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.

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