Title: The day ends like any day
Author: Timothy Ogene
Publisher: Holland House (2017)
This debut novel by acclaimed poet Timothy Ogene bears the traces of the author’s lyrical talent, his Nigerian origins, his expansive reading of world literature and his life-cherishing attentiveness to natural and human phenomena, both physical and spiritual. The text is, nevertheless, unpretentious in every way; as a narrative, perhaps a bildungsroman, the predominant tonal quality is a sort of quietness, a retrospective serenity. The brief notes on the author that appear on the back cover and on the page following the narrative’s conclusion nudge the reader into surmising the likely autobiographical roots of the text – the relevant details being the information that the author’s 1984 birth took place in “Oyigbo, outside Port Harcourt in southern Nigeria” (np) and that he is “the sixth of seven children raised in a two-room tenement block” (263). The narrator and main character, Sam, as a child lives in “O. … east of Port Harcourt” (8) until he leaves for university, and is the second-youngest of his parents’ five children, while the area of their town where the family occupies a two-room apartment is known as “the blocks” (9). The main difference between the two is that, while the author’s bio informs us that he went on to St Edwards [in Austin, Texas] and Oxford Universities (263), Sam is shown attending Delta State University in Abraka, Nigeria, and American academic experiences are ascribed to other characters. The African Literature Association chose The day ends like any day as recipient of its 2019 Book of the Year Award (in the category of creative writing).
A beautiful quotation from Steinbeck’s East of Eden establishes that this text exists in awareness of great writing across a worldwide spectrum, as well as indicating the parallel with the narrator’s own sensuously detailed youthful memories. But expectations of a similar focus on the natural world of plants and creatures (trees, grasses, toads and people recalled in such a context) in Ogene’s novel emphasise the “block to block” setting of the strolling child narrator of the opening section, and of the BBC news heard on a radio mentioning the Rwandan genocide. While Pa Suku (the narrator’s adult best friend whom he visits on a daily basis) sits “reflectively raptured into the squeal” of his radio, later on attempting to explain “the savagery, the horror, the implication on world perception of Africa” of the events in Rwanda (7), the boy is primarily interested in the way the reporters speak English while attempting to imagine the “world outside the blocks” (8). While Ogene’s novel was likened above to a bildungsroman, this is a tentative analogy, as the child narrator in some ways remains a “stroller” and a “ramble[r]” (7), a person of no fixed position or identity – an instinctive outsider interested in other figures (like Pa Suku) on society’s fringes. He joins other boys and girls “trad[ing] stories” while they sit in the light of kerosene lamps (no street lights here), while on moonlit nights he is found “gallop[ing]” without care like other neighbourhood children. But even at this age (he is ten), Sam at times “play[s] the flâneur” at night, walking about to observe people’s doings and circumstances. That he lives in an area where nature has been ravaged by ruthless oil excavations is a circumstantial detail we note, as “monstrous spells of gas flaring from across the new highway” (9) ravage the sky – evidence of the kind of “development” brought by the Nigerian “resource curse” of abundant oil and gas deposits in this region, necessitating infrastructure required by the international companies and the extraction economy, while most local inhabitants (like Sam’s family) live in semi-squalor.
The above account can serve to indicate the deft succinctness with which Ogene structures a milieu – a term highlighted further in the narrative when Pa Suku gives the boy a copy of Alec Baldwin’s novel Jacob’s room to read. The boy is fascinated by it, perhaps his first French word, when he finds it in the text, asking Pa Suku what the word means (“It’s the French for ‘surroundings’,” Pa Suku tells him), and then writing it over and over in the sand, along with Je veux m’evader [“I need/want to escape”, 81]. He also slips words that delineate the poverty, neglect, humiliation and bad health of the inhabitants of the blocks unobtrusively into ostensible descriptions of the painted lettering that identifies the 26 all-but-identical “blocks” of flats from one another, in the adjectives slanted and skewed, congealed, emaciated, begging to stand straight, caked, consumed and gradually fading (9). Any child from these tenements, the narrator states, could be described as “A Product of the Blocks”. This kind of marking is indelible, he insists, for “when we finally left to face the world, to universities and big cities, we would fight to forget those peculiar odours, but they would linger, reminding us that the past was as present as our flesh” (10). It will be a while before Sam learns to resent their poverty, his enlightenment yet again coming from Pa Suku – and from his much more sophisticated and worldly-wise sister, Ricia, along with whom he walks to and from their school nearly every day. It starts with Sam teasing his sister about her stiffly starched school shirt, and leads to Sam “defend[ing]” his own “tattered” uniform, but Pa Suku “killed [his] ignorance” and “shredded [the boy’s] innocence” by saying “it was not okay to walk around in rags”: an observation that later on becomes a “burden” and “made [Sam] see the holes for what they were: the face of indigence” (19). This is also how he starts to recognise class privilege. Formerly, he had (like his classmates) accepted it as the natural order of things that “the rich kids”, emerging from “their private school”, close to his own, would “walk on the other side” – probably as instructed by their parents, while he and his fellow pupils needed no one to tell them to stick to their own side. The private school pupils are, he knows,
