(Edited and reworked for presentation by Su’eddie Vershima Agema)
I have taken liberties to change the language of this review for the purpose of presentation. Thus, if you find any flaw, blame not the brilliant scholar, Ekwuazi, but my inadequacies.
I start this review, as myself, Su’eddie Vershima Agema, editor and publisher of Deeper into the night. My brother, Gabriel and I, have had a long history with reading quality fiction and easily get bored with certain writers with predictable sociological pamphlets that they pose as serious literature. Indeed, some manuscripts have sent me sleeping. Working on Dul Johnson’s play, Melancholia and novel, Deeper into the night was a delight. There were a few hiccups here and there, plus small things to interrupt but overall, the satire in Melancholia, the drama of Deeper into the night, and the clever masterful use of dialogue in both made them most interesting and entertaining.
Skip Gates—I believe—says that, ‘Every work of art contains within it the argument for how it should be read’. I have always understood this to mean that whatever critical cannons we bring to bear on a work, such critical cannons must be sufficiently elastic to accommodate the peculiarities of the work. A second quotation to support this goes thus; ‘When a man finds scales on the floor, it is him that tells people what it is—whether it is a fish or bird or snake. These two illustrations best capture the subjectivity of criticism. Such subjective bias becomes valid only to the extent that they endeavour to query the peculiarities of a specific work under study.
Our subjective bias in this work, and what I consider the major theme of the work, is power. And it seems only right for we live in times of power—political power, ethnic power, religious power, you name it.
Deeper into the night is a tale of the Tarok people, a tale of trials, society, local colonialism, migrations, corruption, and most importantly, power. What this book is all about is fully captured in the blurb which I shall tweak a bit: ‘Mamzhi, one of the main characters in the book saves Gwangtim, his community, in a time of grave crisis to great admiration. Slowly, as happens in such situations, admiration turns into hero-worship by the villagers who are blind to the growing evils and vices that Mamzhi picks with his increasingly acquired power. The people notice his destructive nature near too late and every corrective measure falls short. Only one option remains and that is to take down the man who once took up the cause of the land. The hero becomes not just the villain the game to be hunted if there would be peace in the land. Deeper into the night is the chilling tale of a community taken captive by its own hero and the fight for its soul’.
The central issue here is power. Power is not neutral. Power cannot be neutral. By its very nature, power cannot but be ideological. Let us take a quick example from Chinua Achebe’s Arrow of God—which it is safe to assume we all have read; a work which, I dare say has become the cultural property of us all. Now, if Eze Ulu is a chief priest who leads his god Ulu to destroy itself then the obverse can also be canvassed: in which case, Ulu becomes the kind of god that leads a chief priest like Eze Ulu to destroy himself. So to say, they lead each other to destruction.
Back to our book, Deeper into the night. Power is at the centre of this lovely novel, notwithstanding whichever side of the coin comes up top at your toss: Power as an end in itself or power as the means to an end. In the end, we note, like Lord Acton, that ‘Power corrupts. Absolute power corrupts absolutely.’ This power-corruption conundrum is precisely what Dul Johnson has endeavoured to capture with the word ‘night’ in his title. The corruption is the night; the corruption is a darkness that eats all. I dare say that a look at a lot of politicians brings this to mind. But let us not deviate too soon.
Let us interrogate this power-corruption conundrum. This interrogation should prepare the ground for the question which we should ultimately seek an answer to. The question is simply this: in times like this, what is the relevance of a work like this?
The characters, their back story, the orientation of the entire story and the orchestration of the plot—all are pointed in one direction: the periscoping of power. Power here becomes a prism. What you make of power, what you perceive power to be, all this depends on which of the characters you happen to be focusing on. However, the story is such that from whichever character you happen to be focusing on, there is a trail, a dotted line, to three characters who are the major characters: Nimfa, Mamzhi and Alhaji Maiguguwa Nisa. In effect, the whole story becomes a game of chess involving these three—a game in which Nimfa aligns with Nisa or Mamzhi; and when Nisa is eliminated, Nimfa and Mamzhi have to confront each other. The consequence is a dialectic: the dialectics of power, so to say—the dialectics in which these three characters transform, respectively, into the complementarity of thesis, anti-thesis and the synthesis.
Nimfa straddles two worlds: the traditional and the modern. Taking advantage of the traditional world, he is able to achieve power in the modern world. In his unapologetic belief that the means or meanness—if you please—justifies the end, we see him moving in and out of any religion that helps or no longer helps him to consolidate his hold on power. So, he is likely to be a Christian today, a Muslim tomorrow or a traditional religious worshipper depending on what side power dances his way. Nisa is the invidious outsider who becomes a settler and uses religion to amass both spiritual and temporal powers over his host community. He is a settler who ultimately becomes a strong landlord. Mamzhi carries a large weight of destiny on his shoulders. Hamlet-like, he believes the world is out of joint and that he has been born to set it right. The Jos ethno-religious crises become for him a kind of blood bath. He emerges from it as a ruthless killing machine. He is the arrow head of the victory of Gwangtim over her otherwise implacable enemies….
