Readers on Reading in 2017 — Richard Ali

Emphasizing my Year in Books

“Some books hand me the license to question everything, even the life inside me and the lives of others too. Others leave layers of question that slowly evaporates as more pages make a revelation. Some books are just empty, and they need to be read as such. I have seen the truth in fiction and the fiction of truth. But the belief that fiction is the truth in the lie triumphs.”

Basit Jamiu, Confessions of a Book Lover.

2017 was a year of reading fine books, though not a lot of them. I doubt I managed more than 20 titles in the course of the year. So, I guess I will have to postpone my pipe dream of beating my Year 2008 record of reading just a little over a hundred books. That was in the glorious year between the end of my undergraduate programmme at Zaria and the start of NYSC, a year of travel when books were a passport to unusual destinations. In that year, I read a good chunk of my mentor and University of Jos Professor, Kanchana Ugbabe’s, library. I credit that year as an important part of my literary education, the discovery of Ondaatje particularly, for his precious, precious prose, Coetzee, of whom I’ve read everything except Waiting for the Barbarians, Kazuo Ishiguro, and others. I remember Helen Oyeyemi’s The Icarus Girl from that period, as well as Abidemi Sanusi’s two novels published by then hot new house Cassava Republic.

The most striking book I read in 2017 was Danda, by Nkem Nwankwo. In secondary school, we used an English textbook called Intensive English and one of the excerpts used in it was from Danda. It was a funny one in which the eponymous character gets into a brand new car belonging to a kinsman and shames the latter into driving him around Aniocha on account of their kinship ties. Danda was written in the period of serious African writing, indeed just eight years after Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. Yet, it has as its main character a jester and coward, what the Igbo call an alalogholi. No Okonkwo, however tragic, here. If Danda is a hero, he is a peculiar and a fetching one. The conflict dealt with deftly is one between traditional ways and modernity, as seen in the life of Danda and his irascible father whom he has to, but of course, disappoint. There is nostalgia in the way Nkem Nwankwo evokes the village life. We feel a certain pity in the insistencies and the cultural meanings emphasized by these characters that are coming undone at the seams. Danda is the heart of the Delta Igbo community and I see him even now, garlanded by bells yelling “Kliklikli!!!” with his flute in his hand, the king of bonhomie—“Daughters of beauty!” shouted Danda. “All the men love you. If there is a man who doesn’t love you let him put his head in a fire and see how he likes it. That song again, hoa!”

The opposite end of my reading from Danda would be the character behind the name Joseph Anton—I mean the novelist Salman Rushdie. My friend, South African novelist Zukiswa Wanner, was kind enough to send me a hardback of Joseph Anton in October after I’d confessed to wanting to read it. Salman Rushdie is famous, or infamous, for the 1989 Iranian fatwa following the publication of his novel, The Satanic Verses. Growing up in the 90’s, I met a Rushdie who was a celebrity like any other in that heady decade, finding him in the society pages of TIME Magazine and mentions in Newsweek, along with his then wife, the model Nadira. Later on, I held a range of opinions about this writer who had written an unimpressive book (Midnight’s Children being far superior, IMHO) and gotten into a great deal of trouble for it, these opinions tempered by my training as a lawyer as well as a distaste for poststructuralism in general. With these caveats, one is in the tricky position of being certain Rushdie was well within his rights to write whatever he liked and understanding why the people he offended would be, well, offended, even to the point of wanting to kill him. This extremity from a person, me, who has no religious beliefs whatsoever. I wanted to know what was going on in his mind in the period, hence the desire to read his memoirs. The memoir does not disappoint, and is often very unflattering. What comes across is a portrait of a certain generation of British thinkers for whom the field of experimentation was infinite and self-censorship did not resemble anything we have today. And I could see immediately how my judging him from a mind already impacted by 9/11 and a slew of fundamentalisms, Muslim and Christian, through from the late 90’s would see to an unfair understanding of him. Huge chunks of this book are uninteresting, but I read it all. I was fascinated by the activism around him, seeking to save his life and how eventually he emerged from hiding, giving the world a new narrative of writer-as-survivor. In his attitudes to Islam, and to his wives, we also see why the problems he’s had were inevitably from his nature.

And then there is the question of literary beauty. I think that there is such a thing about a beautiful novel, one that is able to transport you to a hazy, shimmering, colourful place where all symmetry is perfect and the threads of make-belief are unknown. This is why I understand Basit’s quote up there so implicitly. There is a correlation between this thing I have called beauty and what I believe to be value, the value of a book. In 2017, I read two books of true beauty.

