On page 27 of The Fire Festival, you find the words that capture most succinctly the achingly dark, near-apocalyptic theme that suffuses much of Isioma Kasim’s offering. In a melancholy lament, Eno, the protagonist, muses: “All I have known and held in concrete grasp is frustration and rot and death and destruction.” The reader’s heart almost immediately bleeds. His lachrymal glands are near bursting point as he navigates the contours of the rest of the narrative.
Now a work like that, ordinarily, may not be meant for the faint of heart. But as a novelist, Kasim has a gift rarely seen these days among whole constellation of writers of that variety. His ability to dramatize the emotions and inner workings and the metaphysical world of his characters, not the least of whom is Eno, is so irresistible as to deserve to be termed genius.
Armed with a probing intellect and an insatiable hunger for answers to things that befuddle his mind, Eno is a cynic who questions the purpose of his existence on account of the multiplicity of problems around him. You can’t blame him that much for that, and here’s why: for Eno is an unfortunate product of a vicious rape of an innocent woman by a man steeped in evil. Once born, Eno becomes a reject of society, the evil child who no sane or normal being wants to touch even with a ten-foot pole. Judging by the totally unkind manner of his treatment by many of those around him, including his uncle who brought him into his household after the death of Eno’s parents, it must come as a shocker to the reader that Eno’s life was spared in the first place. If Eno is a Dante, then the world in which he lives is a veritable raging inferno indeed. It is then understandable why the author finds ready recourse in the deployment of fire as the all-pervading metaphor in his narrative, fire both as a searing agent and as a purifier. In a similar vein, the lack of water in the streets resulting in its fruitless search, only intensifies the gloom around Eno.
Although imbued with a strength of character and staying power — probably one of his secrets of survival — Eno, here and there, runs into good luck by finding someone to shore him up emotionally and spiritually, and among this group you find his grandmother who played a major role in his survival as a child, the minstrel into whose care grandmother entrusted Eno, the old woman who was later demonized as a witch. Later on in the novel, you also have coming to his rescue, sort of, such characters as Toju, his detention in-mate at the Republic of Ganchi, a purgatory populated by deadly vermin, Socrates, the philosophy lecturer at the university and Eno’s mentor at the Reformer’s Academy, the study group inside the university; and finally, Julia, a classmate with whom he later falls in love. Except Toju who he leaves behind at the detention after finally regaining his freedom, all of these “protectors” die suddenly leaving him out on a limb. Most curiously and sadly, Socrates and Julia are murdered cold-bloodedly.
Strong as he is, Eno is human after all. The sad happenings drive him disconsolately into insanity, earning him a bed at the psychiatric unit twice in the novel. All through, you see the protagonist’s love of social struggle and a predilection for the philosopher’s larger life of the mind. Eno is as much at home with the teachings of the Bible as he is with the metaphysical worlds of Nietzsche and Socrates the Original. Is the author channeling some of his thoughts through the protagonist then? Maybe yes, maybe no. But as authors, aspects of our lives do sometimes seep, if not bleed profusely at best, into our narratives.
Overall, Kasim is a highly readable writer. He reminds you of Thomas De Quincey. There is the poet in him, and there is the prose merchant in him as well. In the Fire Festival, both intersect as each jostles for supremacy over the other. My library is so much the richer for it. Everyone should go and get a copy.