Children of the new middle class – auto spare-part dealers, oil company workers, importers of used and new electronic gadgets, senior civil servants – whose parents had broken the spell of poverty, swearing to pave a smooth path for their own kids. So they enrolled their children in private schools, flew them abroad for holidays and summer camps, and most importantly taught them how to despise the rest of us. They lived in flats with multiple rooms and gated walls that rose to the roofs. They had houseboys and gatemen who sat outside waiting for cars to crawl in and out. (20)
In a later section of the narrative, we learn that Sam’s mother, the parent for whom his deep love is shown without being spelt out, expressed a personal and heartfelt objection towards hierarchising animals. Sam, indeed, confirms the surmise that this is his mother’s oblique expression of resentment against the particularly glaring class distinctions in their society. “Mama named her goats,” Sam thus informs us, according to her conviction that, “if cats and dogs were named, goats and cattle deserve names and special treatments too” (38). An amusing touch is that her name for their favourite goat, Ogoamaka, is “also the name of her boss’s daughter, the brat who ordered Mama around because her dad paid Mama a pittance to clean bathrooms and rugs”. When she gets home from work, she is “exhausted, her eyes red and teary from several hours of inhaling bleach”. Her children rush to her as she gets back, eager to receive “the leftovers she brought from the flats”, treasured “tidbits” to the children, who pounce ravenously on them. But, even though their mother sometimes smiles to see their pleasure, Sam notices “pain in her eyes”: “the unutterable sadness of knowing that a better life existed outside the blocks” but would always remain “a life she would not attain” – one which she “had accepted as unreachable” and as “a life she sniffed but could not ingest”. Sam sees her pain and her despair as possibly resulting from her inability to understand “the workings of that other world, what it truly entailed, how it was constructed, how it came to be alienated from the world she embodied”. Sam apparently believes that, in his role as the adult narrator looking back, he has come to “know the things I know about class in Nigeria” (39), but he does not spell out what these “things” may be or how and why the bitter injustices of class divides can be made sense of. It is also evident that Sam, even when he has long left the blocks behind, remains forever conscious of his poor background in the company of privileged, wealthy friends and lovers.
Sam tells us less about his father, of whom he saw much less, and who would only briefly talk to the children on the few occasions that he was mellowed by the one bottle of beer that he allowed himself, or could afford. He fell silent after finishing his beer and left them to go to bed.
He never drank more than a bottle, perhaps to ensure he did not spend more than an hour with us. His words were few and he dropped them casually in-between swigs. … He was a strange man. I never understood him beyond the faces he made when wielding a whip, beyond the vast absence he left everywhere, every day as he left for “work” before we woke up at dawn. I did not know what and where “work” was. I only remember the despair on his face when he came home from “work” and the swift change in mood when beer was introduced to the equation, the brief levity, the stories. I secretly wished he would drink more … so that we could talk more. I wanted to know his past, what he did when he was my age, if he hid magazines with racy covers under his pillow, if he dreamt of faraway places like I did. … I wanted to know about his parents, my grandparents who I never met, who he never said a word about, whose ancestral home I never visited. (64–5)
This poignant passage evoking a father who is so largely absent from his son’s life and the evident ache of longing for a closer relationship and deeper affection from this parent allows the reader to comprehend why the figure of Pa Suku looms so large in Sam’s memories.
Sam’s father is aware of Nigeria’s political and economic failures and of how these impinge upon the everyday lives of people like himself and his family, but he does not engage with his children in order to explain the situation. Sam calls him “a strange man” – not only, it seems, because he is unable to understand his father, but also to hint at the fact that his father remains a stranger to him. Among the people of the blocks, Sam’s father would be considered normal, whereas Pa Suku is the figure of whom they are suspicious for his eccentricities and his self-sufficiency. What Sam appreciates about him is his ability “to harvest the past” (65) as Sam sees it – a teacher who can show historical lines of development and explain connections among different elements. Pa Suku calls Sam “my boy” and even “son” (66), which the lonely boy especially appreciates. It expresses the extent to which Pa Suku is not only Sam’s intellectual mentor, but a moral educator who is profoundly aware of his parentally responsible role in the boy’s life. Sam treasures Pa Suku’s speech, even the way the man speaks:
He continued to talk, effortlessly, in measured beats and breaths, as though he was speaking in a song. Once in this mode his voice became brisk and fluid, alternating between both states, assured like a bugle in the hands of a royal messenger. He would go on in small chunks of words, throbbing like drums, swelling and waning. I fell a thousand times for that cadence. (67)
Sam’s appreciation and Pa Suku’s attitude to this unusual boy who seeks him out and clearly enjoys his company are never labelled with the word love and are not tinged with an erotic dimension. The man is penniless, but able to enrich the boy’s life, as when he gives him a map (in Sam’s school, they are not even allowed to touch the map of the world on their classroom wall). “With that view,” Sam observes, “came the freedom to touch and cross all those dizzying lines. He offered me the world and everything in it” (82).
