words follow me


archive of essays by Teju Cole for NEXT newspaper

keeping sizwe bansi alive

Sizwe Bansi is Dead—currently on a four-week run at Terra Kulture under the direction of Sunkanmi Adebayo—is doubly remarkable as a piece of theatre. In the first instance, it is a collaborative work, the result of a unique theatrical process.

Athol Fugard (one of the great living dramatists, and a white South-African), essentially co-wrote the play with two black actors, John Kani and Winston Ntshona. Fugard’s preliminary ideas in 1972 were deepened through Kani and Ntshona’s improvisations. The result is a play that feels and sounds right, a serious work on the black South African experience that nevertheless retains the joyfulness of human life.

The question it asks is: what does it mean to be a human being? The answer is basic, and a little bitter: to be a human being is to find a way to survive, even in appalling situations.

The play is remarkable for another reason: the fluid nature of the collaboration between Fugard, Kani and Ntshona basically gave all three of them “plausible deniability.” Were there to have been trouble with the law – and the play was certainly critical enough of the status quo to have invited such trouble – all three of the authors could say, “I didn’t write it!”

Yet, the commitment of these three to the vision expressed in the work was such that Fugard would later describe it as “a form of Zen spontaneity,” to which any sort of pretence or deception would have been fatal. Let me draw a distinction between the point of Sizwe Bansi is Dead and its purpose. The purpose of the play, as in all tragic theatre, is cathartic; that catharsis is here established by bringing us into the emotions of survival and the desire to live.

The point of the play is quite something else: to demonstrate how the life of a human being is tangled up with documentation. Fugard and his collaborators show us how complex it can be to navigate this knot of paperwork, particularly within the network of petty humiliations that propped up the apartheid state. We see how absurd it is, this insistence on putting paper before people, and we see the weight of suffering it can bring with it. The action of the play, like the existential theatre in which it originates, is confined to a minimal setting.

The original performances had Kani and Ntshona playing the three written roles; the current Nigerian run (the production is by Wole Oguntokun) has three actors. Styles, a photographer, opens the play with a long monologue, which lasts about a third of the performance time. He is a modestly successful man, having escaped the frustrations of a menial factory job to open his own photography studio. That newfound career enables him to tell us the stories of his people, the poor black people living in the township.

The act of having a photo taken is like a door into a person’s dreams. As Styles says, foreshadowing some of the play’s later action, “You must understand one thing. We own nothing except ourselves. The world and its laws allows us nothing, except ourselves. There is nothing we can leave behind when we die except the memory of ourselves.” Photography becomes a handy deposit of this essential work of memory.

Not long afterwards, in walks a man who really does own nothing but himself. He introduces himself as Robert Zwelinzima. That is the name in his passbook, the name under which he works and is paid, the name under which he got his suit on a payment plan; but it is not, of course, his real name. He has borrowed it from a dead body he discovered one night, because his own real passbook contains a stamp that disqualifies him from working or living in Port Elizabeth. The name in his own real passbook is Sizwe Bansi. So, who then is this man: is he Sizwe or is he Robert? As far as the state is concerned, he is Robert Zwelinzima. Sizwe Bansi, to the best of the state’s knowledge, is dead.

It is not a deception Sizwe has undertaken lightly. He has contemplated (with the assistance of a third character, Buntu) the dispiriting realities of bureaucracy: a letter of approval from the Native Commissioner in King William’s Town (where he is from), another from the Native Commissioner in Port Elizabeth (where he wishes to stay), a stamp from the Senior Officer at the Labour Bureau, a visit to the Administration Office in New Brighton, and then an application for a Hawker’s Permit. None of it is possible, anyway, because he has already overstayed his welcome in Port Elizabeth, and is essentially living a fugitive existence.

As the unsentimental Buntu says to him, “There’s no way out Sizwe. You’re not the first one who has tried to find it.” So, he acquires Robert Zwelinzima’s passbook, memorises his Native Identity number, and becomes Robert. “We burn this book,” his friend advises him, referring to the original passbook, “and Sizwe Bansi disappears off the face of the earth.”

In his most recent novel Diary of a Bad Year, J.M. Coetzee puts it this way: “Whether the citizen lives or dies is not a concern of the state. What matters to the state is whether the citizen is alive or dead.”

It is a chilling truth. You are not really born until the state issues you a birth certificate; you’re not officially dead until someone pronounces you as such and signs a piece of paper to that effect. And the person who does this certification must himself be certified by the state. Between those two extremes, just how often are you required to prove, with the aid of an identification card or some form of endorsed document, that you are yourself? This burden of proof is what makes the heart race every time a policeman, his fingers twitching on the barrel of his gun, stops you to demand your particulars.

