In his hand: a double-headed axe, its surface gleaming in the light of fire; thunderstone, sparkles of lightning caressing it, running fingers around it, pleasing it.
David Mogo is an ordinary Godhunter, scouring the streets of Lagos to find and capture stray gods in return for payment. For this is no ordinary Lagos: here, the city is populated by gods of all descriptions, who arrived there in an event known as the “Falling.” Now, they dominate one part of the city, which has become a no-go zone for humans. Mogo, a “demigod” of unknown descent, considers himself to be an ordinary guy, surviving in the new god-oriented economy by solving small problems, such as those caused by godlings stuck in water tanks.
But all that changes when Mogo accepts a lucrative assignment from Lukmon Ajala, a local Baálẹ̀, to capture two gods and bring them back to him. During the course of his assignment, Mogo realizes that there is more to it than meets the eye. Before he knows it, he is neck-deep into an ancient internecine struggle of the gods, a struggle whose consequences threaten to spill over into Lagos, and from there, into the rest of the world. It is a struggle that will envelop Mogo and those around him: Papa Udi, the old “divinery” (or “wizard”) who has brought him up, Taiwo and Kehinde, the twin gods he was supposed to hunt but who become allies, his absent god-mother (who turns out to be the goddess of war), and the women and men he meets along the way, struggling to survive in a god-besieged Lagos.
Suyi Davies Okungbowa’s debut novel takes us careening into contemporary Lagos, and the Yoruba pantheon. A blurb reference describes it as belonging to the “Nigerian Godpunk genre.” While the word “Godpunk” comes with its own historical baggage, it is perhaps a reasonable placeholder: Okungbowa writes in a gritty and fast-paced—but eloquent—register (people “cling to the shadows of the evening,” there is laughter like the “clatter of metal sheets in the wind,” and voices like a “whiff of black pepper in the air”); the story tracks the familiar theme of conflicting relationships between humans and deities on (primarily) human terrain; and finally, the conflict is (sought to be) resolved through a military confrontation, where god-powers clash spectacularly upon a human battlefield, in a war that is—quite literally—larger than life.
Beyond some of the overarching themes that place it within the “Godpunk” genre, however, what immediately stands out in David Mogo, Godhunter, is just how situated it is (“Growing up Nigerian, nights without lights are not new to me”). The novel is of the city of Lagos, much like Neverwhere (1996) is of the city of London, or Djinn City (2015) is of Dhaka. This doesn’t simply mean that the novel is set in the city; but rather, that the events of the novel are deeply entwined with the city’s geography (spatial, economic, and social) and daily life. Or, in other words, it is the city that gives the novel its identity, and it is impossible to imagine that novel set anywhere else. Okungbowa accomplishes this with a very rich visual—almost visceral—account of the locales of Lagos, from its lagoons to the airport (visual enough that I kept thinking, while reading, about how good a cinematic adaptation would look like!):
The smell of faeces in stagnant water is still there, overpowering. Papa Udi, Fatoumata, Femi and Shonuga cough and choke, wrapping their palms around their noses. Mosquitoes buzz around us. The familiar swish of lagoon water is a welcoming sound; I’ve missed it, holed up in that airport for months. I get a flash of Hafiz’s orange ankara cloth and Justice’s Pasuma Wonder t-shirt, and realise I’ve missed them too—I should stop by and greet them once we’re done here.
At the same time, however, these are unfamiliar locales. The colonial history of the world, and how we, its inhabitants, are given that world, ensures that (for example) to an Indian like me, the underground stations of Neverwhere will provide an immediate set of reference points. On the other hand, Lagos’s Third Mainland Bridge or the floating neighbourhood of Makoko (both of which constitute spectacular set pieces for some of the significant events of the novel) will not. Importantly, David Mogo, Godhunter elects not to give the reader those reference points: the reader is presumed to know of the Third Mainland Bridge or Makoko just as well as they know of Blackfriars or Islington; and she is presumed to know exactly what it means when the narrative voice wryly remarks, for example, that “trying to get the owners of divineries to band together for a common cause is like asking Hausa northerners and Igbo easterners to come together and eat from the same bowl.”
This is a risky authorial choice, but—I believe—a necessary one: because, if decolonisation is to mean anything, it must surely mean that books of London and of Lagos are read on their own terms, and there is no additional burden of translation upon the latter. In the end, the quality of Okungbowa’s writing, and the vividness of his descriptions make the problem of translation a moot one. Nonetheless, I did think—as I read the book alongside open Wikipedia links to Lagos’ geography—about the unfairness of a situation that requires a novel set in Lagos to either engage in geographic explanations, or be simply so good that the absence of explanation ceases to matter.
There is, of course, a similar issue when it comes to the gods themselves. “Godpunk” novels such as Neil Gaiman’s American Gods (2001), for example, or some of the works of James Lovegrove, are familiar and comforting in their pantheons, because familiarity with the Greek, Egyptian and Norse gods has become something of a lingua franca amidst the cosmopolitan, English-speaking population that constitutes English-language SF’s global constituency. Okungbowa’s Yoruba pantheon offers no similar comfort (in this respect, it is similar in some ways to Marlon James’ recent Black Leopard, Red Wolf ). We begin our acquaintances with Olorun the creator from scratch, Esu the trickster and the god of the crossroads, Ọya, goddess of the river, and many many more. The loss—as we soon realise—has been ours all this while, and there is something quite fascinating (and, dare I say it, magical) in watching a fresh pantheon unfold before your eyes, where the gods (in general) do not act in ways that you expect gods to act, and gods (in particular) come unburdened with the weight of far too many layers of prior, English-language interpretation:
The god’s signature flashes across my consciousness: the beauty of sunset and waterfalls; the smell of raw incense; the sound of water from a fountain; a bell pinging underwater; a chalice—big and beautiful and royal—made for wealth alone; wine, drunk from this chalice, the back of my tongue tasting of grapes, but also of fish; a bleak day of mist and fog, but which is really a dream; the cry of a big fish, calling to its mates underwater. I reach out, heady with nausea, pushing my godessence, asking the signature questions of its origin.
There may come a day, of course, when we know exactly what Olokun will do with water, what the “sponge ritual” really is, and why shigidis exist; perhaps, on that day, novels will be trying to disrupt those expectations, and that will perhaps be the day that SFF is truly decolonized; but until that time, we can perhaps only be grateful that there are worlds yet left to discover, and writers like Okungbowa to guide us through them.
Finally, David Mogo, Godhunter is not just about spectacularly choreographed battle scenes amidst the wreckage of the neighbourhoods of Lagos. It is also a bildungsroman, tracing the interior life of David Mogo from hesitant demigod and general chancer, to one of the protagonists of an epic struggle, suddenly faced with the prospect of bearing the moral and ethical weight of the consequences of his decisions. Through Mogo’s evolving interactions with the people around him, Okungbowa also has the opportunity to bring on to the stage a host of keenly-drawn characters (gods and humans both), forming a network of relationships that is explored by a sensitive—and loving—authorial eye. Perhaps most interestingly, however, Okungbowa chooses to give his villains good arguments as well; so at the end of the novel, there is just that hint of lingering doubt about whether we’ve really been rooting for the good guys all this while.
You couldn’t ask much more of this “Nigerian godpunk novel”!