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Best of the Web: “The Harbinger”

10 Dec

One of the only friends I have that ever went to war went crazy, went AWOL, and went to Morocco. My father, like many pacifists of his generation, tried to avoid Vietnam at all costs. He faked a hearing exam. He complained of flat feet. He deferred three times for school and work. When they wouldn’t issue him any more deferments, he and a friend almost started a Yeshiva because students of the clergy were exempt from service. It was either that or fleeing to Canada or Israel. Luckily, he never had to make that decision. The draft ended a few weeks before the date on his induction notice.

Many of us in the United States are able to physically avoid the throes of war. We hear about it only on the television—wars in countries with dust and elusive enemies and temperatures that could slow-roast a turkey. We rarely see attacks on our home turf. Since Vietnam, it has been possible to live in this country and avoid war entirely. And while many men and women serve in the armed forces, there are many more, like myself, who follow the news, but who have little, if any, ties to military combat. There are many who do not have a loved one in the service, who do not fear that every time the phone rings, a parent or sibling or child has died.

The characters in this week’s “Best of the Web” selection, “The Harbinger,” by Toni Kan and published by AGNI, don’t have the luxury of avoiding war. The story centers around Imoh, a teenager transitioning into adulthood as his elder father departs for a war that has ravaged many men in his small Nigerian village. There are no bombs exploding on the page, but the fear and loneliness the men leave in their wake is palpable. Immediately after Imoh’s father’s departure, Imoh’s mother begins to mourn the death of her husband, and how can one blame her? A shadowy man, known only as the Harbinger, wanders the village daily delivering news of war casualties. He’s the one trained to provide comfort and support for grieving families. He’s the one that women and children pray will not stop in front of their house. He’s the one who, with a few surprising turns, becomes the catalyst that catapults this story in a new and haunting direction.

Kan’s story is a devastating exploration of honor, love, and the desperation of a family during a time of war. It’s told lyrically, in dreamlike sentences that pull you in from the first line. There are stories we like, stories we love, and stories that change us. Go read “The Harbinger.” You’ll feel different after doing so. Something in your heart or consciousness or stomach will, like it or not, change.

3 Responses to “Best of the Web: “The Harbinger””

  1. Eghosa Imasuen 11. Dec, 2010 at 12:51 am #

    Very good review; thanks for drawing the world’s eyes to this piece. Although my understanding was that The Harbinger was set in an army barracks, and the harbinger is one of those army guys, wadya call them? Bad News Bearers. The guys who do Death Notifications. It is not set in a village. Nigeria has never had the draft; the soldiers in the story joined the army of their own free will; but cannot leave it, cannot control where this army sends them to die. The opening sequence in the story–where the bad news bearer drives up a street and everyone holds their breath (all the houses in the barracks were lived-in by soldiers, soldiers absent)–played out in every Nigerian Army barracks throughout the Eighties and Nineties when our dictators were preoccupied with bleeding our boys to peace-enforce the region (West Africa, and Nigeria didn’t do peace keeping, we jumped into the fray and beat the belligerents,) and provide democracy for our smaller neighbours–a sad irony; we had to wait for the last of these dictators to die before we had our own democracy. This slow-burning, long-drawn-out tragedy was never in the news, was never on the front burner, we never watched it on the network news. We lost a generation of our fighters, our warriors, and we didn’t mourn for them. Our soldiers are praised with bringing sanity to countries like Sierra Leone, Liberia. Two days before the events depicted in Black Hawk Down, set in ’93, 19 of our soldiers were ambushed and killed in Somalia, but we stayed behind, and bled some more, a futile effort–the last were pulled out after General Abacha died in 1998. We never had a choice in where our boys were sent; they never had a choice. So be clear about this: it is not an African tribal story, it is not set in a village. It is an urban story set in an unfamiliar country. It is closer to your experience than you think.
    So that’s the story background as I see it; maybe my vantage point as a Nigerian who grew up in the times depicted affords me this luxury. And I hope my comments have made clear what may have set off the story.

  2. Adeena Reitberger 11. Dec, 2010 at 2:17 pm #

    Thank you so much for your comments. I certainly didn’t mean to imply that the story was set in some primitive or tribal area. By “village” I meant that I understood the residents to be part of a small, tightly knit community. I don’t pretend to be an expert on the region or its political history however, and your first-hand insights bring the emotional weight of Kan’s story into even sharper focus. Thank you again for reading and taking the time to share your thoughts.

  3. Michelle D. Keyes 18. Dec, 2010 at 2:00 pm #

    I can definitely understand how this story has received such a response. Riveting, heart-wrenching with a smooth pacing that rushes to an electric finish like static that strikes so unexpectedly you can’t help but jump and cry out. I loved every word of it.

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