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The Future God of Love coverJamaaro is in a bind. As his town’s resident laboki, he has to compose and recount a new story every full moon to keep his community alive and healthy. His last great story, one of love and marriage, came to him many moons ago, transforming the fortunes of his town overnight and elevating him to the status of a living god—a future god of love!—famous and worshipped throughout the land, with a guaranteed spot in his people’s pantheon after his death. The only problem is that he hasn’t been able to craft a single good story since, and with the heightened expectations that attend a living god, the people grow restless as their town withers away from a lack of nourishment, forcing the elders to consider replacing him with another laboki. Then Jamaaro meets Nyalisa, a beguiling young woman who seems to know more about him than she is prepared to reveal. Nyalisa tantalizes him with the possibility of a different kind of life, one filled with happiness, love, and contentment—albeit at the cost of his artistic gifts and divinity—and he soon finds himself in the throes of a dangerous passion that sends him hurtling towards a conclusion at once bloody and beautiful.

Welcome to the world of African fantasy fabulism. Ugandan writer, filmmaker, and social activist Dilman Dila’s fifth book, The Future God of Love, is a punchy, quirky, and haunting romantic fantasy set in a magical world where spirits and demons live amicably (and sometimes not so amicably) with humans, where gifted storytellers can become gods, and where stories are a kind of resource essential for humankind’s survival. A tribute to the power of stories, songs, and art in general, and of oral storytelling traditions in particular, this is a deceptively simple tale about love that belies an underlying complexity, and which holds the reader spellbound right from its opening lines.

We first meet our protagonist, Jamaaro, brooding on the floor of his hut as he awaits his termination as laboki of Wendo town. In a world where “stories were spiritual food,” he has failed to give his people “any good story for the last thirty moons.” The town, after all, “needed a new story regularly, for stories kept darkness away, stories made them remember what life had been like yesterday, and to imagine what it would be like tomorrow.” Without new stories, the townsfolk:

survived on his old stories, eating and regurgitating and eating them in a desperate loop, but these could not give them new dreams. They supplemented this stale diet by borrowing stories from other towns, but to be happy they needed stories set in Wendo, with characters unique to their town. Without any new and good stories, the town would die … He was a future god, and this helped to keep the town alive for it made his stale stories palatable.

Unfortunately, Jamaaro has no new stories to tell as he is in the midst of a creative drought brought on by loneliness and depression.

Recalling his childhood as “a motherless boy who lived in a cave with a drunkard father” and with an elder brother “who killed himself because he could not afford dowry to marry,” Jamaaro slips down memory lane to relive his glory days as a young laboki who “became a future kwaro [a god] when he was still a boy.” His first story, “Children of the Wound,” which launched his career as bard and god, was composed and performed partly out of starvation, and partly out of the worry that “no woman would want to be his wife because he could not afford bridal wealth.” Likening wedding ceremonies to “slave markets,” “his performance captivated the entire market.” Augmented “with music and dance and animated images” as part of his audition for the role of laboki, “people began to dream of the world he had imagined. Within a few moons, bride price was outlawed and weddings ceased being markets.”

Alas, while “the universal success of the story secured him a high status as a kwaro of love,” Jamaaro remained loveless. People “would build shrines in his honour … worship him and ask him to bless their love affairs and their marriages,” but “his beards were going grey, his hair was thinning … his belly was growing bigger” and “he was a still a virgin.”

He had created a story that changed marriage, but he had never gotten married. He was a future god of love, but he had never known love. He wished success had come to him later in life, after his first taste of a woman’s love, but it had come so early, and it had made him arrogant. He was a future god and he needed a woman fit enough to be a goddess … to help him create better stories, to give him the emotional support he needed to create, to lift his spirit when he was low … He did not want a wife. He wanted a muse.

And then, as if on cue to answer his exacting expectations of womanhood, Nyalisa enters his life.

Witnessing her audition for the position—his position—of laboki causes Jamaaro to fall in love with her at first sight, and to revere her as a “goddess”—his goddess—for her “enchanting voice,” her smile that “set his blood on fire,” her “ghost of a moustache,” and her “single strand of hair growing out of her chin.” After an evening of drinking, she reveals that she came to his village to recruit him for a quest—to help her find a song that will transform her into an ancestral spirit.

Saving a spirit from death was a strong enough motivation, he thought. His characters would certainly go out of their way to make sure someone served as an ancestor.

