I don't remember how I spotted El-Nukoya's novel Nine Lives (2006; ANA/Jacaranda Prize, 2007). I think I was looking at some Nigerian fiction at Amazon and it came up as a "customers who have bought x might like y" suggestion. It's very important for a serious reader to be willing to explore, to invest in chance suggestions, references and even books that just have covers that look interesting (a reason for bookstores in an age when one can get every book that one knows that one wants on-line).
"El-Nukoya" is a Yoruban/Arabic phrase meaning "to select," as in the right path of life, but the cover art promises noirish underground adventure and the novel delivers. It's a neat trick, and a classic one, that the author has here: in the end El-Nukoya's book is critical and moralistic, but I mean at the very end as in the last page or so of this 490-page page-turner. Are all the juicy bits just a vehicle for the underlying evangelism, or is the evangelist moral a useful justification for giving us hundreds of pages of juicy bits? Only El-Nukoya knows for sure. In any event this first novel also shrewdly aims for a middle-brow audience that likes the sort of action that one finds in genre novels (racy romance for the ladies, tough-guy stuff for the guys).
The inescapable trope of African fiction is the bildungsroman, as African characters must suffer and, if they are among those to prevail, learn to be tough. Here we have the story of Olupitan Ogunrinu, smart and talented but out of the village, and his treacherous and tortured, if relentless and fantastic, rise to the top of Nigerian society. At first I wasn't sure of this rough novel, with its' numerous typos and its' somewhat wooden prose, but I ended charmed by it, a real potboiler with lots of sex and intrigue including all sorts of misbehavior from the feckless and disloyal Olupitan. He is a soul in danger, and his devilish compacts seem to damn him. He squanders his poor father's money by flunking out of college and decamping to the US, abandoning his family for years, and even worse things; a bit of business with a religious totem is a grave enough transgression that I thought the whole story would eventually turn on it, but nothing, it seems, is beyond redemption if we turn to God.
An obvious comparison is with Chris Abani, whose Graceland (2004) is the subject of an earlier post here. Abani, the author of several novels, is more technically accomplished than El-Nukoya, but his subject is the corruption of modern Nigerian society. El-Nukoya is deeply involved with this reality as well, of course, but he is more turned inward, and the real issue is the confrontation of the protagonist with his own strengths and weaknesses. For Abani, who writes from exile in California (and who was a victim of political torture in his homeland), Nigeria is stigmatized; El-Nukoya (who also studied in the US) makes it very clear that from his point of view the US, say, or anywhere else is no more safe from sin than Nigeria.
Abani is interesting to an American reader because of his interest in the cultural intersection of the two worlds. El-Nukoya stays tightly focused on his hero's misadventures during the American section and we are not served up any real impressions of that country. This may reflect some prudence on the part of an author who is already dealing with a densely-plotted narrative that spans decades and has dozens of characters. On the other hand there is lots of texture and atmosphere in the Nigerian passages, particularly the ones set in the world of the urban college students.
The most accomplished aspect of Nine Lives, though, is the limning of the little-boy-lost character of Oliputan. He makes bad decisions based on worse judgements, caves in to many of his own most craven weaknesses, and does many good people wrong, but the reader never comes to see him as the bad guy. He forms an obsession of hatred for an upper-class rival and cultivates this resentment for years, but the moral is clear enough that the weight is his to give up. At the same time he is a fantasy character, improbably endowed with an irresistible attraction for women and with the talent to become one of the wealthiest men in the country, only on the condition that he transgress his dignity in the pursuit of the initial capital: your basic hip-hop story.
Anyway I'm glad I encountered this book, it has whet my appetite for some more recent Nigerian fiction. From some subsequent googling around I think I'll try the Ivorian Ahmadou Kourouma's Waiting for the Wild Beasts to Vote, the Senegalese Boubacar Boris Diop's Murambi Book of Bones, and the Nigerian Chimamanda Adichie's Purple Hibiscus. A serious reader ought to be a sucker for a good title: another way to find something good.