by Akin Adesokan,
Asst. Professor of Comparative Literature at Indiana University, Bloomington, USA.

Years ago I read a story in the London Review of Books. It was titled Diary of a Dead African. I liked it, very much, and made some general notes about it then. Now the story has become part of a book of the same title (note the plural form of Diaries), by Chuma Nwokolo Jr. He has gathered three diaries into this book, which makes a coherent novel, never mind J.M. Coetzee's argument that because he prefers to "assemble between the same covers three or four short narratives" Caryl Phillips "has yet to essay a truly large fiction" (Coetzee 2001, 168).

The dead man in the story which appeared in the LRB is Meme Jumai, and he achieves his status through a disarming mix of witty grace and active frustration over his slow harvest. Meme Jumai's wife, Ma'Abel, has abandoned him for a vulcanizer and his two sons--Calamatus and Abel--have made new lives in Warri, away from the Ikerre-Oti of their birth. While Jumai awaits the ripening of the new yam on his farm, he measures what remains from the previous harvest by the day, and goes around the village suggesting to friends and relatives that he needs help. They know him well, he's one of them; so they avoid him, and he returns home after every snubbing mumbling to himself, addressing his brilliant witticisms to the wall. And the reader eavesdrops. Humor palls on harvest day, however. An exasperated Jumai listens as people return from the farm, wailing about termites and the damage to their yams. No one will buy the old black-and-white television he has inherited from his father. Finally he reaches for his gun (also inherited) from the rafters and heads for the village square to "let what happens happen!" He is 50.

Calamatus (Calama) turns out to be a con-man who sets up an elaborate story to which Billy Barber, an American, falls prey. During his time in Warri he has become versed in the art of confidence tricks, and boasts association with the best in the business. Following his father's death Calama returns to Ikerre-Oti, and given his mercurial, self-destructive nature, quarrels with everyone, from the Igwe down to the common villagers. He resents them for their indifference to the manner of his father's death ("They burned Pa..." 53.) Meanwhile his transactions with Billy Barber go on (we know this when his fax machine begins to "sing"), and he surrounds himself with loyal hangers-on who are fiercely protective of him. But he also nurses very old grudges, for he has been rendered impotent by an error of the midwife who delivered him. He resolves to avenge this accident, but he's overwhelmed by a combination of family history and personal failings--anger, self-destructiveness, and lack of perspectives. He, too, follows his resolve where it leads. Corpses continue to mount, but it is not yet the end of Hamlet. He is only 25.

Abel, the second brother, is a writer determined to break out of the destructive chain that has bound his family to the same old story. It turns out that Meme Jumai is not his biological father, and for this he nurtures a deep anger toward his mother, Stella Honey-Joe. Writing is virtually hopeless in this situation, but Abel is determined. After a recent accident in which he breaks his arm and another man, Tendu, loses his leg, he returns to his writing. His hope of settling down to married life had been shattered when, before his death, Calama disrupted the ceremony out of vengeance on his brother's in-laws.

Tezera, the publisher who takes Abel's manuscripts, has his own ideas about writing, so he keeps rejecting Abel's work, while suggesting what he thinks will sell. To feed himself the writer ghostwrites as Anga Alli for a political newspaper, penning eulogies of vote-seeking charlatans. All around him, Warri has been polarized or tripolarized by ethnic suspicions and fighting that are hardly distinguishable from the political con-games. We are reminded of the horror of Ajegunle in 1999, when houses were protected by signs that said, "This is not Ijaw house!"

Associates of his late brother resurface to claim the money they suspect has been lodged in his name. Although he's not interested, Abel's indecisiveness, as strong as Calama's self-destructiveness, ensures that these people continue to pester him. When he appears at the offices of his publisher to sign the contract for an anticipated two-book deal, Abel encounters a dubious form that requires him to sign away his brother's money, thus bringing his literary aspiration and brief career in political hagiography into sharp confrontation with the ghost of his brother's past deals. He declines, returns home (there's a lot of returning home — whatever it is — in these narratives), only to be dogged by Tendu who kills himself/is killed in circumstances that incriminate Abel, precipitating his flight from Warri and sojourn in Cameroon, Chad, etc.

