The Road to the Country by Chigozie Obioma review – a brutal journey

<span>Igbo refugees after the collapse of Biafra in 1970.</span><span>Photograph: Rolls Press/Popperfoto/Getty Images</span>
Igbo refugees after the collapse of Biafra in 1970.Photograph: Rolls Press/Popperfoto/Getty Images

‘This war has not merely grown out of the dark desires of evil men who had set upon their Igbo neighbours in the north, killing and wreaking destruction,” thinks Kunle, the protagonist of Chigozie Obioma’s third novel The Road to the Country. “Instead, it seems the war sprangled out of the natural soil of society and has been growing for many thousands of years in the blood of mankind itself.” He is trying to make sense of the seemingly senseless onslaught of violence in which he finds himself trapped, conscripted into a war he has no desire to fight.

“All wars are fought twice,” wrote Viet Thanh Nguyen. “The first time on the battlefield, the second time in memory.” War has always produced literature; rarely, though, is the response immediate. In the wake of a civil conflict, especially, the proximity in which perpetrators of violence and victims, winners and losers are forced to live can result in an enforced silence. Twelve years after the end of the Nigerian civil war in 1970, Buchi Emecheta, an Igbo woman, published her response, Destination Biafra. The grandfather of Nigerian letters Chinua Achebe’s memoir of the time, There Was a Country, did not reach the public until 2012.

Sometimes a later generation reckons with the aftermath of conflict. These are the writers critic Parul Sehgal has called “midnight’s grandchildren”: those who did not experience the conflict – in this case Partition – first-hand but who live in its traumatic aftermath. In Spain, Javier Cercas’s 2001 novel Soldiers of Salamis galvanised a national debate about how the Spanish civil war should be commemorated. Today a younger generation of writers have turned their attention to Biafra, producing works including Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun, Chinelo Okparanta’s Under the Udala Tree and Emmanuel Iduma’s genre-bending I Am Still With You. Now there is Obioma’s The Road to the Country.

The Biafran conflict ignited in 1967. It was fought between the Nigerian government and the secessionist state of Biafra, triggered by a declaration of independence by the Igbo-dominated region. Britain supported the government. However, news reports of starvation in Biafra, under blockade by the government, provoked public outrage. The war ended with the defeat of Biafra. By then up to 3 million people, mostly Biafrans, had died from starvation, disease and violence.

In the opening pages of The Road to the Country a young student, Kunle, who holds himself responsible for the accident that crippled his younger brother Tunde, buries himself in his studies. So much so, that he fails to hear about the start of the war. On returning home he discovers that Tunde has disappeared into the land now known as Biafra. Kunle determines to bring his estranged brother back home; however, he is soon captured by Biafran soldiers. Their commander, on learning that Kunle’s mother is an Igbo, instead of ordering his execution offers him the chance to fight.

With its many scenes of battles and shocking violence, The Road to the Country is not for the faint-hearted

Obioma’s previous novels, 2015’s The Fishermen and 2019’s An Orchestra of Minorities, were both shortlisted for the Booker prize. The latter, set in Nigeria and Europe, is a modern twist on the Odyssey, telling the story of a poultry farmer’s journey home from a distant land. In a similar vein, Kunle must navigate his way through a war zone in order to reach his goal. In the process he fights battles, is wounded more than once, comes close to death, is blown up and falls in love. The story perhaps bears a closer relation to the legend of Castor and Pollux, in which Pollux undertakes a journey into the underworld to bring back his brother in a quest for redemption and to seek to restore the sibling bond.

At first Kunle thinks only of escape, but gradually, as he befriends those he fights alongside, he gives himself over to the Biafran cause – or at least to loyalty to his comrades. Kunle’s story is interspersed with scenes that predate his birth, in which a seer observes visions of Kunle’s future and the coming war. Will he somehow succeed, or succumb?

With its many scenes of battles and shocking violence, the book is not for the faint-hearted. Large-scale action scenes are notoriously hard to write and Obioma’s skills sometimes fall short of his ambitions. Conversely, his descriptions of the “terrible beauty of the freshly dead” in the aftermath of battle are compelling. “The dead lay there in quiet mass – bodies curled into themselves, the dark ink of their fatal injuries upon their uniforms. A soldier lay with his torso bowed over the torn branch of a tree as if hugging it, his back soaked in blood. Beside his body lay that of a young man with a handsome face whose lips were turned up as if smiling.”

Obioma recounts the unrelenting gruesomeness of war, never from a detached distance: the shitting, pissing and vomiting; wounded soldiers abandoned to their fate in the path of advancing federal troops as their would-be rescuers swim to safety across a river; the amputee who hangs himself from a goalpost outside a hospital; the pilot plummeting from a burning helicopter.

At other times the writing is uneven and would have benefited from more assiduous editing. Twice the author describes a character anachronistically “processing” an event or information, a word that only came into use a decade or so ago. Other sentences feel hastily written: “they find a house, half of which has been damaged into a pile of rubble”. “Felix’s face twists as if coated with something deformed.”

As Kunle’s story gathers pace, Obioma’s writing becomes more streamlined. At one point Kunle comes close to death and enters the underworld, where he meets the newly dead, including civilians, rape victims, men shot as deserters and, for the first time, federal soldiers. All are victims of the same war. It is a risky strategy, but ultimately moving. These are the literal voiceless, those millions of dead whose stories go untold and unheard.

It is not clear what to take from the book, except that war is brutal. The reader is left with a feeling of pain for the lives wantonly destroyed, for mothers and fathers bereft of sons and daughters, for a country still healing more than 50 years later. The Road to the Country is a literary quest, the hope being that fictional invention will be more convincing than any history book, a vital part of the attempt to keep the past as living memory. In this, Obioma has succeeded masterfully.

• The Road to the Country by Chigozie Obioma is published by Hutchinson Heinemann (£16.99). To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at Delivery charges may apply.