American in Nigeria finds himself in the tree of life



Richard Wiley.


262 pages. $19. When the story begins, Jerry Neal learns that Nuradeen, one of his students, has stolen the toner for the school's copier machine. Soon Neal, principal of an international school in Nigeria, is falsely accused of setting fire to the Internal Affairs Building.

Important records are destroyed. The minister's secretary is burned, in critical condition. Neal is interrogated, unjustly imprisoned, and freed on his own recognizance. "I'm sure the worst is over," he tells his lawyer.

"No my friend," his lawyer assures him. "The worst is yet to come."

Richard Wiley's latest novel, "Indigo," proves the lawyer right. As the story develops, Jerry Neal is imprisoned, kidnapped and bewitched. He dies to self, descends into a kind of hell, is baptized by fire and by water, and is reborn.

"Should he [Neal] choose," Mr. Wiley writes in the book's first pages, "to mine the depths of his heart he was not sure what he would find there, or whether he would like what he found at all." When the novel ends, Neal has mined, more than mined, the depths of his heart.

Mr. Wiley, winner of the 1987 PEN/Faulkner Award for his novel "Soldiers in Hiding," writes a powerful story. Asked in an interview about writing, Mr. Wiley suggested the power behind his work: "Writing is my only connection to the gods," he said, "my only tap into the heart of things." For him, writing is not something to accomplish something else, he added. It is the thing, an end in itself.

"Indigo" looks into the heart of American educator, Jerry Neal. It filters crucial events of both the present and the past through Neal's gradually dawning consciousness. This adds tension to the novel. But it also makes the action, much of it dealing with the inner workings of Nigerian intrigue and politics, somewhat difficult to follow. The references to religious and tribal conflicts can also be confusing. This is a flaw in an otherwise flawless book.

The story begins in November 1983. A struggle exists between factions wanting a civilian government and those wanting military government. Jerry Neal is caught in the middle. Neal becomes involved through the charismatic leader, Beany Abubakar, Nuradeen's father. Mr. Wiley presents Abubakar as the savior of his country -- drawing extensive parallels between Abubakar and Christ.

Brimming with symbolism and evocative language, the book reads like a prose poem. The diction is tight; the themes repeated as if the story were a piece of music. The central image of the book, one that appears on the cover, is the tree of life. Neal looks at a carving of this tree, glistening yellow under a yellow sun, and believes that it depicts him, trying to climb to the top, to find the light.

The strength of the novel lies in its presentation of character. Mr. Wiley gets close to Neal, almost writing him from the inside out. Neal, a middle-aged man reminiscent of T. S. Eliot's character, J. Alfred Prufrock, has seen it all yet has seen nothing. He's settled in his ways. Then he's dropped into the Kafkaesque setting of Nigeria, in West Africa.

Here Neal falls in love twice. Abubakar's wife, Pamela, seduces Neal and starts him on his journey, which is really a journey into self. Later he meets Sondra, the colorblind artist.

Sondra sees only shades of indigo. She, however, sees indigo better than anyone alive. Indigo, she says, alluding to the title of this book, comes in all shades. There are light indigos, dark zTC indigos. Indigo has a life of its own. An indigo life, she adds, is the richest one.

Filled as it is with layers, textures, allusions, mysteries, Mr. Wiley's book is a metaphor for the human spirit. Neal struggles to free Nigeria and himself. The point, though, is not whether he frees either or both. The point is the struggle.

Ms. Scharper teaches writing at Towson State University.

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