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
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
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.
Read Meme's Diary
Diaries of a Dead African through Amazon.co.uk
J.M. Coetzee, Stranger Shores: Literary Essay
1986-1999, New York: Viking, 2001.