The people of the blocks disapprove of Pa Suku, the man who has entirely opted out of “the rat race”. Sam overhears the widow who is their neighbour talking about him and this relationship: “Small boy … he will not play with his mates … now he talks to himself like the old fool he chats with” (41). Her sneer bothers Sam, who tells his sister, Ricia, about it. This may be how their mother hears about it. She is highly incensed, complaining loudly about “evil neighbours that use their lips to destroy destinies” (49) so that Ma Ike can hear her, but to Sam himself she expresses anger and concern. “I don’t know what you want to become,” she says, after scolding him for being a “tiny rat” (!) and warning him (not that he will heed this) to “stay away from that … from that hopeless Pa Suku”, whom she sees as “bringing [Sam] bad luck” (50). Later, when Sam’s mother discovers the outdated copy of Playboy that the boy had bought from the bookseller, she vaguely assesses even this sign of questionable morality as linked to his association with Pa Suku. “You are not like your brothers,” she tells Sam. “It was a random statement,” but he knows “it was at the core of her fear and anguish.” Later in Sam’s youth, when his mother at first rejoices that he has been awarded a scholarship to attend university, her face gets the same look when he informs her that the degree he intends pursuing is not of a “useful” kind (ie not guaranteed to bring in a lot of money once he qualifies), but instead “a degree in English and History” (52). She is, of course, shown to be right in her surmise that this decision, too, proves the extent of the influence Pa Suku, the “freelance writer and thinker” (46), has over her brightest son.
In stark contrast to the community’s disapproving attitude towards Pa Suku is the way they regard the wealthiest man in the blocks, Pa Jide. His wealth is such, of course, relative to the lack of money around the blocks’ other households. Pa Jide fulfils the role of the man-about-town, greatly envied for having the resources to attract, entertain and enjoy glamorous ladies of the night tottering about the township’s potholes and puddles in sky-high heels. He clearly delights in displaying his economic privileges, allowing neighbours and neighbourhood children to watch the popular American movies he plays on his television set, from the sidewalk, where they even brave heavy downpours to see their favourite stars acting. Sam sees how “Jide enjoyed the attention, and strutted with the air of an aristocrat” (69). The community views him as “an enigma and a local champion” (70) – this man who addresses them grandly as “My people”. In contrast with the intellectual stimulation which Pa Suku provides Sam, Jide (who works as cook on an oil rig in fortnightly stints, swaggering around the blocks when home again for two weeks at a time) “informs” the dazzled locals that “oil is God’s own spittle and we have been blessed with a fast flowing river of that spittle”. Jide’s vulgarity and shallowness are equally evident when he sees fit to brag about the “overseas visitors” who flock to the oil-rich swamps where local economies have been ruined and the landscape devastated by the greed of the oil companies. He also rejoices in the fact that the expatriate oil workers “are there drilling oil and taking breaks with our girls” (71). No one utters a word of disapproval.
Sam pays attention to another outsider figure, a boy called Dan, the son of the resident tailor, whose creativity Sam admires. Dan crafts colourful, eye-catching garments from cast-off bits of material that he sews together on his father’s Singer. “I thought Dan was a genius,” Sam states. When Dan shows up at a local ceremony dressed in his finery, he is quickly “bounced” – ejected for wearing his outlandish garb. Later on, he will disappear from the blocks, not long after Sam sees him in an evidently dejected state, untypically non-communicative. Sam notices (possibly still unaware of the evident deeper implications of his imagery) that Dan at this moment strongly resembles “an exile striding softly on foreign soil, careful not to trample or be trampled upon”. Sam notes that “like Pa Suku, Dan was a curious case. No one knew what he was or why he acted the way he did” (56). Sam never explicitly acknowledges his own alignment with the other boy. He could not even – in an ugly incident he later on recalls – bring himself to go to the aid of an almost literally “trampled upon” Dan.