Sizwe Bansi, among friends, at church, and in letters to his family, remains Sizwe Bansi; only to the police and the authorities is he Robert Zwelinzima. To be a human be ing is to be in constant battle against this state-imposed mania for documentation, to keep the inner Sizwe alive even while masquerading as a Robert. To be human is to discover that there can be an unsuspected dignity in compromise.

Thirty-seven years after it was first performed, Sizwe Bansi is Dead continues to ring true as an indictment of apartheid-era cruelties in particular, and state-sponsored psychological violence in general. It is the kind of testament, the kind of document, that humanity could do with more of, and for it, we are eternally in the debt of Athol Fugard, John Kani and Winston Ntshona.


Filed under: literature, , ,

still feeling sheepish

By now the story of the man who turned into a sheep in Ilorin has been circulated and commented upon, and is already fading from the news. But before it slips completely from view, I want to look at some of the stories around it, how those stories were told, and what is revealed by the tellings.

Like everyone else, I found the report tasty. Absurdity has its thrills. But I was also interested in the way the story was reported, particularly the differences between Nigerian and British coverage of the story.

For the BBC, it is important to present such stories as a straight “news of the weird” item, to simplify the narrative and reactions to it as much as possible. The average British reader would have come away from the report thinking, “This is what Nigerians believe.” It wouldn’t be fair to blame the journalists for this; I know that the very question of what story gets run is an editorial matter.

In fact, the BBC’s Abuja correspondent, Andrew Walker, was better than most in this regard, including a range of local opinions. My critique is more about systemic biases than about particular journalists—how, and why, is a story like this packaged for British consumption?

For the Nigerian media – at least in its more enlightened corners—the story was reported much more accurately. It was told as a contest between epistemologies, between theories of knowledge: there were the believers (the leader of the vigilantes, Omoniyi Nasirudeen, and Aafa Onifowose, the local Imam who “confirmed” the story, though he wasn’t an eyewitness); the agnostics, who refused to commit entirely to one version or the other (the police officers); and the non-believers who were a little embarrassed at having to make public statements about such things (the state police commissioner).

All of these are included in the narrative. I especially enjoyed NTA’s ironic angle, encapsulated in the attempt by journalist, Funke Ibidamisan, to talk to the sheep:

“Hello?… (silence). Hello, Sheep? Are you a human being?… (more silence). Well you can see, as expected, the sheep is not answering me. So, what do you think?”

The nub of the issue is precisely that: what do you think? Yes, there are people who excitedly “confirm” the story, but there are also those who scoff at it and refuse to engage. And there’s a third group who see that the story says interesting things about the production of knowledge, that it hints at a larger question: how do we know what we know? Is the Bermuda Triangle real? Do UFOs exist? Is it true or is it not true that God magically made a sheep appear to Abraham just as he was about to sacrifice his boy?

It would be important, in my view, to bring this “what do you think” to the centre of any such story, so that it is clear that there are competing versions of truth. Nothing is settled – this is what British people listening to the BBC need to understand when they are encountering a “weird” story about Nigeria.

They must get it that they are neither more nor less reasonable than their Nigerian counterparts; in all modern societies, people make a distinction between what is scientifically substantiated and what isn’t, and that distinction does not fall uncomplicatedly into “true” and “false.”

But it is perhaps necessary for the BBC, in order to perpetuate the “Rule Britannia” myth, to constantly suggest that “weird” is out there: in Brazil, in Nigeria, in India, anywhere but inside their own civilisation. Whatever happens close to home can be explained and taken seriously. Distance estranges.

Yet, the story of shape-shifting is as old as the hills. We all know the tale of the princess and the frog. She kisses him one day, and the spell is broken: he becomes a prince. Meanwhile, the Greek god Zeus, to trick unsuspecting maidens, took on many guises: bull, cloud, swan, shower of gold. These are the prerogatives of a horny god.

For the Romans, too, shape-shifting was endlessly fascinating. One of their most popular texts was Ovid’s Metamorphoses, which is full of stories of people becoming something other than people. Daphne was turned into a laurel tree in her bid to escape Apollo. Actaeon accidentally offended Artemis, and for his pains was transformed into a stag, and killed by his own hounds.

One of the twentieth-century’s greatest books, Kafka’s Metamorphosis, opens with the line: “As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect.” Why has this story become one of the iconic works of literature? Gregor Samsa is a stand-in for those of us who sometimes say, “I just don’t feel like myself today.”

