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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Sympathetic Undertaker

'Biyi Bandele-Thomas

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To purchase The Sympathetic Undertaker

Title: The Sympathetic Undertaker
Author: 'Biyi Bandele-Thomas
Genre: Novel
Written: 1991
Length: 201 pages
Availability: The Sympathetic Undertaker - US
The Sympathetic Undertaker - UK
The Sympathetic Undertaker - Canada
Kerosin Mangos - Deutschland
  • and Other Dreams

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Our Assessment:

B+ : rambling and scattered but enjoyable satire

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Wasafiri . Spring/1992 Femi Abodunrin
World Lit. Today . Spring/1994 James Gibbs

  From the Reviews:
  • "Bandele-Thomas (...) writes with wit, verve, and energy. He mingles standard English with dialogue in pidgin and American usages, exercising the kind of freedom that characterizes the most confident of Nigerian authors and of those who write for radio. He is a storyteller with the ability to hold his audience's attention, whether it be with a nightmare vision of justice, an account of the deeds of the wild soldiery, or episodes from his protagonist's school and university days." - James gibbs, World Literature Today

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Sympathetic Undertaker and Other Dreams begins when the unnamed narrator's mother announces that his brother, Rayo, has gone well and truly insane. It comes as no great surprise: "Rayo had always been a strange one." Indeed:

(H)e had always been a loony, always lived in a dream world. He created lies and lived in a delirium of floating ghosts and pissed out prophets.
       The narrator recounts much of Rayo's life. The younger brother, by a year, Rayo is exceptionally intelligent and was promoted to the same class as his brother. They shared the experience of school life, with Rayo, always seeking justice (in a nation where injustice prevails at all levels), getting into considerable trouble . "He had too many ideas for a person of his size", his brother complains. Likely, he had too many ideas for a person of any size.
       The horrors of school are well-described, but diminutive Rayo navigates them better than most. He even sees to it that the worst of the school bullies -- and later even the principal of St Peter's High -- get what they deserve, exacting some small measure of vengeance (while also accepting responsibility).
       Later, at university, the powers are more indomitable, and the completely corrupt and violent government system which Rayo also attacks easily brushes off his flailing assaults.
       The book begins as fairly straightforward narrative, the narrator recounting Rayo's (and to some extent his own) life story. Tangential stories spin off -- from brief (and naughtily amusing) excerpts from sex comics that the bully, Toshiba, cherishes as his bible to chapters giving Rayo's own notes to a longer story of Rayo's invention, about a typical African dictator of the time (set in the fictional country of Zowabia), to the story of another man, Sosoman, who escaped the wrath of a rabble of murderous soldiers by feigning madness.
       Madness plays a role from beginning to end. Insanity is not uncommon -- not surprisingly, as daily life in this Nigeria makes little sense. The corrupt and brutal regimes, the arbitrary violence, different standards and rules for different people: nothing is sensible. "This sanity is driving me crazy", the narrator whispers to his brothers, meaning the unfair, irrational, and illogical state of affairs that passes for sanity. He isn't the only one who feels that way.
       In Rayo's notes similar words can also be found: "This sanity really is sending me zany." Indeed, Rayo succumbs to the realities that he can't change -- though he certainly tries to set some of the wrongs right. But the Nigerian wrongs aren't easily set right, as Sosoman's tale of wanton violence shows. Rayo is fairly easily broken by the regime when he is arrested.
       Rayo also tries, unsuccessfully, to commit suicide, but he fails in that escape attempt. But madness itself seems to have taken root, perhaps the only out. More than once in the book the only way for a sane man to save himself in these insane times is to act insanely.
       Bandele-Thomas' novel tries many things, telling a number of stories, veering off in different directions. The stories -- the episodes -- he recounts, from visits to the doctor to the schoolboy pranks to the story of how Sosoman came to his name are very well done, entertaining and humorous -- and poignant without ever being maudlin.
       There are also harsher critiques of the regime, and descriptions of university life and what happens to dissenters, and Bandele-Thomas treads a bit more warily here. Tere -- a girlfriend to both Rayo and his brother -- is a recurring figure who is also broken by the corrupt system which she had tried to use to her own advantage, and her story is quite well done as well.
       Rayo's story-within-the-story of Zowabia and its ultra-corrupt president is also a very amusing satire. The president's philosophy seems typical of the many dictators that have helped ruin so much of Africa:
(T)he name of the game is power. And power is no game. It's a war in which all rules are thrown overboard. If you can't win fair, why not win foul ? Winning is the name of the game. Hit below the belt. Stab them in the back. Shoot first -- and be ready to shoot again after apologizing. Then, my dear, and only then, might you be on the way to making your first million.
       The sight of the president breaking out into spontaneous song, cheerfully singing: "Oh how I wish / I were Idi Amin", seems only too believable, as do other scenes from the invented troubled land. But the insanity Rayo imagines seems barely more than a reflection of the reality of Nigeria around him.
       At the end, the book turns on itself with a vaguely clever (though not completely surprising) twist. It's a bit forced, but it works well enough -- and is certainly appropriate.
       Bandele-Thomas tries a great deal in the book, packing a lot into it, veering between outright satire and realism. It's not a very balanced book, but given the deranged circumstances described that is certainly acceptable. His writing is solid throughout. He rarely overextends himself, and some of the episodes are very well done (and some are hilarious as well). An entertaining, enjoyable, and both touching and biting novel of Nigerian anno 1991. Worthwhile.

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'Biyi Bandele-Thomas: Other books by 'Biyi Bandele-Thomas under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of books relating to Africa under review

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About the Author:

       Nigerian author 'Biyi Bandele-Thomas lived 1967 to 2022. He has written several acclaimed plays and novels.

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