A group of boys pinned [Dan] down and wiped his make-up with their group piss. I remember how he lay still, smeared in a piss-made puddle, allowing them to do what they wanted. From a distance I watched his assailants whooping in triumph, their penises – turgid black fingerlings – ejecting liquid in squirts. Then they sprang off towards the old road. I had wanted to bounce out and fight them off, or scream until they came for me while Dan escaped. But I held still, frightened by their audacity, by the assumed authority over the life of another. (76)
The terrible scene concludes with the humiliated, prone boy giving Sam a smile, neither shedding tears nor showing signs of shame. Instead, he walks straight to where Sam is standing and, “reeking of fresh urine, he asked if I wanted to dance” with a “spark in his eyes, like he had just walked out of a wild party”. Sadly, Sam finds himself unable to respond with the generosity, imagination, courage and compassion the situation requires. He walks away from Dan, only later on registering his own “combination of shame and regret, both of which continue to haunt [Sam’s] memories” of Dan (77).
The events that perhaps most strongly and indelibly affect Sam’s childhood and early adolescence start with the sight of a group of evidently incensed women, including Tina the fishmonger, Chisara with her shaved head and Lola the seamstress. Unusually, they have in their midst “Dora, a girl of about fourteen”, who is crying, and her normally taciturn mother. The mother is dishevelled and her daughter’s eyes “puffy from shedding tears” (83). Her red dress is “torn along the waistline”. Among the adult women, who seem to be trudging around the blocks in order to make something known to the community, the strongest figure and voice is Chisara’s – a woman known to have “punched a man to pulp for stealing a widow’s box of savings”. Her splendid nickname is “Madam Gunpowder” for her ability to “explode from time to time”. Sam’s tendency to withdraw from morally challenging situations is subtly underlined here, for, as he begins to sense the tension and to surmise something of its probable cause, he turns back initially to the French expression he found in Baldwin’s book – Je veux m’evader. Still, he erases it from the sand where he has written it and returns to the word that may indicate local involvement rather than evasiveness on his part – le milieu (84).
Sam finds a boy who can explain the march, who tells him that “Jide put the thing inside Dora”. The women return to Jide’s door. “Chisara planted her feet on the ground,” Sam observes, using another deftly placed image of local commitment and rootedness. “Then she stepped on Jide’s porch and banged the door as hard as she could” (85). As Jide peeps out his door at last, Chisara attempts to grab him by the neck, but he slips out of her grasp. All she manages to fling at the rapist are the furious words, “[S]he [ie the girl Dora] is what is going on, you useless man,” when Jide protests his bewilderment. At this point, both Dora and her mother apparently exhausted and Jide still safely ensconced in his home, most of the women slowly disperse. The older boy, Ibe, explains to Sam that on a day when Dora had (shockingly) been whipped and sent home from school for not paying her school fees, she wandered home, bored, and was attracted by Jide’s blaring TV. The man invited her inside, giving her a can of Coke. Whether he had drugged her is unclear; of course, no one “cared enough to investigate further” (86). When Chisara, who has remained on the scene, attempts to break into Jide’s home, two local men come to his aid and restrain her. The reader only notes Dora’s “piercing look” and her “trembling” (87) at the sight of her violator as he again claims to have no idea what the women are talking about. At noon (the next day?), the crowd returns to Jide’s place. It is soon discovered that he has left town. Chisara “entered the enemy’s room and shut the door behind her”. All that the crowd outside (including Sam) can hear is “the sound of fury”: a noise of ripping, “the shattering wail” of glass or chinaware, and then a “big bang” – possibly Chisara has pushed the television set off its perch. The crowd merely “gasps”. As Chisara at last emerges from the wreckage, it may only be Sam who notes that her eyes are “damp”: “[F]or the first time I saw Chisara sobbing in public,” he says, as he notices “questions in her eyes, words she could not utter, words that were meant to express how much she loathed [the onlookers] for enjoying the show, a show that began in the room she had wrecked and ended with an absconded man”. It would be many years later that Sam could see Chisara’s look as that of “the first feminist I knew” (90).