And even in parts of Britain, it is believed that witches convert themselves into hares in order to steal milk and butter. A wonderful recent poem, “The Lammas Hireling” by Ian Duhig, is centred on such a story. Someone hired a farm-worker at a county fair, only to later catch him, one night, turning into a hare.

The point of all these stories is this: the border between humans and animals is porous. This is not a new thing, nor is it a Nigerian thing. It seems to fulfill a deep-seated need—a narrative need—and I think we should resist the temptation to say that the stories that express this need are somehow tied to illiteracy.

After all, on the level of metaphor and religious symbolism, we continue to think of animals as a kind of double for people. Animal sacrifice, as anthropologists have shown, is a substitute for human sacrifice. Sins are transferred to the sheep, to the “scapegoat,” and the animal bears the brunt of human misdemeanour.

So, as goes Rome, goes Ilorin: the police commissioner of Kwara state command eventually ordered the accused sheep auctioned. It was sold off, as “unclaimed goods,” for a mere N300. It is a wonderful story, one Ovid would have been pleased to include in his book.

But I have questions. Did the sheep eventually end up in a bowl of pepper soup? Are those who partook of any such meal at risk of being charged with cannibalism? And do these intrepid souls now feel an occasional urge to go into the crowded city streets and steal a Mazda?

Filed under: literature, , ,

a tale of four speeches

At the beginning of December last year, the newly named Nobel Laureate in Literature, J.M.G. Le Clézio, addressed the Swedish Academy. The Nobel Lecture is typically an opportunity to say thank you and to declare the writer’s essential loyalties. Both tasks are often accomplished as one: to indicate indebtedness can itself be a form of gratitude.

For the literature Laureates, this indebtedness is often narrated around personal origins and writerly influences. We see the writer, sometimes for the first time, emerge from the shadow of his or her books. It is interesting to look at Le Clézio’s speech in the context of three other Nobel Lectures from the past decade.

V.S. Naipaul was awarded the prize in 2001, and caused a furore when he thanked the United Kingdom, of which he is a subject, and India, the land of his ancestors, but not Trinidad, where he was born and raised. This was in keeping with Naipaul’s often stated dismay at “half-formed” societies and the “mimic men” who populated them. His rejection of Trinidad was merely the visible symptom of a larger rejection: a rejection of Africa, a rejection of what one scholar has termed “the darker nations.” Naipaul’s actual debt to Africa is deep: he has travelled widely on the continent and has written many narratives on it, from the insightful Crocodiles of Yamoussoukro to the troubling A Bend in the River. Research for his current project brought him to Nigeria last year. But, facing the Swedish Academy seven years ago, he only thanked Proust. The rest—Trinidad, Africa, the Muslim world—were characterised by him as “areas of darkness.”

Two years after Naipaul’s win, the prize went to an African, albeit a white one. J.M. Coetzee’s deep ethical commitment, and the stunned clarity with which he has approached the horrors of apartheid, merited him the prize. However his speech was (somewhat in keeping with Coetzee’s wily approach to public proclamations) a bloodless fable set in Lincolnshire. The story is told by Robinson Crusoe, and vaguely concerns the interaction between Crusoe and “his man,” presumably Crusoe’s servant, Friday. Coetzee is concerned, as always, to limit himself only to what can be honestly said—in this case, about the relationship between two men of different backgrounds. Is brotherhood possible? Must there always be a master and a slave? Coetzee’s reticence is admirable, especially in comparison with Naipaul’s blanket condemnations. Yet we find ourselves wishing he would directly address the Africa of his birth, and the ways in which Africans have influenced the practice of his art.

The 2007 winner was Doris Lessing, another white African. Lessing is a committed feminist writer and an open-hearted human rights activist. Her touch is sure in outlining the many ways in which history has short-changed women and denigrated female energies. All her writing has been a corrective to those denigrations and, unlike Coetzee and Naipaul, she addresses human rights directly in her lecture. At the centre of it is a simple story about libraries and Zimbabwe. But Lessing’s Africans are poor, bare, forked creatures, learning to read English from the labels on jam jars and from discarded encyclopedias. Her good-hearted descriptions, and her pleas to save Africa, draw me up short. They ring false in my ears, because she has selected a convenient Africa, one that is defined only by poverty and need.

Her story about a poor young mother, “trudging through the dust,” who falls in love with Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina fails to move me because she has not also found room for African writers, universities, schools, or newspapers. For Lessing, if there is a relationship at all between the African and the Westerner, it is one of supplicant and benefactor. Her speech does not even share the reticence and subtlety of Coetzee, who longs for brotherhood at the same time that he mourns its absence.

