My Mercedes is Bigger than Yours
Author: Nkem Nwankwo
Published in the Heinemann African Writers Series in 1975, Nkem Nwankwo’s novel succeeded his highly popular first (comic) novel, Dando (1964). But despite what this “ancestry” might suggest, along with the amusingly boastful but not entirely appropriate title and the description of the text in the back cover blurb as “satirical”, My Mercedes Is Bigger than Yours is actually a morally cautionary tale narrated in acerbic, socially realistic style. Although the snobbery and false values of the young man on the make, Onuma Okude, are the main targets of the narrator’s implicit disdain, the narrative does not in general uphold the traditional village lifestyle as an ideal in contrast with Onuma’s “city slicker” preferences for glamorous activities and conspicuous consumption. In fact, the author does little to offset Onuma’s revulsion at the general squalor and bleakness by which the young man feels beset on his first visit home after his fifteen-year absence at high school and university and in his public relations job with a foreign shipping firm. Onuma persistently focuses on “the whole pattern of life in the village, its lethargy, its sloth, its smug conservatism” (159), and on dirt. One of the very few lyrical passages in the text occurs, remarkably, as the setting for one of its ugliest disasters: an “engineered” road accident in which a number of men die:
The sun, down in the West, had broken into fragments of purple when the chase started. [….] The market at Isu was breaking up and people were going home, sauntering leisurely across the highway. There were frantic screams as the four vehicles mowed through their midst. The highway, after emerging from Isu, cut through a long stretch of low bush, and at this time of evening the green acres sloped in lush brilliance down to the bluish horizon. A little later the landscape was broken by settlements, a stretch of thatch dwellings dotted here and there with white corrugated iron. (151)
Similarly, it is only almost at the end of the novel, when Onuma is about to commit his very worst misdeed, that we learn about the sweeter and less selfish and self-indulgent aspects of his nature, when these better impulses – “his essential honesty, his loyalty, his love for people, his compassion” – are said to have “atrophied for lack of use”. For “in his pursuit of ephemera”, so pronounces the somewhat implacable narrative voice, “he had discounted and neglected to cultivate human beings […] until he had lost the knack of relating to them” (169).
Nwankwo does not in any simplistic way ascribe moral superiority to the older generation. We are specifically shown, soon after Onuma’s return home, how ruthlessly his father, a leading elder and bearer of the ozo title (the village sphere being very recognisably the rural Igbo world Achebe, too, has vividly evoked), exploits poor migrant labourers, cheating them of their pay in a situation where they have no bargaining power since striking would simply lead to their eviction and deportation. We are shown that the older Okude, Odemezue, is really incapable of understanding and thus of helping his eldest son. Delighted to celebrate Onuma’s triumphant return to the ancestral home “bearing” (really driving) the trophy of a gold-coloured Jaguar (yes, not a Mercedes), he is really at a loss how to cope when Onuma “writes off” the beautiful car and lapses into self-pitying lethargy. Beyond appointing a dibia (traditional doctor) recommended by his sister, the old man simply gets increasingly irritated with what the contemporary reader readily recognises as a case of serious depression in Onuma. And when Onuma’s later activities earn opprobrium, the old man simply distances himself from this son as an embarrassment and a let-down and does not attempt to counsel or assist him. It must be added, of course, that in a household where the income is as meagre as in his, having his only adult and “rich” child become another drain on the family’s resources is bound to strain affections.
The most admirable person in the novel, dearly beloved by Onuma, is Oliaku, Odemezue’s first wife, although the errant son seldom considers how his actions will affect his tender-hearted mother. Onuma can only wonder, in one of his few more reflective moments, “at the strange mystery of love, patience and forgiveness that was his mother” (160). As if in “both dream and memory” Onuma recalls how, when he was only ten, his father had contracted smallpox and, in accordance with village rules, was isolated in the wilds where a man appointed to the task was supposed to take him food, but had then failed to do so for four days. Half crazed by hunger, the father had come near their hut in the night to yell out his plight and unjustly swore horribly at their mother, who after recovering from her shock took the task on herself of taking the contagiously diseased man food. His mother continued as before among her neighbours, but his father never again trusted his fellow villagers. But Oliaku, who would have wanted to discuss Onuma’s future with her son, is never given the chance. She is to Onuma a sort of moral anchor, but he never even considers living according to her standards of piety, humaneness and courtesy, let alone attempt to do so. Not that she is a syrupy, angelic personality, since we learn near the beginning of the text how she attempts to punish a nephew who has neglected her by excluding him from the welcoming feast for Onuma.