Fiston Mujila’s Tram 83, a dizzy delight set in the Congo, follows the imprecise relationship between the friends Lucien and Requiem, is set around a train station in the underworld of a dictatorship. Fiston does something. Something that is an inexplicable something to this world of diamond hustlers and philosophers prostituting ideas while subversive prostitutes hold the tides of the world firm between their thighs. This underworld is true in every city in Africa, a space we glimpse where the rules behave differently and where each person we meet is truly themselves. At night, in Fiston’s book, each person is the sum of the power they can exert beyond the exertions of others equally seeking space and influence. Threading it all is the refrain, Do you have the time? Each word of this sentence is an explication condensed, as if there is a four-letter maximum rule in place. Do. You. Have. The. Time? The main plot line is the one of Lucien, a writer, wanting to get his texts published and in this story line, some of the most trenchant criticism of African literature is made. Read: “The main character in the African novel is always single, neurotic, perverse depressive, childless, homeless and overburdened with debt. Here, we live, we fuck, we’re happy. There needs to be fucking in African literature!” Ahem, and an amen to that.

Genius undoubtedly underlies this book that came as a gift which changed my life for the two weeks it took me to read it, I mean Junot Díaz’ The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. One of the things with being a sub-Saharan reader of books (and once upon a time a novelist too) is the difficulty in finding books that one wants to read. I was just leaving university when this book was published, back in 2007, and I followed all the reviews. But it was not until a decade later that my friend, Zimbabwean novelist Tendai Huchu, sent me a copy. One of the trickiest things is to get a character right and Diaz nails the eponymous character, Oscar de Leon, kpom kpam kpam perfect. This is the story of the de Leons and the Dominican Republic in the years of the Trujillo dictatorship. Oscar is an overweight, nerdy, virgin American sci-fi addict whose mother fled the Dominican Republic when the eye of the Trujillo state lands on her. His fate is sealed when he returns to the Dominican Republic and falls in love. Threading the novel is the idea of fuku which I must call the inexplicable. Call it the magical if you want.

Perhaps the most anticipated book in 2017 was The Ministry of Utmost Happiness by Arundhati Roy? I picked it up for 20 euros at the Universita Ca’ Foscari bookstore in Venice. I read it. I remember reading it. But it is not a great book. There are two primary story arcs, the first is about a hijra, a transvestite named Anjum and an interesting cast of characters living in a graveyard in Delhi. This story, inevitably, intersects with the story of Kashmir through the star crossed love of Tilotamma and Musa. Ms. Roy’s story of the insurgency in Kashmir and the brutality of the Indian defense forces is a powerfully observed one, but I could not help wondering why there was the need to marry it with Anjum’s. The Ministry of Utmost Happiness wears its politics boldly, and the prose is nice. But, all put together, it seems like something not quite well put together. I have a theory that the most important books are the ones you read twice at least. I have considered giving away all books that do not meet this criteria. That I have not done so indicates a failing on my part, a compulsion to acquire and stack books in shelves regardless of theories. But I think, should I ever deal, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is a book I can give away.

One of the last books I read was J. M. Coetzee’s The Childhood of Jesus, which I bought at the Lagos International Poetry Festival late in the year. It’s a post-apocalyptic story of a man and a precocious young boy who is not his son for whom nonetheless he feels a fatherly duty. A part of this duty is finding a mother for this child, this cross between an orphan and a bastard. A brilliantly executed story, such as anything Coetzee has ever done, and he brings a brutal eye to the myths and stories on which Christianity, as a way of ordering society, relies. But more than that, it is a story about men. I have been fascinated by men recently, in the sense that though I am wary of and out-of-hand reject all plurals, they nonetheless exist—men. Masculine, not-female. In the relationship between Simon and the boy, Coetzee is able to put out there the tetchy nature of the relationship between older men and younger men, an implicit understanding and yet a visceral irritation perhaps arising from that understanding. This is what I took from the book, and I think it’s a powerful, important thing.

The world of books is one I enter gladly, but I have come to realize that the time I spend in books is time that must be compensated in the “real” world. And that as the “real” world makes ever so determined demands on my time, I must choose the fictions and nonfictions I read with more discernment. I am afraid that the year 2008 and its near 150 books is gone forever, but there will always be the castles in my mind that fine writing unlocks and lets me enter. I hope that in 2018, I will sort out my books into those to be read twice and those not to be. The year is already promising. I look forward to new offerings from Novuyo TshumaTroy Onyango and perhaps Okwiri Oduor’s long anticipated debut, also Tj Benson’s novel on the Nigerian scene. Even more, I hope that, in this new year, I shall find and read more books that should be read twice.

Richard Ali is a Nigerian lawyer and poet. Author of a 2013 novel, City of Memories (Parrésia Books), his first collection of poems, The Anguish and Vigilance of Things, will be published by Konya Shamsrumi in 2018. He tweets @richardalijos.

This is the sixth of 10 pieces on Readers on Reading in 2017.

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