This brings us to Le Clézio, a Frenchman who has lived all over the world (including a spell, as a child, in Onitsha). Le Clézio approached the podium of the Swedish Academy with a rather startling humility. He gave heartfelt thanks “to the Africans: Wole Soyinka, Chinua Achebe, Ahmadou Kourouma, To the great Mauritian author Malcolm de Chazal, who wrote, Mongo Beti, to Alan Paton’samong other things, Judas.” He gave thanks to Aimé Césaire, the great poet from Martinique. He paid homage to novelists from Mexico and India. And, yes, he also thanked Rabelais and Dante and Joyce.

Le Clézio’s speech is a bracing experience, a high-definition picture of the way we read now, of the way we live: no matter who we are, or where we are, our debts are deep and numerous. No African writer who claims to owe the West nothing can be taken seriously, nor can any Western writer who denies, in this day and age, a profound debt to the searing intellects of “the darker nations.” In this tale of four speeches from the new millennium, Le Clézio’s is the one that best illuminates our multifarious present.

Filed under: literature, , , , , ,

an english of our own

My people, how far? The four words in the preceding sentence are recognisable to any speaker of English. There is nothing strange about the syntax, and the words, in this order, have a meaning in standard British English. It could mean, for instance, that the speaker calls on a group he identifies with and asks them about a distance travelled. But it is unlikely that this is the meaning that would have come to mind for any reader of NEXT. My people, how far? It is purely English, but it is English as spoken in Nigeria.

Whether we learned English in a Nigerian schoolroom in the pre-1960 colonial days, or sometime in the decades that followed, the experience for all of us will have involved difficulties and laughter. Each day of my own time in school was a risk: pity the poor student who said something unidiomatic or grammatically incorrect. Such “shelling” would be followed by the “scattering” of classmates. The incident—an answer flubbed in the classroom, a sentence gone renegade on your tongue—would haunt you for years afterwards.

These are the games pupils play. But the vigilance that we took to avoid “shelling” perhaps hinted at wider societal anxieties. English is not ours, in the sense that it did not originally evolve in this land. In the years since it was first imposed on us, it has been more than a mere means of communication: it has served, in part, as a demarcation between the elite and the unlettered. Within this linguistic economy, to be “correct” is the highest virtue.

It is curious that, in our passion to master the language—this Norman French craft built on a Germanic chassis—we haven’t often enough asked where our view of “correct” English comes from. Language, after all, is a flexible thing, swimming swiftly in the current of time.

The English of 1966 has only the faintest resemblance to the English of 1066. Shakespeare speaks at an angle to Milton, and Milton at a few removes from Dickens. By the nineteenth century, an American variant of the language was recognised, not as a “wrong” version of English, but as a valid regional take, its own legitimate thing hammered out of the forge of Whitman, Dickinson and Twain (more accurately, it is many things, born of many forges).

By the time the twenty-first century began, Indians had their English too, a highly excitable mélange, that owed more than a little to Victorian speech, but was also full of Hindi loanwords and direct translations from the country’s numerous native languages. News of Indian English was ferried to the world via the medium of literature in the 1980s and 90s, particularly through the works of Salman Rushdie, and the many writers working in the territory he opened up: Arundhati Roy, Kiran Desai, Vikram Seth and others. In return, Booker Prizes flowed from the UK towards South Asia. It was a case of “the Empire strikes back,” as Rushdie once remarked.

What then of Nigerian English? The stage has surely been set for it, from the deceptively simple sentences of Things Fall Apart, to the compressed ritual rhetoric of Death and the King’s Horseman. A specifically Nigerian cadence and rhythm has been brought to the world’s ears. That early labour has found new strength in books like Everything Good Will Come, Half of a Yellow Sun and Waiting for an Angel.

These are not merely Nigerian stories; they are told in the Nigerian language of English. In more comic and desperate vein, we should perhaps also include in this survey some less elevated writings such as the countless 419 letters that go out from this country into the unsuspecting world daily.

Nigerian English is distinct from pidgin, though it has some syntax and vocabulary in common with it. It shares ninety-eight percent of its DNA with its British, American, Indian and Ghanaian cousins, but the two percent that it doesn’t share is potent.

Some examples: the word “sorry” in Nigeria is not restricted to apology, since it is also frequently used to express commiseration. You lose your house in a fire, and a Nigerian says sorry—don’t take it as an admission of guilt. When we say, “how is your side?” we are not making an anatomical inquiry. “At all!” actually means “no.” “Okada” and “danfo” can’t be more pithily described other than with those words, and “madam,” as an honorific, is far broader in its Nigerian use than elsewhere.