One of the achievements of this text is Nwankwo’s representation of a number of village characters whose lives are convincingly intertwined. Although there are passages set in Lagos – the distant and (to these rural folk all but legendary) commercial capital of Nigeria – the village scenes make up the bulk of the text. Particular focus falls on the portrayal of a range of younger men. Among them, it is Onuma who stood out as having promise, but under Nwankwo’s unforgiving gaze we are shown how brittle the young man’s achievements have been and the extent to which he has always shirked real effort, since things came too easily to him. One of the main gifts with which he is endowed is his extremely handsome appearance; he is also strappingly well-built and so, of course, Onuma very soon discovers his power over women, among whom he sows his wild oats with reckless abandon. What the rather moralistic author indicates is how much of a trap Onuma’s growing addiction to sex with gorgeous women soon becomes. For entwined with his sex-pursuing lifestyle comes the need for owning an expensive car, hence the Jaguar (bought on a long-term, ruinously expensive instalment plan) and the decision to go and show it off in his home village and outshine all his peers.
A sort of unobtrusive “double” to Onuma in the village is a relative of his who goes by the nickname of Magic. Like Onuma, he “has been around’, or claims to have travelled to many places, a point of fame among the parochial villagers. Like Onuma, but more overtly so, he is a con-man selling his “services” and his fake “cures” to whomsoever can be persuaded by his glib tongue. As can be predicted of any competitive situation where someone like this is involved, he both helps Onuma and stabs him in the back. Onuma too easily despises Magic, since he cannot recognise how alike they really are. Nor does he realise what resentment he arouses in Magic by so often upstaging him – for instance, by being appointed the party chairman for the village just after Magic has found him employment in the election campaign of the local political bigwig, Chief Eze of Isu, one of the two supreme rival con-men of their area. For Magic had up to then been the chairman with the opportunity to shave money off the bribery funds with which the Eze entrusts the chairman of his choice, only to be taunted by their few fellow party members that he (Magic) lacks Onuma’s urban finesse and his (albeit uncompleted!) university education.
Another cheat of their acquaintance – initially and misleadingly described as a local revolutionary – is the taxi driver named Chukwuemeka, but known as Chucks to indicate his sophistication. On the disastrous, drunken evening that ended in the early hours of the next morning in Onuma crashing his beautiful Jaguar on a treacherous curve near his home, he had given Chucks and a friend of his a lift to the dance held in a neighbouring town. With Onuma sated by sex with three women in succession – in bouts on the back seat of the Jaguar – and soaked in alcohol and a complacent sense of being the blade among the boys, his predictable crash was only accidentally non-fatal. When after their long stumble to their homes Onuma lies in a horrible stupor of headache and self-pitying grief (much later in the day) at the destruction of his Jaguar, Chucks rushes into his room – enigmatically and rather eerily yelling “Saved!” (61). What the taxi driver is referring to is the fact that, although embedded in a small stream bed below a precipice, the Jaguar is not a complete wreck and could possibly be salvaged and repaired. But when Onuma (having obtained money for the hugely expensive spare parts required and the salvaging job by simply stealing the funds with which his employer entrusted him to buy forex on the black market in Lagos) returns to the Jaguar, he finds it a skeleton. The car has been stripped. The shock of this sight – considering that he will lose his job and that, as he soon learns, his blatant theft has been reported to the police – unhinges Onuma for a time. Much later on we learn that it was the very same Chucks who had opportunistically stripped the “fallen” Jaguar, no doubt using the money he raised from it to set up business anew in a distant town.
The simplest of the young village men we encounter is another cousin of Onuma’s, Nweze. He is the son of Oliaku’s eldest sibling, the head of this maternal clan. Nweze is a giant of a man, naïve to the point of being considered stupid; but (despite his old father’s poverty) he lives contentedly in the village, has his own household, is a likeable and happy-go-lucky personality and is valued locally for his possession of certain traditional skills. Few villagers still know the proper rituals, for instance, that must be practised when a cow is slaughtered for sacrifice or celebration (Onamu’s return, for instance, requires his services). He is thus a man who truly belongs where he is. However much an educated contemporary like Onamu might look down on him, Nweze’s life in its context is a success ironically contrastable with the village “star” Onamu that fizzles out so ignominiously and will eventually explode in scandal and murder.
