative skills. Somehow, I feel that this story would have tasted better if it had been told by a third person or even in the past tense to indicate that the persona is recounting his ordeal after his senses return to him as with the biblical King Nebuchadnezzar.
You encounter more intellectuals in The Colour of Darkness (Pp. 61). You cannot help but be struck by a strange admiration for Mma-Mma who saves Helmet’s life twice and finally gets to die in a position she loathes the more, lying on her back. Strange admiration because you would expect and elderly invalid to be more humane than Mma-Mma who indulges Helmet’s gory stories of killings and the strategies he employs in executing his targets. It is the same strange admiration you have for the lame woman in the movie Wild Target, who admonishes her son to take his hitman job more seriously.
Mma-Mma and Helmet “would talk for hours into the night, through the day; he would read to her- Freud, Pope- unknown men; she would cook for him- lafun, ojojo, agidi- local delicacies… and he would silkily segue into the latest poem he had written. She loved his poetry. She would shut her eyelids and savour the full, sonorous sound of his voice, a voice that belonged in a symphony orchestra.” Pp. 66
Mma-Mma’s stony-heartedness reminds you of the notorious Miss Havisham in Charles Dickens’ Great Expectation. And interestingly, the two women have few things in common: they’re both lonely, they’re both infirm and they have queer taste.
The book also takes a shot at religiosity, both the hypocritical aspect of it as in The Quest for Sin (Pp. 71) and the genuine but naïve aspect of it as in A Master of Himself (Pp. 92).
There is no talk of what happens to the people after death. All their sorrows and worries seem to expire with their last breath. There is no thought of heaven or hell or purgatory. In this book there are no happy endings. There are no saints. Even the most passive character is complicit in one way or another to the gloom and tragedy that plagues the world. There are no victors. Every character, even the most irrelevant, is left with emotional and psychological scars.
Even though SMITHEREENS OF DEATH is rife with horrendous deaths, it is such deaths like Sniffs’ whose corpse still maintains his signature smirk (Pp. 62), and Mma-Mma’s which she embraces with peace (Pp. 68) that strikes us the most.