And so they decide to elope. The action picks up shortly thereafter. While en route to meet her at their rendezvous point, Jamaaro sees Nyalisa frolicking with another man, and in a fit of anger and despair attempts suicide by crashing his “ornithopter” into a lake. Rescued by Nyalisa and taken to a “healing house” to recuperate, they agree to part ways, and a heartbroken Jamaaro becomes an itinerant laboki, taking up residence in a derelict town which had “died on failing to keep a good laboki,” and whose people visit a nearby town “to consume stories to sustain what was left of their miserable lives.”

Plagued with terrible dreams, relentless fantasies of Nyalisa, and his seemingly inescapable destiny as a god of love to “be alone in this life, and … even lonelier in the next,” Jamaaro sinks deeper into despair, and begins composing a song “with feverish desperation” to give voice to his inner misery. The song that takes shape begins to sound remarkably like the one Nyalisa originally charged him with finding, and he begins to question his sanity. Before he has a chance to complete it though, he is found and taken captive by agents of Boket, a once-legendary laboki “who was telling stories before Jamaaro’s grandfather was born,” now hovering in the mortal plane as a ghost whose presence brings prosperity to the town of Dokelo. It is Boket who reveals Nyalisa’s true nature to Jamaaro, discloses his own love for her, and describes the terrible fate that awaits Jamaaro—a fate which has befallen countless other labokis before him—if he continues to remain in love with her. Held captive by Boket’s scheming caretaker spirit, Jamaaro is commanded to draw images and compose songs that will attract Nyalisa to the town and make Boket happy. When she eventually does arrive, Jamaaro, torn between his love for her and his devotion to his craft and destiny as a future god of love, makes a fateful choice that forever seals his destiny.

Where to begin? In just ninety pages Dilman Dila has written a timeless novel about doomed love, using supple and evocative language in the style of Neil Gaiman, Kazuo Ishiguro, and Stefan Zweig, and featuring timeless themes reminiscent of Greek mythology and Shakespeare. The Future God of Love is an offbeat and entertaining read that most readers can knock back in a single afternoon. While on its surface it might appear to be about a gifted but unhappy musician who falls in love with a muse who inspires him to produce some of his best work—albeit at a terrible price—the true delights are to be found in examining the author’s clever use of language, setting, and character development to imbue profundity into what is otherwise a seemingly straightforward tale of love, loss, and longing.

The use of African-inspired words to indigenize and root the story in an African folk context is refreshing, given that the bulk of English-language fantasy fiction is still largely West-centric. All the characters in the novella are African-inspired, and while the story is written in English, it’s easy to imagine them conversing in a foreign language. Such is the nature of the tale that it would lose some of its narrative potency and impact were it to be rendered purely into English or another language, for the hybrid English-Africanized prose helps keep the reader off-kilter, with a sense of being caught in a liminal reality between worlds. While this might make it challenging for those unused to navigating foreign cultures, part of the pleasure—and the richness—is in trying to guess what all the words mean, since in some cases they are deliberately left unexplained to amplify the mystique of the tale. But it is in the setting that this mystique truly allures.

In Jamaaro’s world, stories are literally consumed—and need to keep being consumed—to keep communities alive and at a certain level of civilizational complexity and prosperity. Not only do bodies have to be kept nourished with food, but minds also have to be kept nourished with the right stories, making this a world whose inhabitants would fail to survive the harsher conditions of our own.

While stories can be made abundant, it appears metal is scarce, making it unclear how this society accomplished the feats of engineering and architectural progress that are alluded to throughout the novella. For in this fantasy version of Africa, everyone lives in small, technologically-advanced towns and villages staffed by resident caretaker spirits (or keepers) whose appearance serves as a visual yardstick for the settlement’s health and prosperity. And what settlements! Jamaaro’s hometown of Wendo, laid out in “a fractal pattern that imitated a flower with twelve petals,” with “streets … and huts … arranged to imitate flowers,” is comprised of collections of cylindrical huts with “cone-shaped roofs” arranged around “wang oo,” an “open space in the centre of the town, big enough to accommodate all of its seven thousand residents.” Dokelo town, on the other hand, is built along “a complex fractal design with bird motifs” to look like a collection of nests—with shimmering walls that “caught the reflection of the sky … giving them an illusion of paintings”, and secured behind a gate ornately sculpted to resemble a bird’s head. Managed by a resident keeper whose “teeth were made of gold,” Dokelo is the very picture of wealth and prosperity. Moreover, Jamaaro uses a “creation-table” to construct his stories, an “image-wheel” using “glow-in-the-dark stones” to illuminate them, and an “ice pot that made sweet and creamy baraf” (a kind of ice cream) to keep himself fuelled, all of whose (presumably complex) workings are never quite explained. Like his fellow residents, Jamaaro also travels around in a “bruka,” a type of “oval shaped” ornithopter with “thin bird-like legs and eagle-like wings sticking on its top” that requires peddling — Flintstones-style — to operate.