It is when Sam goes to visit his secret place – a small lake surrounded by greenery, a little oasis on the outskirts of the blocks – that he finds Dora there. He has, earlier that morning, spotted Jide “tiptoeing to the main road with a suitcase”. Approaching the lake, he spots a “figure” and sees by the hair that it is a girl whose bare back is towards him. He identifies her as Dora by the dress that is still hanging on her and by her unkempt hair. As he observes her, in profile, remaining half-hidden, she stands up. The dress falls from her; then she walks to the water. As Sam approaches more closely, she turns towards him and he sees that “her eyes were red, like peppers. She offered [Sam] a smile” which he tries to return, but cannot. He has many questions he has wanted to ask her, about what Jide did to her, but there is an obstructing “lump” in his throat. He remembers: “our silence filled the morning with words that would later become my side of Dora’s account, an account I never shared and never forgot” – a statement indicating his profound empathy with this girl and her plight. Dora “picked up a rock and grabbed a handful of sand, stood, turned”, and then walked right up to Sam, naked as she was. The boy has probably never in his conscious memory seen a naked female figure. He feels bewildered: “[W]hat was I to do with the approaching pointers, dark at their tips, and the v between her legs?” Sam’s strange reference to Dora’s breasts as two “pointers” already indicates that the boy obscurely senses something like a demand or an accusation in Dora’s manner; feels in some way that he ought to do something to comfort her, perhaps, without knowing what he could or should do: “[T]here, in front of me, she neither spoke nor touched my hands. Her eyes, sharp as knives, lacerated my forehead.” Next, “as if on a second thought”, she lifted his left hand, put the sand into it and gave him the rock. In this surreal moment, indelibly imprinted on Sam’s mind, the rock (which he secretly keeps hidden in a sock for a long, long time) is some sort of token of Dora’s existence; that of a girl so cheaply held in her community that few would take up her cause even against a paedophile. She gives Sam another smile, and he can only smile back weakly as hers disappears and she turns, beginning to walk into the lake. In a soft voice, she tells the boy to “run home, please” when she is waist-deep in the water. He does so – to which Sam adds that “to this day, every time I replay that scene, I feel myself in motion, running away from what I could have stopped” (88–9).
Sam tells no one about seeing Dora at the lake, even asking his friend where she is, though he of course senses that she is dead. That evening, “word came” that her body has been found on the far side of the lake. Sam’s mother misinterprets his disturbed state as a fever, probably malaria (Ricia thinks so, too, even though she sees that he is crying), to be treated with “pepper soup with uziza leaves”, knowing nothing of his encounter with Dora at the lake. Sam dreams, that night, of speaking to Dora at the lake, hearing her telling him that she “did not run away” but “only walked away from trouble”, as he, too, should, for at the blocks “there is too much trouble” (92–4). Sam’s informative friend tells him about Dora’s small funeral (which he, like other children, is not allowed to attend). He cannot bear to believe that Dora’s corpse is becoming the prey of “ants and worms”; in his mind, death of the body frees the soul to “run around”. Sam is amazed that, on the Sunday evening following Dora’s burial, there is no “collective mourning for the departed girl”; indeed, the blocks’ excitement in anticipation of a magician’s show is not even “tempered by drops of sadness” (97). Still, Sam, too, goes to see the show in expectation of an entertaining evening. The magician – who is really a rather poor conman – fascinates him as much as anyone else. But his probably repressed recall of Dora’s suicide by drowning, which he all but witnessed and might have prevented, surfaces irresistibly. He walks out of the queue of those joining the performer, and their neighbour, Ma Ike, immediately notices that Sam is unwell. He falls into a kind of waking dream, probably fainting, a state from which he comes to only at his home, to which Ma Ike carried him. Sam’s dream carries the traces of his traumatic witnessing of Dora’s final moments, a terrible memory in which Dora segues into a seductive “girl” version of the Mammy Wata legend [a myth prevalent especially in West Africa, concerning a gorgeous, water-dwelling “woman” who seduces men with her beauty and the lure of infinite wealth, only to destroy them, often by drowning], whose eyes shine “like a colony of glow-worms” and whose skin is “smooth as glass” (104). Ma Ike’s rescue of Sam dissolves the fight between the neighbours – Sam thanks her, although she, too, misreads his condition as malaria.