I must confess, however, that for me, the most bothersome aspects of this novel centre on how this issue of power plays out—meaning, the story-events that have been woven around two of these tripodal characters. Of course, I have in mind Nisa and Mamzhi. Couldn’t more and more, and still more, story-events have been built around Alhaji Maiguguwa Nisa? Couldn’t such a build-up of story-events in that direction have transformed the work into a study in the never ceasing warfare between the settler and the indigene? Yes, Mamzhi is an odd-ball. Women and wealth simply do not matter to him. You find places in the novel where he blatantly has no regard for wealth. At another place, a woman is sent to seduce him but he sends her way. You wonder if this man is a lunatic. The question arises: why, then, is Gwangtim so pathologically afraid of him? Why must it eliminate him at all costs? Is it because of who he is or because of who he is likely to become? Perhaps, what we are dealing here with is an accident in the creative process. Perhaps, here is the proof that the old saying is really true: that all the writer does is create the characters—but the characters go in directions that are of their own choice. Most of us writers here know the feeling of how we start a creative journey with characters and plot in mind but somehow find them taking their turns on tourneys where we never envisaged. Perhaps, Dul’s characters found their way out of his hands too then? May be. Maybe not.
Without prejudice to the foregoing, I must remark that Deeper into the Night is easily that kind of novel that easily fits into the intersection of literature and history. The novel does grow in the reader the suspicion, amounting to a conviction, that Gwangtim is but the fictitious name for a town on the Plateau; and that the major characters, though fictitious, are but composites of historical personages. This, I suppose, is what the new historicism is all about: what Wolfrys has described as the historicity of texts and the textuality of history. What I understand this to mean is that it is permissible to fish for history in literature and to use literature to interpret history. To add more to this perhaps, we can draw on other works where we can easily draw some of our history; Chimamanda Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun comes quickest to mind here. [Just quickly, you may want to note Danmatsi’s statement to Nimfa: ‘If you have money and you want to buy a title, go to the South, especially the South East. There, you will get any title you want to buy. In fact, they will even turn your name into a title and then sell it to you.’]. In the final proportioning, a crucial part of the significance of this work must be deposed on this plane of historical relevance.
Deeper into the Night has two other distinguishing features that must be noted. At over 273 pages, it still manages to be highly elliptical. Even more striking, to me, is the writer’s ability to construct brilliant dialogues underneath which much, and I mean, very much, drama is building up and threatening to explode. One example should suffice here: the confrontation between Tyem Zhimak and Nisa at the latter’s arrival with his household, goods and chattel. It is an amazing passage where you find the brilliance of Dul’s dialogue. You have proverbs flying and a show of speech that would keep you entertained. I can’t readily tell how many times I have read this passage: the beauty is simply bewitching. The overall narrative technique is more or less like that. At any rate, the narrative is only slightly dented by authorial intrusions, here and there. You begin to wonder why the author did not hide under the guise of a character to put his thoughts. It is almost like he is forcing his way on the work.
Deeper into the night is a tale of many parts, themes and views. There is something somewhere for everyone. If you want to check for power, you have it fully; if you want love, you have it; if you want to learn about culture and religion, you have it there too; is it life, philosophy? Name it, you would find it. It is a truly entertaining novel and one that would remain in the thoughts of any reader who dares to surmount the original scare of the several pages that the book contains.
Indeed, the overall narrative technique is captivating. No where do we smell the midnight oil; nowhere does one find oneself groping with the writer for the right word, for the proper expression. The pace is sure footed, the story compelling. What more can anyone ask for, really? Take it for all in all, Dul Johnson’s Deeper into the Night is a significant novel—the kind of work that should endure long, long, after the din of its launching will have settled down. A review might be to praise an author especially on the day of the launch but I can promise you that this book is one that would leave you thinking, perhaps singing but one definitely worth your time, money and patience. If you think that I might be wrong, rise to the challenge and let’s see what you think. I wish you a most lovely read.
Thank you very much for your patience and kind attention.
This review was presented by Su’eddie Vershima Agema on the 28th October 2014 at the Official Book Presentation of Deeper into the Night and Melancholia.
 Su’eddie Vershima Agema is the Chairman, Association of Nigerian Authors (Benue State Chapter), editor, poet and publisher, SEVHAGE Publishers. http://sueddie.wordpress.com firstname.lastname@example.org @sueddieagema on Twitter