And yet, despite such impressive technology and ornate fractal, floral, and avian-inspired architecture, society appears to have progressed no further than feudalism. Towns are ruled over by a “rwot” living in a palace, governed by “elders” and marked by a wealth-based social hierarchy. Families practice equivalents of dowry, “cowrie shells” are used as currency, and electricity appears absent. No mention is made of any large-scale economy, trade or international relations, or even the existence of other nations, suggesting that this could either be a kind of Gandhian, anarcho-libertarian paradise composed of multiple, loosely-connected settlements, or … something else entirely. Perhaps the author is unwittingly making a statement that scientific and social progress can be uncoupled, or that it is possible to achieve such technological and architectural breakthroughs without relying on the exact science and engineering concepts that have been developed in our world. The lack of clarity adds to the mystery. Is this the remnant of a fallen civilization relying on scavenged technology to function? Or has this culture genuinely managed to find a way of advancing technologically while developing an alternate social arrangement?

More importantly, is it even magical at all? Because while the story and setting are presented in supernatural terms, it’s quite possible that this is just a perfectly normal world (ghosts and spirits aside) whose inhabitants interpret everything in magical terms. Consider the storytelling: we have only Jamaaro’s word that stories are a kind of “spiritual food.” Are we meant to take that literally, or as a metaphor? It could very well be that his world is similar to ours, except that the labokis are so gifted, and society has such a tightly-wound addiction to the oral storytelling tradition that well-crafted stories can have an instant socioeconomic effect, and the absence of stories can cause people to have “nightmares” and “blank sleeps with no dreams,” and produce a self-fulfilling phenomenon that feeds their addiction to stories.

Thus, while characters live in a physico-mechanical world that we would recognize, the clever use of neologisms with roots in oral culture and a minimalist approach to worldbuilding helps mask the novella’s reality, lending it an ethereal haze that disorients readers and suspends their disbelief. The sense of magic suffusing this world could just be an impression created in the reader’s mind by the way the tale is told—Jamaaro may actually have no special powers other than particularly compelling storytelling skills that move people to mass action overnight. Perhaps there’s nothing more magical about Jamaaro’s world than our own; it simply feels magical because the author has presented it through the lens of a semi-educated, largely traditional people who believe themselves to be living in a demon-haunted, spirit-filled world of magic and mystery.

Aside from its setting and language, however, it is the characters who form the luminous heart of the novella. Jamaaro is the most well-developed, even if the contrast between his public stature as “a future god of love” and his navel-gazing and dark intimations in private can, at times, feel contrived. A cross between Orpheus and Hamlet (with a dash of Howard Roark), he combines the musical gifts of the former with the immaturity, stubbornness, and roiling inner turmoil of the latter, presenting a tragically doomed figure in a Homeric or Shakespearean mould. However, what is open to interpretation is whether he is the protagonist or the antagonist, for while the reader might feel sorry for him in his loneliness, his isolation is also partly self-imposed, attributable to his impossibly high standards and expectations of life—and his unwillingness to compromise.

It isn’t just societies which are trapped by narratives, after all. Storytellers, too, may end up being trapped by the stories they tell themselves. Jamaaro frequently compares himself to characters from his own tales, and interprets his choices through the lens of what they might do. At times, his characters even take on a life of their own and speak through him, taking over his voice when his judgment and courage fail him. Torn between art and life, he internalizes the socially constructed myth that “a future god of love” will “give love, but never receive it,” and that he’ll “be alone in this life,” and so equates society’s expectations with his personal destiny to deny himself the possibility of imagining a life that might combine both godhood and happiness. As a character driven by his inner passions and love for high ideals, it might be that he is more in love with the idea of exalting himself as a future god of love than with Nyalisa, and so the only person he can really love is himself, with Nyalisa merely serving as a touchstone for his ego.