The second section of Ogene’s novel shifts in an unannounced relocation to his university campus, later identified as Abraka (Delta State U). A wide range of overt intertextual references feature in the narrative from now on, as Sam engages in a range of literary and broader cultural, political and historical conversations and debates. A text that fascinates Sam, the Albanian novelist Ismail Kadare’s famous disguised exposure of communist tyranny, The palace of dreams, facilitates his meeting and succeeding friendship with a new mentor figure: Professor Ojo from the University of Ile-Ife, presented as an authority on West African and wider African literatures. There is a vague suggestion that Ojo once visited Pa Suku at the blocks. Sam has matured in many ways; he is now a “fledgling poet”, though he adds self-deprecatingly that his few published poems appeared in “obscure journals edited by obscure poets for obscure poets”. Nor is Sam so selfishly fixated on obtaining the scholar’s patronage that he fails to notice “the circle of stress around his eyes, the shadowy hollow that marks the onset of something more troubling” (120). Ojo tells Sam about his new book project, in which he intends drawing attention to African authors of great merit who have been marginalised. Sam soon learns from Ojo that he left Ife on sabbatical after his wife’s death by suicide, surmising that, for Ojo, “championing the cause of forgotten writers was one way he distracted himself” (122). Ojo – clearly in need of someone to whom he is able to speak in this more intimate, non-academic manner – reveals that his wife had suffered from depression for many years, hinting obscurely that he is plagued by guilt for having failed her because of his own lack of understanding of her state. Ojo also invites Sam to join the reading group he has established and named Opia. Though his apparent verve and enjoyment of this gathering is Sam’s last memory of Ojo alive, he tells us that the great scholar, like Dora, chose to end his life by drowning himself (in the river Ethiope), and that he (Sam) witnessed the retrieval of the body, “which the police were tragically hesitant to touch” (129).
It is at a meeting of Opia that Sam meets Osagie, a pianist and music student with whom he is soon in love and who is evidently also soon conscious of being deeply attracted in return. Sam describes his first sight of Osagie:
Osagie was on the piano. Perhaps it was the way he shut his eyes and looked away from his fingers that attracted me. Or was it how he bounced on his seat, visibly thrilled at his own performance? When he opened his eyes, he connected with the cellist, a petite girl with dreamy eyes. … I felt an inexplicable pang of jealousy. From a distance he looked my age, young and promising. His fingers rippled, working together like the claws of young crabs, filling the dome with waves and waves of melody. (130)
The scene displays underlying eroticism, shared artistic interests and Sam’s fascination with a young man very like himself, yet very different in his social confidence, command of the situation and embedded cultural security stemming from a privileged background. The ordinariness of such an encounter, which points forward to the promptly ensuing relationship between them, nevertheless indicates its probable future problematic dimensions. While few might bat an eyelid on a university campus where what society’s conservative core considers “wild”, “wrong” or “unacceptable” sexual behaviour typically happens among free-spirited youth, in Nigeria (as in the majority of African countries) such defiance of social mores carries great risk to bodily well-being and reputation. Perhaps the slight swagger Sam observes in Osagie’s performance makes it more difficult for him (here as much as later) to recognise the vulnerability and the insecure sexual and relational jealousy from which Osagie suffers as much as Sam does – for all his “lucky” life as one advantaged and shielded by wealth from poverty’s deprivations.
With Sam having introduced himself to Osagie and having expressed his admiration for the latter’s performance, the pianist responds immediately by joining Sam with two tickets for a production of Soyinka’s The road at the campus theatre. It starts raining, and the two share the close contact of sheltering from it under Osagie’s small umbrella. The relationship has been initiated and becomes established, with Sam accompanying Osagie to his rehearsals. In another unemphasised reminder of the influence Pa Suku’s education of Sam had on him, he evidently appreciates Osagie’s love of jazz and its classic performers as the old man taught him. After the first rehearsal, Osagie “suggested dinner, and was quick to announce that it was all on him” (136). The two young men sit on the lawn near their dorm afterwards, their respective postures showing the contrast between Osagie’s sophistication and Sam’s shyness (137). Soon, Sam records, “I felt Osagie’s fingers tracing a shape on my forehead, progressing down to my neck, my chest, where – lingering – he began to scribble words, pretending to erase each word once it was done, asking me to guess what it was” (138). Not only does Osagie take the lead in their (here still tentative) love-making, but he introduces Sam to his ideas, which Sam calls “manifestoes on life, culture and society”. Their titles include “On masculinity”, “On sex and music” and “On freedom and control” – Sam states that these “were, to me, radical thoughts for these parts”. Osagie grandly announces that at some point “I’ll publish these thoughts and that will be the end of me”, probably referring to the “forbidden”, daring act it would be considered. “But I’ll rather die than watch them lie dormant without a place in the world,” he adds. Osagie’s youthful brashness also manifests in his frequent and probably unconsciously complacent self-characterisation: “I live differently” (138). With the means at his disposal, Osagie organises “a secret party … [held] off campus”, creating room for many forms of “wild” (“different”?) behaviour, “like nothing I had seen in my young life”, as Sam states. The morning after the party, Sam wakes up in bed, naked, with Osagie and a second-year physics student [earlier identified as “a girl” Sam spotted “sucking off a shirtless guy in a corner”], [his] head a whirlwind of blurring recollections” (139). All this probably appears all too predictable as a social and sexual “induction” to the (on many levels) still naive Sam.