Back in Ikerre-Oti fifteen months later, Abel meets Billy Barber, who is determined to exact due recompense for his lost money. The duelling game isn't over, and Abel's death certificate is yet to be written. He only goes to get the door.

"Diaries of a Dead African" is a skilfully conceived book. Meme Jumai is a sarcastic, self-deprecating character who activates proverbs and idioms that speak to his all-too-familiar condition. These proverbs are neither original nor necessarily derivative—they come out of circumstances, as proof that adversity produces something beside the indifference in which the family members wallow. Much of the skill registers in the fact that the last two diaries lack the cutting subtlety of the first: the father's sensitivity is embodied in the sarcastic broadsides, proverbs and axioms that never fail, even when he craves the stamina required to voice them. Witness: "the crab in the pot finds no solace in the fact that his whole family is boiling with him" (32). There's a direct emotional link between the privation of the utterer of this statement and its very texture; so measured is Nwokolo's sense of the material that the link clinks and tugs at others, as in a chain. Abel's entries, the longest, also best capture the nuances of Nigerian speech, especially in the statements of henpecking Stella Honey-Joe. ("Okay, if I wrote the letter, so therefore?"; "How should I know...Something that happened so many years ago." 145, 146.) They also come across as exceedingly confident, in spite of Abel's clear indecisiveness. When placed beside Calama's, this diary shows a familiarity with the profitable drudgery of writing, the ability to affect a juicy turn-of-phrase lacking in the former, which is written by a pompous illiterate.

Indeed, the status of the form of diary speaks to the fate of the writer in contemporary Nigerian society, as variously registered in Biyi Bandele's Lamkemf and Rayo, Okey Ndibe's journalist Femi Adero, this writer's Musin, and Helon Habila's Lomba. The writers of these diaries record, as writers do, their miseries and fantasies in circumstances of disabling indifference. The writer-characters in the novels under reference posit writing as a space of internal exile, and are dogged in this, but the tempestuous dust of the stone country is as dogged in knocking the pen off their hands.

Nwokolo is not very kind to his characters, or more accurately, does not permit them to be kind to themselves. This is most obvious in Calama's entries, which are decidedly stiff because they're penned by an illiterate who is also self-regarding. So deliberate is this device that in order to sustain it, Nwokolo cannot let the writing founder. He therefore characterizes Calama by the refrain, "This is war!", the utterance of a clueless but headstrong person. In these cases, the prose tends to be stiff, and the author is seen to be making an effort to let it stick. It comes from knowing one's onions too well, which ought not to be a bad thing.

This writer's themes—societal indifference, devotion to art, human dignity—are important and cleverly argued. At a time when focusing on the travails of small people through art would seem like a missionary deal from the point of view of the bottomline, this is a worthy pursuit. I genuinely hope that this writer's work gets the readers it deserves.

Akin Adesokan
(2001, 2004.)

Read Meme's Diary

Buy Diaries of a Dead African through Amazon.co.uk

Work cited:
J.M. Coetzee, Stranger Shores: Literary Essay
1986-1999, New York: Viking, 2001.

 
 
 
       
   
 


Chuma Nwokolo's Diaries of a Dead African is a novel in three diaries written by an embattled farmer, Meme Jumai, and his two sons, Abel (failed writer) and Calama (aspiring conman). Funny and idiosyncratic, Diaries presents an authentic face of a private dilemma with universal and tragic dimensions. A condensed version of Meme's Diary was published by London Review of Books. In 2002 it was translated into Italian for a special edition of Internazionale featuring their three best stories from around the world. A purged entry from Diaries was translated into Slovenian for Arzenal, a publication of the Slovenian Academy of Sciences and Arts;
another won the Subway Lit prize.

 
     
     
Chuma Nwokolo, Jr. is an author and attorney. He is publisher of African Writing magazine. Called to the Bar in 1985, he published his first novel with Macmillan in 1983. He has a passion for the short story and his African Tales at Jailpoint (Villagerhouse) appeared in 1999. He has published four novels, a short story anthology, a collection of essays, and a poetry collection (Memories of Stone).

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