To our ears, “trafficator” doesn’t sound archaic (as it would to a Brit) or incomprehensible (as it would to an American): it is simply a signalling device in a car. This English bears many traces of the vernaculars around it, absorbing structural elements and modes of thought from them. Without a grasp of Nigerian English, Nollywood films would be mystifying.

Now I can already hear those who will say that the English language in Nigeria is an unstable thing, that it is all the time being transmuted and is changing before our very eyes: how can we know what is correct? But all languages in all places are being transmuted. Language never sits still. This is why I am a descriptivist and not a prescriptivist: how a language is used in the present is much more interesting than how it should be “properly” used.

This all makes me wonder why the American and British variants of English continue to be held up as incontestable ideals, as received religions for which the Oxford English Dictionary and Webster’s are sacred texts, while Nigerian English is not even recognised as such by its own speakers. My people, how far?

Filed under: literature, , ,

the slick mindset

Corruption, by Tahar Ben Jelloun

He takes out a sheet of paper, and makes a list of resolutions: he will walk naturally, will stop smoking, will cut out TV, take up a sport (calisthenics or bicycling), keep a diary, and have a talk soon with the woman he’s been hoping to have an affair with. But as anyone who has attempted self-reform can attest, actual change is much more difficult than the decision to change.This is especially so in Mourad’s case because of the great change that is driving all his minor ones: he has decided, after much thought and agonizing, to stop being the honest and poor government functionary he’s always been.

No more for him the role as “a grain of sand” in a totally corrupt system, no more the role of impoverished husband and fearful father. From now on, he’ll conform; he’ll emulate his assistant, the unctuous and undereducated Haj Hamid; he will participate, after holding out for so long, in the elaborate system of bribes that has enriched many others in Morocco’s Ministry of Development. “It’s time,” he says, “to make up for the empty years and dry seasons when nothing was going on.” He is determined to “have the slick mindset of a corrupt man.” Sound familiar? This is a tale that could easily have been set in Lagos or Port Harcourt or Abuja.

The problem for Mourad is that even after he opens himself up to this life of monetary bliss, the thinking doesn’t stop. The agonizing only intensifies. At first, he only has to deal with his own doubts about this new way of life.

Certainly, the money makes him feel good: he can take his daughter on a daytrip to Tangier; he himself, once a penny pincher, can indulge at a moment’s whim in one of Casablanca’s finer dining establishments. But soon there are deeper complications.

Hlima, his harridan of a wife, suspects something is up. The object of his desire, the widow Najia, tells him she’s attracted to him only because he’s a rare honest man. And his subordinate at work, Haj Hamid, so helpful in the transition to corruption, becomes more difficult to read. Paranoia creeps in, and much of the action of the book is Mourad’s hysterical analysis of everything in his life.

Such is Tahar Ben Jelloun’s skill as a storyteller that the thoughts flow naturally into one another, and a compelling farcical web is woven out of one man’s hesitant foray into a life of greed.

What is perhaps most outstanding about this little book is the fluency and lightness of the authorial voice. It recalls, in the close attention it pays to the machinations of a single mind, Camus’ Meursault. But Mourad is no murderer, and his story is much more picaresque.

His mind sways from daydreams about wealth and amorous encounters, to the hard practicalities of getting himself out of each fix he stumbles into. Corruption is altogether harder on the nerves than he’d expected. He hides one stash of bills, given him as a bribe, in a copy of Heidegger’s Being and Time: it’s an apt piggybank for him: few other characters in recent fiction have been so assailed with existential doubt.

Corruption was originally published in French as L’Homme Rompu. The English translation, by Carol Volk, is supple and avoids cliché.

Tahar Ben Jelloun is well-known as a newspaper columnist in France, and has won both the Prix Goncourt (in 1987 for The Sacred Night) and the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award (in 2004, for This Blinding Absence of Light). He is an acute writer, and he doesn’t “blow grammar.” He deserves to be better known to African audiences. Perhaps this delightful and timely book will open his work to a new set of readers.

Filed under: literature, , ,

an obey song

Virtually every Yoruba person of a certain age knows The Horse, the Man and his Son, the 1973 release by Chief Commander Ebenezer Obey and His International Brothers Band. It is a miliki number, in the slow tempo Juju style for which Obey has been famous since the sixties. In its languid storytelling, Obey’s style stands in contrast to the propulsive rhythms that have been King Sunny Ade’s trademark during the same time-period.

