Taduno’s Song by Odafe Atogun
Pantheon, 2017; 233 pp
Reviewed by Bobby Fischer
There are too many books that are reimaginings of old fairytales and not enough new fairytales. It’s a genre that has completely disappeared under an increasing need for postmodern irony and post-postmodern sincerity. There’s no room for macrosymbolism without a knowing wink from the author. So here comes Taduno’s Song by Odafe Atogun, set to right those wrongs.
Taduno’s Song is about the greatest musician in an unnamed African country (though the implication is Nigeria, both the homeland of Atogun and the protagonist’s inspiration, Fela Kuti), returning from exile with hopes to rescue his girlfriend, Lela, who has been kidnapped by the military police. Taduno’s name has been forgotten in the wake of his exile, the absence of his music invoking amnesia among even his closest friends. He’s lost his voice from multiple police beatings, so even in their presence he cannot create the songs that cause them to recognize him. It’s an interesting commentary here on the what-have-you-done-for-me-lately nature of being an artist, filtered through the fairytale lens of literalizing the metaphor. As an act of symbolism it is superficial, but as an act of plot it feeds the idea of a magical world that can be saved by song: it works. He’s given the opportunity to save Lela by creating musical propaganda praising the government’s tyranny, but cannot immediately capitalize on it because without his voice he is powerless to accept their offer. He must regain his voice to save Lela and the moral dilemma of using that voice to save her but to praise tyranny is what makes up the meat of the novel.
Atogun illustrates art’s role in politics and the CPR that it can provide to a suffocating society, but even in this starry-eyed view of the power of music there’s an appreciated recognition of the sacrifices that one has to make to administer such CPR. This is a breezy read, probably a little too long at only 233 pages, and otherwise faulted only by an ending that you can see a mile away. That horizon is the nature of fairytales, however, so it feels unfair to call this book out on it.