[Reading Room] Apollo by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

This story opens the 2016 edition of The Best American Short Stories, edited by Junot Diaz.

It begins with a man visiting his parents, where a chance comment sparks a memory from his childhood. It’s clear, as the story goes on, that the man regrets his action as a child, but the author manages to convey this without ever being as heavy-handed as to say so.

The Opening Line

The story opens with a line that tells us a lot and paints a vivid scene in delicate brush strokes.

Twice a month, like a dutiful son, I visited my parents in Enugu, in their small over furnished flat that grew dark in the afternoon.

Think about how much we know:

  • The son visits, but is only acting ‘like a dutiful son’. He doesn’t want to be there, but he goes, by rote, because that is what one must do.
  • “Enugu” tells us that where this story is taking place. Even if we don’t know where Enugu is (do you?) it tells us where it is NOT taking place.
  • “Small, over furnished flat” suggests that the parents have downsized after a retirement or other change of circumstances
  • “That grew dark in the afternoon” – the son is not happy with this place. It suggests to me that the parents once had a larger, lighter, more expansive home. The son feels claustrophobic in this new flat – how much of that is real and how much psychological, we can’t know yet, but it certainly introduces the concept straight away.

The second sentence begins

Retirement had changed them…

For me, as a reader, this pulls me in straight away. I know this is not going to be wholly a naval-gazing story about a middle aged man. It’s inviting me to ask questions: how has it changed them? How has/will retirement change me/my parents?

And the changes that the son chooses to focus on are interesting: his parents are more credulous than they used to be. Several times he insists “my parents would have scoffed at these stories”. It’s not clear where the story’s going, but the ‘first act’ of the story ends when a lurid story relayed by his parents bring up a former acquaintance — a servant or ‘house boy’ — from his childhood, who has got into trouble as an adult.

“…the ringleader was Raphael? He was our houseboy years ago, I don’t think you’ll remember him.”

I stared at my mother. “Raphael?”

“It’s not surprising he ended like this,” my father said. “He didn’t start well.”

My mind had been submerged in the foggy lull of my parents’ storytelling, and I struggled now with the sharp awakening of memory.

My mother said again, “You probably won’t remember him. There were so many of those houseboys. You were young.”

But I remembered. Of course I remembered Raphael.

And we’re off. Of COURSE we’re going to keep reading, because once again the writer has invited us to ask questions. Why does he remember Raphael? What went down between them? And what does it have to do with his later rabble-rousing?

The rest of the story recounts the narrator’s life as a twelve year old boy, the son of older, intellectual parents who could afford to have servants help raise him and tend the house.

But Aidiche doesn’t really tell the story. She paints it. We live through the boy’s obsession with Kung Fu; we feel the sanded down wood of the nunchucks Raphael makes for him out of old mop handles; we see a still-life of the ‘patient’s altar’ his parents make by his bed when he is sick (“orange Lucozade, a blue tin of glucose, and freshly peeled oranges on a plastic tray”)

And when the story ends, we know that the seeds of the man’s later regret are planted in the moment the twelve year olds. The author doesn’t have to beat us over the head with it.

This story is a wonderful example of how to infuse a moral message into a story without making it read like a fable. It also illustrates how to introduce readers to a different culture, without great sections of exposition, but rather through select details and dialect/language choices.