There’s no better example of this style than the The Horse, the Man and his Son. The song, which unfolds over the course of twenty minutes, with the musical accompaniment of a choppy but sparkling guitar line (which, in parts, owes more than a little to Anglican hymns) and subtle polyrhythmic drums, starts with the following refrain: “Ko s’ogbon t’o le da, ko s’iwa t’o le wu, ko s’ona t’o le mo, t’o lefi t’aiye l’orun o.”

This can be loosely translated as follows: “There’s no trick you can play, there’s no strategy you can employ, there’s no path you can know, to satisfy the people of the world.” or, briefly as, “There’s no pleasing people.”

Obey then sings a wry series of short descriptive songs about the ways of the world: the mockery that comes to those who work hard in school, the envy that even little children fall prey to when one of their mates has a bicycle, the petty recriminations faced by those who try to be upright in the workplace, or the disdain in which a man might be held for drinking Coke at a party instead of beer.

These humorous little stories, about being called names just for doing things differently, are always followed by the chorus line, “O ti bo s’owo aiye,” i.e., “He has fallen into the hands of the world.” It’s hard to convey the sweet and gentle humour of these songs, but listening to the song just now made my eyes a little misty. I began to remember the many late-night parties I attended in Nigeria in the 80s at which I heard Obey being played. I went in the company of my uncles, aunts and cousins; we kids ate jollof-rice and moin-moin while the grown-ups sipped their Star Lager and Guinness Extra Stout.

The centrepiece of the song is the tale promised in the title, that of the man, his son, and their donkey. The title on the album—which is given in English, breaking with Obey’s usual practice, about which more anon—identifies a horse. But the Yoruba word “ketekete” definitely refers to a mule or donkey. The standard word for horse is “esin.” The story Obey tells, and which, thanks to him, remains a living part of the cultural memory of the Yoruba, is as follows:

A father and his son needed to go on a journey, so they bought a donkey. The father, an old man, got on the donkey, and they started their journey, with the son walking alongside him. Someone suddenly accosted them, “Lazy old man! How dare you force a little boy to walk in the burning sun?”

So the father got off, and put his son on the animal. Someone else passing by said audibly, “What a rude little boy. Why won’t he let his poor old father ride?” So the father got on the donkey as well. As they approached a village, they saw a crowd gathering. “Those two heartless riders are trying to kill that poor donkey.”

So they both got off, and walked alongside the donkey. At another village, they were met with whispers. “Are these two crazy or what? They’re walking alongside a perfectly strong animal!” At which point the father said to his son, in the words of the song’s refrain, “There’s no trick you can play, there’s no strategy you can employ, there’s no path you can take, to satisfy the people of the world.”

In the course of some other study recently, I found an engraving of a father and his son carrying a donkey. The print was made at the tail-end of the sixteenth century in Antwerp by Karel van Mallery, after a drawing by Ambrosius Francken. It was part of a print series depicting the same story as in Obey’s, virtually identical in its details, with the exception of the added absurdity of the father and son actually carrying the animal. Well, how on earth did Obey have access to a Flemish folktale?

So I did some more research, and what I found was that the source of the story wasn’t even contemporary to the print, but was actually antique. Specifically, it was the work of the master of stories of this kind, Aesop. I felt a little silly about discovering this because, in retrospect, it is obvious.

The English title—for a song that’s sung entirely in Yoruba—should have given away the fact that the story comes from outside the Yoruba tradition. And the neatness of the fable, as well as its use of an animal protagonist, is absolutely characteristic of Aesop. Then again, it’s characteristic of Yoruba tales, too.

It turns out, though, that the Aesop manuscript tradition has the animal as a donkey in one case, and as a horse in another. Chauncey Finch argues that the horse was probably the earlier version, with the donkey substituted in later, perhaps in late medieval times, so that the additional comic element of the father and son carrying the animal could be included.

Finch’s article indicates that the earliest surviving documentation for this story is medieval. The fable, therefore, is probably not by Aesop, but is in the category of writings known as Aesopica (imitations of Aesop). Those who want to read more can hunt down the Transactions of the American Philological Society Association, vol. 108 (1978), and look up the article, “Aesopica in Codex Pal. Lat. 1378.”

In any case, so seamless and idiomatic is Obey’s storytelling, and so integral is the song to my idea of modern Yoruba music, that the idea that it had an external source had not crossed my mind until now. My guess is that he picked it up in a British colonial schoolroom sometime before Nigerian independence in 1960, perhaps in a textbook edition in a collection of Aesop’s fables.

The question now is who will go and inform the Senegalese and the Cambodians and the many other peoples who have versions of this tale that “their” traditional story was actually invented by a long-dead Greek slave or (as is more likely) by an obscure medieval humanist? Maybe no one should tell them. If there’s one thing I have learned, it’s that there’s no pleasing people.