Jamaro has so convinced himself that the stories about Nyalisa and himself are true, and that the uncanny parallels between what the characters in his stories do and what she does are indicative of her intentions, that it becomes impossible for him to imagine events unfolding in any other way. Ultimately Jamaaro is more in thrall to the power of stories than to the power of love, and as the novel progresses it becomes clear that his obsession with stories ends up overpowering his love for her. As a prisoner of his own narrative, his obsession with a self-adopted story line essentially determines his fate. He may escape Nyalisa, but he is unable to escape himself, his imagination, or his circumstances. The stories he has fed himself have become an inextricable part of his mind and outlook, preventing him from deviating from a path of loneliness which he believes to be his destiny, and so it is by way of self-fulfillment that he ends up sealing his fate. That is the real tragedy here—that despite his immense imaginative powers, he is unable or unwilling to imagine a better future for himself by considering that perhaps something good might be happening to him, precisely because of his dull acceptance of the socially-constructed ‘destiny’ that comes with being a future god of love. His stories can move others to action, but not himself. By unconsciously following his story lines and limiting himself to what he thinks is possible within a storytelling paradigm, he dooms his destiny much earlier than he realizes.

Lastly, there is something sinister about a laboki’s ability to tell stories that “travel wide, rewriting histories” and “rewriting memories”—essentially the mutability of memories that Orwell warned us about. For storytelling, really, is a form of manipulation by way of telling tales, with the selective use of facts designed to tug at emotions. Stories can be potent in situations where emotion, not reason, is the catalyst for change. However, can deception, no matter how well-intentioned, ever be without its inherent risks? There is always, after all, the risk of the deception taking on a life of its own. As we’ve seen with the degradation of the media in our own world—where pure fact-based reporting gives way to emotive storytelling, and news becomes entertainment while the truth becomes a matter of perspective—the facts don’t matter as much as the story being told with them. What does that say about how much we value the truth? It makes one reconsider the role the media plays in serving as clearinghouse for ideas, and whether it is doing its job virtuously to help society and civilization advance to higher levels of complexity and refinement, or rather fueling their regression by amplifying underlying fissures and divisions.

That stories are the key driver of social change and sustenance in Jamaaro’s world illustrates the immense power concentrated in the hands of professional storytellers. What happens if a storyteller is crooked, or responds to an ignoble set of incentives? While Jamaaro tries to use his skills to bring progress to his society, influencing how people think and behave for what he deems to be good, what happens when the opposite is allowed to happen? How can society protect itself from crooked labokis? In the history of Jamaaro’s world, duelling labokis once broadcast competing stories, and in so doing caused chaos, civil war, and anarchy—a metaphor, perhaps, for the propaganda and fake news which seems to have infiltrated our world of late. But ultimately, society itself is to blame for allowing itself to be trapped in this particular model of story supply and demand: storytellers like Jamaaro, who have experienced pain and suffering, can periodically nudge society in the right direction with the right kinds of moving stories, but the risk of overreliance on passionate individuals is that society becomes subject to their whims, and by extension their motivations and inner turmoil, which in turn can lead to societies being trapped by the stories they repeatedly tell themselves—or which they allow others to tell about them. Dila’s novella might be a comment on our tendency to prefer stories over facts, on societies where persuasion is achieved mainly by appealing to emotions rather than reason, and in which the veracity of a story matters less than how luridly it is told. Stories which only seem convincing are still powerful, even if they’re only loosely true, or not true at all, because the truth of a story is not necessarily what motivates us to act on it.

Suffice to say, The Future God of Love is a novella rich in imagination, nuance, and complexity—one which captures the difficulties of navigating celebrity, creativity, and authenticity. With its exploration of love, imagination, and the power of myth-making, it serves as a meditation on the burden of fame and leadership, the god-like power of art to grant immortality, and the nature of creativity as a source of pain, escapism, and love. But more importantly, it suggests that we live in imagined realities (within imagined communities with imagined identities supported by imagined histories), and that everything we know or believe to be true is actually malleable, and can be reinvented with the willingness to tell new stories. We need not be trapped by the stories we tell ourselves, for we can always come up with better ones. A truly original story set in a world at once immersive, believable, and fun to be in, read it not just for the deceptively absorbing plot, nor the refreshing Africanized cultural context, nor even for the subtle social commentary—but for the fact that it effortlessly transports you to a world far, far away that nonetheless feels very close to home.

Prashanth Gopalan is a writer based in Toronto, Canada. His writings have previously appeared in the Huffington Post and other publications. He reviews science, speculative, and fantasy fiction works for a global audience.
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