Two other cousins of Onuma’s can be considered in this gallery of portraits that I am here extracting from the text (for the novel is not, of course, presented according to this somewhat schematic design and has a satisfactorily natural narrative flow). One of these cousins is the one with whom his mother Oliaku has the brief quarrel at the opening of the tale: she found him a wife and resents the fact that he now visits and takes gifts only to his new mother-in-law, bypassing her, who (she feels) deserves a few tangible signs of gratitude for her services! Clearly, this young man lives reasonably prosperously in the village where all Onuma sees is decline and squalor. Then there is Onuma’s altogether more flamboyant cousin, his mother’s eldest sister’s son. Like the incumbent political representative for the area (and Nwankwo pulls absolutely no punches in exposing yet again the ruthless venality, huge corruption and callously murderous nature of political contest for office in this society as he saw it at the time), the cousin styles himself a chief. Just six months before the elections he returns to the area, enormously enriched by allegedly having “looted some bank in the North” (138), but he is now bent on securing lucrative high political office for further enrichment by pipping the self-styled Eze of Isu to the post in this contest.
The latter cousin, known now as Ikpa of Obunagu, uses his Catholic Church patronage and his highly conspicuous observance of traditional ritual to ingratiate himself with voters – over and above the tried and tested methods of bribery and vote-buying combined with thuggery against the rival – this latter strategy being enacted (as in the Eze’s case) by a small army of heavies. Ikpa arrives on the scene after Onuma has been enlisted by the Eze. The “recruitment” had happened as follows: Magic had already hinted that he could help the despairing, apathetic Onuma to get back on his feet at least financially by recommending him to the Eze, when Onuma got himself embroiled in a court case presided over by the Eze. Onuma had namely, upon first returning to the village and in a foolish display of wealth (not backed by any real riches!), promised a huge donation of fifty pounds to the local Catholic congregation. They grew furious at his failure to deliver and attempted the tried and tested punishment of confiscating the defaulter’s goods. A local church member had grabbed the by now penniless Onuma’s only valuable possession, a radio, only to be knocked down by Onuma, and the loser had rushed to lay a charge of assault with the police. Nwankwo has a lot of fun in exposing the comically haphazard way in which “justice” is administered in such a small Igbo village. When the case is eventually heard and Onuma has been sentenced as chief culprit, the Eze (presiding as judge) suddenly realises that Onuma is the son of a nearby dignitary well known to himself and then has him freed. The favour (of course, a blatant travesty of justice) requires Onuma to return it by working (albeit for a salary and other less official financial opportunities) in the Eze’s election campaign.
When Ikpa learns of Onuma’s activities in the Eze’s rival camp he puts pressure on him to honour the family connection and work for his election instead. On second thoughts, he says, stay with the Eze, but report to me what is useful! He, too, pays Onuma – of course. Later on, when a lorry with a number of Ikpa’s henchmen crashes (killing most of them) and Ikpa’s trademark huge Mercedes with its custom-built musical horn has been burnt (the second major car wreck in the narrative), cousin Ikpa demands that Onuma take part in a ritual of reunion with him. It is Onuma’s participation in this propitiation ceremony that gives Magic just the opening he needs to best his rival. He promptly “lets fall” to the Eze that Onuma, after having accepted the former’s money, has “defected” to his rival (which is not strictly true, nor the whole truth). Onuma is then lured into a trap: called to visit the Eze, where he means only to report that he will be returning to Lagos. He has the keys to a Volkswagen that he’d hoped to keep, taken from him and is brutally beaten up for his treachery.
The novel moves to its end when Magic – apparently placatory in his intentions, but more likely to gloat about how he has turned the tables on Onuma – comes to visit his bruised and humiliated rival. To rub in his triumph, he does so driving a Mercedes – promising to “work” things to clear up the “misunderstanding” with the Eze and to return and report that evening. He does not know that Onuma still has the gun with which the Eze equips all his agents, nor does he suspect the depth of Onuma’s bitterness, fury and envy. All day long, Onuma waits for Magic to return and when he does so, he shoots him down, finds the keys to the Mercedes in the dead man’s pocket and drives off into the sunset.