Sam has plans to write a book of recollections that will (like the paintings of Edward Burra) make readers “see” “not the images but the places they immortalize, the moods therein … not exact reality but approximations … elusive but looming somewhere on the horizon” (140–1). He sounds a bit like Osagie when he adds that this as-yet-to-be-written memoir of his should be a text “rejecting conventions yet aware of their existence, gathering and documenting the dark side of society, alive but always dying, in the moment yet retrospective and forward looking”. Ogene is evidently (and sardonically) well aware that these are the typically grandiose plans of yet another young man with ambitions of literary greatness – and possibly also of the irony that the novel containing Sam’s naive articulation of these ideas itself had a good chance of earning accolades (as it, of course, would) for its ability to fulfil those plans. While Sam reminisces, with his psychology major friend droning on about traumatic memories and how people attempt to suppress them, he realises that “there are a few events that I look back upon and can sincerely see that they left scars on my memory”. First among these is (as many of Sam’s troubling memories seem to be) not so much a bad thing that happened to him personally, but his vicarious experience of deep pain or hurt felt by someone he cares deeply about. The first memory of this kind that he mentions remains partly obscure; he was a young child, and it is chiefly his mother’s “sobbing that night” that he cannot forget, although all he knows is that his father returned home after a week’s absence that night “with a gaping cut on his forehead, his whole body reeking of stale piss”. Their mother had not given the children even an inkling (if she knew, one must add) of where their father had gone; she had “turned into a wall”, Sam says. He has his guesses, though the boy excluded the possibility which Ricia had perhaps thought of, that their father had had a sexual “fling” of some kind; Sam thinks his father might have been set upon by thugs or falsely accused of theft by his bosses, and had possibly been jailed. It might also have been that the dad’s political dissatisfaction had been unwisely expressed, but their mother’s sorrow does make marital infidelity the most likely possibility (148–9). Revealingly, Sam’s first sight of youthful heterosexual intercourse is the second listed “traumatic experience” he mentions. He saw his older friend Ibe, the gossip, having sex (not that the boy even understood it as such, initially) with a girl he did not know. It was Ibe’s erection that most troubled the boy Sam: “it seemed to speak to me in a language that rang in my guts, sending mixed signals throughout my body” (149–50). These “mixed signals” stuck in his mind, possibly the initial indication that Sam would become or is bisexual, even though always (as here) more strongly attracted to males. Uzo (Sam’s “psychological” friend) believes (it seems), that being betrayed is the traumatic memory one is most likely to want to suppress or erase, but Sam subtly indicates that it would be betraying oneself or another (in the latter case, instances of such memories are most likely to be his failure to comfort Dora and prevent her suicide; also the fear for himself that stopped him from going to the aid of Dan, the butcher’s son, when the latter was attacked for his homosexuality). At the heart of everything is Sam’s awareness of “the uncertain person within” (185) – the self that is unable securely or confidently to inhabit any space or role.
Sam (who has taken to spending most nights in Osagie’s bed) first begins to recoil from him when he grows strongly aware of “the line … that … marked our difference” – ie how very wealthy his lover’s family is and how luxurious his childhood was. He says it “tickled and disgusted me at once” (166). The abundance of expensive foodstuffs on Osagie’s family table reminds Sam by contrast of a Christmas when they could not even afford chicken and rice, and of a party at his mother’s boss’s home that she had been “invited” to – actually to work in the kitchen. Sam allows his memories of cruelly privileged people he has encountered to erode his love of Osagie, though he later acknowledges his deeper fear of fully becoming the person he would have become in a long-lasting commitment to a man. Humbly and somehow apologetically, he concludes: “I was not prepared” (172). Sam drops out, leaving Osagie without explanation or contact details – the betrayal and self-betrayal for which he has been heading. He lives like a hermit among other students in a building resembling the blocks. His isolation is, at last, broken by a fellow drop-out “hermit”, Margaret, an artist and part-time prostitute with whom he shares a room. But he has a dream indicating his sorrow and guilt about abandoning Osagie, which is nevertheless tinged with a surmise that privilege and abundance have made him shallow:
I see him standing at the door like the shape of a tree … about to fall …. I can see the blood in his eyes boiling with questions I cannot decode …. [T]he longer we lock eyes, the more he transforms from a beautiful man into a vulnerable figure, weak and hollow, an empty gong …. [T]he image of Osagie continues to haunt my imagination. (180)
Osagie, says Sam, “was too much of a mirror. In him I saw my past contrasted with his past and present” (181). It is Sam who seems shallow in having so little awareness of how he has hurt Osagie. His relationship with Margaret, though including sex, mutual caring and conversational sharing, is “undefined” – “unnamed and untamed”, and also “a journey to friendship” (184). They discuss art and literature, especially poetry. Margaret’s father is a literary scholar, and they later pay him a visit.
