Thursday, February 26, 2009

Nigerian Graceland

I found out about Chris Abani's Graceland (2004) when I noticed my sixteen-year old niece reading it (she's plowing through cool books these days, glory be). I read African literature and Nigerian literature in particular (Nigeria has had a vibrant literary tradition for decades now), and I'm also interested in foreign writers' perspectives on North American culture (a la Murikami), so the novel appeared to be right up my alley and I immediately ordered a copy for the Stack.

It's a good novel, he's a good writer, he pulls you in and the novel reads very fast. He knows how to write for story, he's all action. There are all sorts of story lines lying around that lead off into interesting directions. Our young protagonist Elvis makes money by doing his Elvis Presley imitation at tourist spots around Lagos, in full King drag. Presley's music represents another world to him, although there are plenty of references to highlife, Fela, juju, jazz and more. This Nigerian cityscape is a worldly place. Bob Marley is likely to be playing on the radio, and when we meet Elvis he is dozing over a copy of Ellison's Invisible Man. But it's hard to be a smart kid growing up among the urban poor. A nice device is that Elvis speaks in educated English while everyone else has a pidgin patois ("Look at dis mad boy O!"). He's already an alien.

To a large extent this is not about his relationship to Nigeria so much as it is about his relationship to Lagos. After the death of his mother and the failure of his father, Sunday, as a politician, Sunday moved them from their small town to the city in hopes of better prospects. He has set up with another woman, Comfort (the name is ironic), who has three younger children of her own. She and Elvis cordially despise one another. Sunday has slid into alcoholism, a contemptible figure now to both Comfort and Elvis as he tries to cadge their money for the evening's supply of palm wine. Elvis has witnessed the sexual abuse of his cousin Efua by his uncle, but the adults tell him to be quiet about it. Now Efua has run off, and Elvis imagines that he spots her as he moves around the city. His Aunt Felicia, still a young woman herself, sexually toys with the adolescent Elvis. There is a colorful cast of characters as Elvis, through simple and spontaneous acts of kindness, befriends a number of older men in the neighborhood, running from the pious to the criminal.

All of this, as I said, presents a rich field of plot possibilities. But in the second half of the novel Abani leaves this carefully constructed world behind and moves in to polemic about the social ills of Nigeria (Abani, who now lives in Los Angeles, was subjected to torture himself after the publication of his first novel at age sixteen). Trying to find work through his older friends, Elvis wraps up drug packets to be swallowed by smuggling mules; he helps guard a group of kidnapped children who are to be sold to Saudis and slaughtered for their organs; he prostitutes himself to wealthy foreign women; he finds himself in the pay of a murderous army colonel who kills people for bumping into him. We get a tour of some of the worst criminal excesses of the Lagos underground, culminating in a graphic depiction of Elvis's torture when he is interrogated by the colonel who is looking for a social activist called The King. The result is an unfinished novel, I would say: the close detail of the first part is simply dropped in favor of a didactic screed.

One detail caught my attention. While driving through the night with some vicious criminals, Elvis notes that they enjoy running over dogs in the road. They hit so many dogs that they make a sport of it. Where I live in Puerto Rico there is a fairly high incidence of dead dogs in the road as well, along with stories about uncaring people who hit them deliberately. Abani thinks this is emblematic of something, and I think he's right. It's an allegory about post-colonial society. A regime that doesn't care about the welfare of the people develops a society without civic solidarity. Family, clan and other formations may summon loyalty, but if "the system" doesn't work for people there is no reason for them to follow its rules. The model from the top, after all, is cruel indifference and selfishness. And while both Nigeria and Puerto Rico have come a long way and enjoy good measures of cosmopolitanism and middle class culture, there is still a noticeable lack of the sense of contributing to the common good that is evident in countries with less difficult political histories (let's just say). Throwing trash out the window, disobeying traffic laws, running over stray dogs: these are expressions of "me first," quotidian acts on a continuum with dealing in drugs and slaves, and with politicians who are kleptocrats. This is the challenge of post-colonial societies: learning how to care.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Its' Name is Red

I didn't put Orhan Pamuk's My Name is Red (Turkish original, 1998; English translation by Erdag Goknar, 2001) in the Stack because of the amazing story of his being charged with "insulting Turkishness" in 2005 and of those charges being dropped in 2006 as Pamuk was unexpectedly awarded the Nobel Prize, largely on the basis of this book. I hadn't actually paid much attention to all that (and don't get me started on the Nobel Prize). No, it was because G. read it and liked it and as she described it to me it sounded like I'd like it too: strictly word of mouth. G. and I are book people and this is a book about books.

Specifically, it's about the fabulous illuminated manuscripts that were produced in the royal workshops of the Ottoman Sultan Murat III in the late 16th century, the twilight of a tradition of "miniaturists" producing treasures for patrons with roots in ancient China and Persia. It is a meticulously detailed historical drama about the life of these miniaturists, in the form of a murder mystery with much action and intrigue, combined with a sustained philosophical disquisition on the confrontation of this Islamic art tradition with the new naturalistic portraiture of Renaissance art from the West. These elements are woven together into a coherent piece of literature that is engrossing and masterful in several ways.

The charge of "insulting Turkishness" (granting it was provoked by Pamuk's comments about the Armenian genocide) is one of those inanities that only the truly ignorant can conjure (happens in the US all the time). The humane quality of life (family life, working life, religious life, social life) under the Muslim Ottoman Sultan is conveyed in an entirely persuasive manner (even as the routine official use of torture and execution is unflinchingly worked into the story). A deeply cultured Islamic society is portrayed where there is rich diversity, ample private life and yes, even good sex. The reader comes away with deepened respect for this 16th century world standing on the cusp of modernity (the action takes place in the 1590s, the time of Cervantes and Shakespeare).

In traditional Islamic art, portraying the world as it seen through one's own eyes was considered a blasphemy, as was naturalistic representation of specific individuals, as well as signing one's name to one's work. Art was for exalting the glory of God. Historical and Koranic scenes were portrayed in highly formalized conventions, the same iconic horse, for example, used over and over until the miniaturists worked to depict a ritualized code of images that were quite deliberately removed from the corruptions of our debased, animal experiences of sensory reality. As Ottoman elites were gradually exposed to the new representational art emanating from Venice, where the wealthy and powerful celebrated themselves in sumptuous portraits, sultans, pashas, and their illustrators were exposed to a powerful set of temptations, even as fundamentalist elements would mount attacks on any representational art at all.

An inspiration of Pamuk was to realize that this milieu provided all of the elements needed for a great classic murder mystery: you have the ambitions and rivalries of the artisans, who have histories with each other going back to their youthful apprenticeships, as well as powerful emotions about the future of the workshops and the Islamic purity or lack thereof of the various projects of the Sultan. Suspects abound.

An even greater inspiration was to see the connection between clues (to a murder) and the relation between what we see with our eyes and the truth, a central philosophical problem for late Islamic art. Blindness is more than a metaphor here, it is a real element in the lives of these artisans, the most legendary of whom were frequently claimed to have lost their sight as a consequence of a lifetime of close work. And of course a powerful, dangerous, or wicked artisan might be blinded deliberately by conquering soldiers or wrathful shahs. Thus when we have a murderer in our midst: do we want to see him? Those who have eyes to see, let them see. That's a Biblical aphorism; Pamuk's excellent novel compels me now to take the Koran down from the bookcase and follow up on some of his tantalizing references.