Filed under: literature, , , , ,

a traffic in shadows

It is impossible to forget even now the excitement that accompanied the Super Eagles’ first foray into the World Cup. The year was 1994, and the tournament was being held in the USA. We celebrated our first game and first win: a 3-0 thrashing of Bulgaria. Not long afterwards, we brushed aside Greece, 2-0. It was perhaps unfortunate that, of the four teams we met that year, the other two were Italy and Argentina.

The Eagles were summarily dispatched, and headed back to Lagos. Yet the memories that remain are these: what it was like to have a representative on a global stage, to have one’s colours displayed before the world, to hope and at the same time to secretly know that one hopes in vain.

The sensation matches, almost exactly, what it was like to witness a poet at Barack Obama’s inauguration. Elizabeth Alexander, she of the doubly imperial name, approached the podium almost as a representative of all writers.

The public sphere is famously impatient with poetry. Life in the capitalistic marketplace unfolds in numbers and prose. But here, suddenly in view of countless millions, was a lyric poet. Sadly, expectation did not match performance.

Alexander gave a wooden reading of a mediocre poem, and the emotions poets and writers felt in the aftermath would have been familiar to any broken-hearted football fan: first we blamed the performance, debated how it could have been altered to secure a victory, and only later blamed the situation itself, the hostile, elusive, unmasterable situation.

There is simply no victorious game-plan, we had to admit, for a poet at a political occasion. Politics is always keen to adorn itself with poetic feathers. Politicians love poets’ way with words, and often seek to harness poetry’s strange energies to statecraft. Poets should perhaps be more skeptical of such love.

Alexander’s poem was entitled “Praise Song for the Day,” and this hinted, I thought, at some sort of oriki (the traditional Yoruba declamations of glory and lineage). What she delivered, though, was a plain-spoken poem, devoid of meter or audible rhythm, stripped of metaphor, and stuffed with dry generalities.

The poem begins: “Each day we go about our business, walking past each other, catching each others’ eyes or not, about to speak or speaking.” And it goes on too long, with hardly any modulation: “A woman and her son wait for the bus. A farmer considers the changing sky. A teacher says, Take out your pencils. Begin. We encounter each other in words…” What is this? Alexander’s poem sounds like a free-association exercise on the view from her window.

But let us be honest: poetry is difficult. Nothing is served by mocking Alexander’s failure. It is not easy to articulate just what it is that makes a great poem, but it is possible to take guesses.

Fresh metaphors do help, sure, but as wonderful a poet as Cavafy (of “Waiting for the Barbarians” fame) almost completely eschews metaphor. So, the absence of metaphor wasn’t Alexander’s problem. What Cavafy does have in common with other more luxuriously imagistic poets like, say, Walcott, is an instinct for ambiguity. There, more than anywhere else, is where we must seek the peculiar power of a poem, and that was what was most disappointing about Alexander’s poem. It contained not one notable moment of double, not to mention triple, meaning. It was all surface, all earnestness: it extolled humble work, it praised love and struggle, and did so in untroubled and untroubling language.

But it is not a poem’s task to avoid trouble. That is what a political speech is good for. A presidential address that is as clear as a pane of glass is a wonderful thing, but a perfectly transparent poem is useless.

Among American and British politicians, no poet is more often quoted these days than W.B. Yeats. It seems that some politician’s tongue is never far from proclaiming that “the best lack all conviction and the worst are full of passionate intensity” or that “things fall apart, the centre cannot hold; mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.” What these people think the lines mean is not easy to tell, nor do they betray any knowledge that the lines originate in Yeats’ anarchic masterpiece “The Second Coming.”

Whether the politician in question is Bill Clinton, Gerry Adams or John Hume, it seems that what they love is simply the grand way the words sound. They quote Yeats to deflect struggle, not to engage it.

More recently, I’ve noticed a similar use of another eminent poet. A decontextualized fragment from Seamus Heaney’s play The Cure at Troy has found its way into the speeches of the U.S. Vice President, Joe Biden, and the now-disgraced former-Senator John Edwards.

Heaney writes, “once in a lifetime the longed for tidal wave of justice can rise up, and hope and history rhyme.” The sentiments are worthy, no doubt, and the words are stirring, but it is important to note that they occur in the middle of a work that is about frustration and unfair punishment.

Philoctetes’ story is emphatically not a feel-good narrative. Politicians, by the nature of their work, feel compelled to offer bromides and promise sunny days. But poetry, truly great poetry, traffics in doubt and shadow. Every thought conceals a second-thought like a knife in a scabbard. Poetry and politics are in theory and should be in practice as separate as okra and cornflakes.