Margaret’s mother was Caribbean; she died when her daughter was 12, in 1994 – the same year she and her father returned to Nigeria, settling in Abraka. There is tension between her and her father; she tells Sam that she broke her father’s heart by dropping out of art school – her beloved gay best friend had just died by suicide. Philip (her father) is affable, though Sam is not at ease; his personal source of tension is his feeling of lacking social sophistication. Again, the cleavage of privilege versus poverty colours the situation for Sam, though he is interested in and favourably impressed by their host’s account of Nigerian political history and the nation’s pervasive corruption – not only among politicians, but even in oppositional, supposedly principled, radical circles. This broke the heart of Philip’s best friend, Lucas – this brave man who for years edited the National Daily and “turned that paper into a major force”. Later, as press secretary to a minister, he resigned in disgust at “the nightly feasts on our collective wealth” (221). But he did not last long as head of the Nigeria office of the Coalition of Global Activists either, appalled that the siphoning off of funds for private gain was equally prevalent here. Margaret knew Lucas well, and she hears the sad news that he died three months ago, “a pauper, in pain and alone” (220). Reflecting on the visit, Sam feels that (with himself and even Margaret) “in Philip’s hands politeness became an instrument of separation” (226). Margaret never visits again.
An interlude depicts Sam and Margaret’s witnessing of government-backed “tax-gathering” – clearly extortionist practices – to which small, struggling sidewalk businesses are subjected. Yet, soon after this and as if in balance, Sam learns that the trader from whom he buys all his books obtains them himself as one of a network of Nigerian bookselling “beneficiaries” skimming off donations intended for schoolchildren and students who cannot obtain or afford them (232-236; 238). “Well, this is Nigeria” (238), the trader says. To Sam, all such “transactions” have harmed the “history of our race” (239).
Haunted by his memories of Osagie, Sam starts “strolling into campus once a week” (245), but never runs into him. The English Department has not even noticed Sam’s absence, but holds a letter sent to him by “Kalu Aminu”. The letter is from Pa Suku and is his quiet farewell message; he knows that his death is close and has returned to his home town, where he takes long daily walks, living in greater comfort than in the blocks. He tells Sam that he does not want him to worry, and that he’ll “simply pass without fanfare” (249). Sam cannot (yet) weep for his old mentor; before departing, he sensed Pa Suku’s withdrawing from the world and from him. And he has another perhaps even more dreaded letter to read: the second one is from Osagie, who sent the letter from Benin City. The letter has a poem clipped to it, Henri Cole’s “Sacrament” (cited 251) – a poem concerning the kind of betrayal to which Osagie feels Sam has subjected him, as the “letter” (in the form of a short story titled “Monologue for ex-neighbours”) confirms. Sam surmises that Osagie saw him in the company of Margaret and deduced that he had fled from a gay relationship to “safety” in a conventional and heterosexual relationship. The story, Sam states, predicts what Osagie expects will befall Sam, who in the story is “divided” into “victim and villain” as well as “the betrayed and the betrayer”. But the story evidently also and perhaps primarily expresses Osagie’s deeply felt hurt at Sam’s abrupt abandonment.
The witnessing voice in the story is that of someone “immobilized by grief”, shut up in his room, overhearing his neighbours (who believe him absent) unkindly discussing him in the context of some “new law”. More than likely, this refers to the law signed by Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan in January 2014, prohibiting “carnal knowledge of any person against the order of nature” or “gross indecency” at risk of 14 years’ imprisonment. No one expresses empathetic concern or speaks up for their neighbour – even the one person he hoped might have been kinder sneers: “[W]ell, what do I care? Bloody worms with base instincts.” The communal nastiness and prejudice exhibited in the story more or less “produces” the soldiers arriving at the door of this narrator – a story within a story pointing back to the novel’s overall concern with and for marginal figures. As innumerable accounts both factual and fictional have shown, such soldiers (policing social mores) act with brutal violence, and predictably the victim’s neighbours do not come to his aid in speech or action. So, he leaves this “space with [its] double-faced neighbours” whose “chuckles” are “sharp as the edges of a butcher’s knife” behind, leaving by bus for the hopefully more sheltering anonymity of a big city – in his case, Lagos. A boy named Lucky, on the bus (in the story) with his mother, may (the narrating figure states) – if he, too, is gay – “have to crawl into a crevice or face the gallows” in Nigeria one day (252–62).
Sensitive, incisive, compelling and moving, this unusual fictional memoir lingers in the reader’s mind, breaking through our usual reluctance to face the troubling questions it embodies.