Their sister who remains home is seized by the fear that she will die of hunger since the food reserves are getting depleted. Dunka is turned into a prisoner in the home of the family he thought a cure lies
By Olukorede Yishau
Umar Turaki’s novel, ‘Such A Beautiful Thing To Behold’, reminds me so much of those early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, those days when farmers couldn’t farm, those days drivers couldn’t drive, those days friends couldn’t hug, those days Mecca was closed to pilgrimage, those days the world went on holiday. The novel will amaze and excite you in equal measures.
Unlike the COVID-19, what afflicted the people Turaki wrote about is called Grey, and it is an epidemic because it affects a town. Grey holds it by the jugular and is draining the blood of its inhabitants.
Nothing warned the people of Pilam that a strange sickness was about to unfurl across their lives with impunity. They were a happy people until Grey put things asunder, fell things apart and compelled the centre not to hold.
The sickness has no seeming cause, or remedy. It makes it difficult seeing colour again. It makes everything drab and leaden, like black-and-white films. It makes people kill themselves with knives, ropes, just anything capable of taking life. Wrists are slashed, rat poison is consumed and so on.
Corpses litter forests and birds and the weather makes faces indistinguishable.
Men are forced to form groups to sneak across the barricade in search of food for their families.
Some go looking for missing loved ones only to get missing too. Fathers and mothers go in search of each other and fail to return. Only children are immune from the disease.
Neighboring communities are scared and frown against people from Pilam escaping.
When the residents realise that their village is the sole site of the epidemic, many try to leave but they meet a wall of soldiers sent by the government. Those who dare to ignore the commanding officer’s instructions to turn back are massacred.
Borders are fortified to keep them enclosed. But since water always finds its level, three siblings, Dunka, Panmun and Panshak find their way out of death’s enclave. Their youngest sister, Rit, however, refuses to flee. The plague has killed their parents and their fates hang in the balance. Running, they believe, will save them.
When Panshak flees, he finds himself in an orphanage run by a woman with so many myths woven around her life. One day she is killed by a boy she took like her own. The boy assumes leadership of the home, allows the children to eat whatever they want and roam. While out one day, they attack a vehicle conveying a man and a lady. The lady is Panmun, the man is Zumji, her lover whose child she is carrying. They escape the bows, arrows, rocks and other weapons aimed at them. Panshak, though a part of the mob, is only its leader’s reluctant photographer.
Dunka’s first move on escaping is to try a woman he is told could have a cure for Grey, but he meets a brick wall.
Away from home, the siblings face challenges. Their sister who remains home is seized by the fear that she will die of hunger since the food reserves are getting depleted. Dunka is turned into a prisoner in the home of the family he thought a cure lies. Panshak incurs the wrath of the new boss of the orphanage who never tires of threatening to kill him among many other challenges. Panmun, though in the company of the love of her life, is not having things easy. For all of them, leaving home seems not to have brought the succour they expect and they long for one another. But turning back is a decision beyond them. So, they soldier on for as long as possible.
The tale assumes a jungle mien in many respects with outright murder becoming survival tactics.
The story is rendered in third person narration but from multiple points of view. There are instances where the narration is presented from the perspectives of more than one character. This gives the sides to unfolding events without being unnecessarily repetitive.
Turaki has a way with words, as though they are jets he is using to fly his audience to a new world. See this superb descriptive writing: “Dunka retrieved an old, faded wrapper from Nana Ritdirnen’s room and covered her with it. He laid her in the hole and filled it with the hard, caked earth. Then he sat in their living room, tired all the way through, and waited for Panmun to come in. If there was going to be any righting of things, if they were all going to learn to live together as a household, then he needed her.”
And here is another juicy description that sings harmonious tones: “After the massacre, the people had become even more determined. They tried back roads and mountain passes; they tried the expanse of wilderness that stretched on and on to the setting sun. At every turn, they found a well-guarded military installation. They sneaked and fought and snarled and raged, until at last, it dawned on them that there was no escape from the quarantine. Defeated and exhausted, their spirits broken, the people of Pilam resigned themselves to apathy. Eventually, the major roads that led into Pilam were permanently blocked. Leadership groups of neighboring settlements took over from the military and erected obscene boundary fences, further hemming in Pilam and its inexplicable pestilence.”
The landscape is rhythmically presented such that we are dazzled in scene after scene.
With a prose style that hums repeatedly, Turaki has given us an important book, one which makes us reconsider our humanity, one which makes us wonder why governments sometimes turn against the people, one which shows us unbreakable siblings’ bond and offers us deep insights into human nature. It also offers lessons in survival and resilience.
The characters’ courage, tenderness and vulnerability allow the author to succeed in making a tale so grim both beautiful and stunning.
My final take: In any situation, unity and love have a way of bringing out the best in humanity. Hatred and disunity, on the other hand, bring out the worst in humanity. The choice is ours.
▪︎Yishau is a newspaper columnist and author.