He sounds entirely insane in the final sentence of the text, when we are told that although he is “directionless”, “he was not going to stop, ever” (171). So Onuma may believe in the intoxication of finding himself at last, again, behind the wheel of an expensive vehicle, but without needing to spell it out, Nwankwo would evidently have the reader understand that even the inept police and justice system of this area and period would not leave Onuma unpunished – not this time, when it is unlikely even his mother could forgive him for murdering a kinsman.
The novel ends as it started, with Onuma expressing his deepest erotic feelings for and his strongest emotional attachment to, a car, not a person. Perhaps we are meant to see that if he is insane now, he has been so all along and that any social group in which the pinnacle of fulfilment is to drive a glamorous car, itself deserves to be written off as morally mad and heading for disaster.
It is this rather austere perspective – if I am correct in assuming the author’s implicit judgement – that characterises My Mercedes Is Bigger than Yours. I must add, though, that the text also contains a number of finely, if mostly sardonically, observed scenes of social conduct – scenes which establish that Onuma’s lifestyle is in no way an exception. Here, for instance, is how Onuma sees the city when he briefly returns to it after crashing his Jaguar:
Onuma stepped down from the bus with the kind of pleasant trepidation with which he always approached this town. There Lagos was, his town. The landmarks were as familiar to him as his brown cat’s eyes seen in a mirror. The stink of Lagos, too, was pervasively familiar, a potent compound of decaying fish, stale urine and days-old shit. But the luxury cars, the Mercedes Benzes, Cadillacs, cruised along as if to belie the stench. And the girls lounging about waiting to be picked up were as slickly dressed and as sexy as ever. Onuma cast around for a face he knew. It had always happened in the past that wherever in Lagos there was a crowd of people in which girls predominated, one of them would turn out to have been to bed with him at some time. (66)
Without a car, Onuma is reduced to membership of the huge throng of lesser beings dependent on public transport. Not that this is plain sailing, for to get a seat on a bus is an implacable struggle, and even once one has gained one, there is no guarantee that the bus will take off on time. In one of the few hilarious scenes in the novel, the crowd of bus passengers start berating the conductor, who is delaying the journey’s start while he eats his breakfast, using the colourful local pidgin: “You no cu-cu eat for your house?” “Who givam the job self?” “Why they no sackam one time?” and ending with the resounding denunciation “Son of shit!” (75-6).
As a signal to the reader that the promiscuity of young urban males has its match in young women’s conduct, we are allowed to listen in on a short description of one of Onuma’s innumerable former girlfriends, Estella, who has a “problem” (the speaker is a young man-about-town, very like Onuma, who has condescendingly given him a lift in (you’ve guessed it) his Mercedes: “I think IK has sacked her. She just goes from one man to another and they fuck her out. But she survives. Great survival instinct, that girl has. You know I used to go with her sister? Nothing serious though,” he concludes, “just fucker friendship” (78). While this kind of talk and the consumerist values in them are familiar enough all over the world, it is their warts-and-all exhibition from the narrator’s recognisably disdainful perspective that strikes one. As in the indented passage above, one cannot help noticing the moralist’s gaze in the juxtaposition of glittering cars and women with “the stink of Lagos” (66). Not that Nwankwo – as I have implicitly indicated – falls into the trap of contrasting the “bad” city with the “good” village, since the latter location has its share of schemers and operators. Village people nevertheless are shown to carry an especial resentment against city slickers who usually manage to get away with so much more than they do. They have few opportunities to get this felt by the urbanites, of course.
I end this piece with a scene where Onuma, who has foolishly insisted that he belongs to the “higher tier” of car owners, gets kicked off a country bus for not having even the mere three pennies required for the trip home – imagining that he could brazen it out. Onuma is unceremoniously and forcibly sent sprawling in the roadside dust, among the following exchanges:
“One of these days I will take a ride in your car. Your threepenny car!” “I will get even with you,” cried Onuma rising painfully. “Threepenny suit!” An enormous laughter rolled away into the night. (115)
Despite passages like these this novel is not a comedy, functioning, rather, more like a stern exhortation to any reader who might envy Onuma’s Casanova lifestyle, but clearly aimed especially at the author’s compatriots. It explores the fabric of an urbanising, postcolonial society in its all too familiar aspects, but gives vivid life and poignancy to its topic.