Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Book Review: Wordsmith at the Igbo anvil

By PERCY ZVOMUYA, Mail & Guardian

A debut novelist forges dialogue that compares with the best

Percy Zvomuya reviews I Do Not Come to You by Chance by Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani (Phoenix)

Anyone with an email address has, at one point or the other, received a mail that promises instant riches -- you know the communication that exclaims: "Congratulations!! We are happy to announce that you have won an email lottery jackpot prize in our international lottery promotion."

Or the email marked "CONFIDENTIAL", which begins, in conspiratorial tones: "I know that this email will be a big surprise to you, but I want you to calm down and read very carefully. I have a business which will be beneficial to both of us … the amount of money involved is US$5.7-million …"

Known as 419, the penal code under which this form of fraud is classified in Nigeria, the scams are given hilarious fictional treatment in Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani's novel, I Do Not Come to You by Chance, shortlisted for this year's Commonwealth Writers' Prize. It features Kingsley (affectionately known as Kings), a chemical engineering graduate who, unable to get a job, ends up using his "grammar" -- as Nigerians call good English -- to scam foreigners out of millions of dollars.

I Do Not Come to You by Chance is a humorous work; often I found myself chuckling, sometimes even breaking out into loud laughter. In part Nwaubani has achieved this with her ability to capture the cadences of the speech of her characters. Melding streetwise lingo with original and improvised Igbo idioms, she manages to come up with strange and free-flowing dialogue. The result is startling sentences such as "My taste buds had been hearing the smell of my mother's cooking and my stomach had started talking".

Then there are improvised sentences, lines that appear to have passed through the smithy where they coin Igbo proverbs, for example: "Why are you swallowing Panadol for another person's headache?"

At its best it feels like text co-scripted by the streetwise Kenyan, Charles Mangua, the regal Chinua Achebe and the late Nigerian writers, Ken Saro Wiwa and Amos Tutuola.

I Do Not Come to You By Chance is set in a contemporary Nigeria that compares well with many other African republics -- for instance, the evening news is a "harmless serving of [the] state governor's daily activities", the government still pays out the pensions of people "who left this world more than 20 years ago" and admission to a government hospital is a sure way of dying.

Kingsley's poor, honest and hardworking father (with a degree from a university in the United Kingdom) falls ill, all government hospitals refuse to admit him until he pays a deposit, he eventually does and gets a bed, but his family has to provide everything else he needs for his well-being. The longer his father stays in hospital, the more the family is bled of the meagre pension money on which they depend and the more Kings is driven into the hands of Boniface (aka Cash Daddy), a rich uncle and a 419 scammer, who once stayed with Kings's family.

The first day Kings goes to see his relative is particularly dramatic, a sad indictment of consumerist Nigeria. A few minutes after Kings' arrival, Boniface takes one glance at his feet and remarks: "What's that you are wearing on your legs?" He then shouts at Kings: "Get out of my office." He tells his right-hand man, referred to as the protocol officer, to "take this man away. Make sure he's wearing new shoes before bringing him back. Go!"

Kings comes back a little later wearing new shoes, paving the way for his introduction into the rich world where "businessmen" have nicknames like Kanu Sterling, World Bank and Money Magnet. Remarking on the value of the pound, Cash Daddy says to Kanu Sterling: "Pound Sterling! The only currency with a surname!" The verbally inventive Cash Daddy reminded me of Nwaka, a character in Achebe's Arrow of God, who was such a great orator that he was known to his friends as the "Owner of Words".

I Do Not Come to You By Chance is a fascinating debut, wild and unrestrained, but it also shows the kind of errors that are typical of people with a lot to say and a thousand and one interesting ways to say these things. Like most works of fiction coming out of Africa, there's that perennial problem, sloppy editing. I love shaggy lines but some sentences feel laboured and overwritten and make me wonder how they escaped the machete of the editor.

Take these, for instance. "The air smelt of a mixture of fresh fish and locust beans. Large and small flies buzzed and perched about with alarming sovereignty and audacity. A sweaty, matronly waitress who looked like she knew all the flies by name galumphed to our table. Eating anything in that place would have been like signing a treaty for the invasion of my digestive system." I could go on.

And then there's the prologue, which, given the contemporary setting of this novel and the fact that only a generation has passed between Kings and his father, feels a bit anachronistic. Is it genuinely possible that, no matter how rural, Kings's mother could be so blinded by the aura of his father as to think of him as "an emissary from the spirit world on special assignments to the land of mere mortals"?

Then there's the hackneyed conclusion that one can predict 50 or so pages before the novel comes to a close. What could have been a compact, disciplined work, written in a funny and refreshing voice, in the end feels a tad drawn out, like a joke with a delayed punchline.

This criticism should in no way dilute the fact that Nwaubani is a genuine talent and one whose next novel I am looking forward to reading.

It would be remiss of me, after reading more than 340 pages of scam after scam, to point out that this review is no 419 scam.

Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani will join local fiction writers Angela Makholwa and Zukiswa Wanner, Namibian librarian Ellen Ndeshi Namhila, Kenyan literary scholar Grace Musila, American author Jayne Cortez, Nigerian author Lola Shoneyin, poet Lebo Mashile, local literary matriarch Miriam Tladi and others in a literary symposium at the Windybrow theatre in Johannesburg on August 25 and 26 2010

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