Small wonder then, that Elizabeth Alexander failed. Facing the millions, she was clear, direct, unambiguous, and was, for those very reasons, unsuccessful. Lovers of the written word will long feel it as an opportunity missed. Super Eagles fans surely understand this: you urge your team on even when you know that, in this place, on this day, in this very stadium, there’s no way on earth to win the thing.

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the master of shillington

John Updike, who died in late January, has been eulogised as the last of America’s leading men of letters. The phrase betrays something: what, after all, is a “man of letters”? In Updike’s case, it refers to the impressive range of his erudition and to his tireless work as a writer.

It also carries hints of an old-world gentleness (in a double sense of the term), a suggestion of nobility and, let’s face it, both whiteness and maleness. After all, Toni Morrison is seldom described as a “woman of letters.” But the “last” anything is a canard: in the past few years alone, writers celebrated as the “America’s last man of letters” have included Saul Bellow, William Styron and Norman Mailer.

There always seems to be a new “last” and the phrase is little more than a shorthand for a certain nostalgia—a complacent nostalgia for what was celebrated in American fiction in the third quarter of the 20th century.

Updike published some sixty books before his death, an astonishing number consisting of fiction, essay, memoir and poetry. His 1963 novel The Centaur was in my parent’s study when I was growing up. It was the story of a father and son in 1940s Pennsylvania, refracted through the lens of Greek myth.

I did not read the book in all those years—I was a mere boy, and the urbanity of the prose put me off—but it stuck in my mind, author and title, as something that held a significance which, I presumed, would eventually become clear. That it was there in the house was enough; it held promise.

Many years later, I discovered that The Centaur was actually unusual in Updike’s production. He wrote countless short stories and novels set in New England (where he lived in later adulthood) or around his hometown of Shillington, Pennsylvania. His imagination was insistently localised. Around 10 years ago, I took his memoir, Self-Consciousness, out from a library in New York.

It was thrillingly written, as powerful as the stories I had read in Pigeon Feathers, or the pages I recalled from Rabbit, Run and Bech at Bay. Updike’s strength was his ability to match the scintillating detail from the mundane world with its ecstatic prose equivalent. Like Vladimir Nabokov, he was a great noticer. I loved Self-Consciousness because the author was looking selectively into his own past, and discovering the alchemy of half-remembered stories and a self-questioning mind. To read Updike in this vein was to feel as alive as he did, walking down the sidewalk on a soft spring night in Shillington.

After reading Self-Consciousness, I returned it to the library. That was where the trouble began. A few months later, I got a note from the library saying they couldn’t find the book. I went there to look for it, knowing I had brought it back, but no luck; I reckoned it would turn up eventually.

For months, and in fact years, afterwards, I simply ignored the library’s mewling inquiries. When, finally, my borrowing privileges were suspended, the only way to restore them was to pay replacement costs and overdue fees for the book. How much was the damage? An absurd amount, a punishment that far exceeded the crime, a sum that would have been sufficient to buy the library four or five new Updike volumes.

I was incensed, but had to pay anyway. And thus did Self-Consciousness become the most expensive book I ever paid for—with the added injury that what I paid for, I didn’t own.

Still, when I saw Updike two or three years ago at a reading in New York, I noted his good-humoured public manner, and was pleased to put a face to the name. He was promoting his latest book Terrorist—a fictional account of a young half-Egyptian boy who grows up in New Jersey and decides to become an Islamic fundamentalist warrior.

It was a bad book, justly panned by critics. The passage Updike read aloud was beautifully written, like everything by him, but not illuminating. Nevertheless, it was a delight to see the legendary man on the podium, and to come close, and observe his ease and delight in sharing a story with a crowd.

It was to be my only sight of this “last American man of letters.” I remember now, though, another close encounter. I was invited to a house in Ipswich, Massachusetts, for Thanksgiving dinner in the mid-1990s. The host was the friend of a friend.

After dinner, as we stood outside talking in the cold, and the glimmering lights of the small New England village began to appear one by one in the dusk like fireflies, my friend pointed out a house just at the end of the gravel drive, some forty metres away from us. She said, “John Updike lives there.”

The sudden closeness to well known name! At that moment, I had a momentary glimpse of the distance books could travel, from Ipswich to a humble house in the outskirts of Lagos.

In my book Every Day is for the Thief, I singled John Updike out as one whose talents exceeded the material available to him, and suggested that he would have won the Nobel Prize if he were writing about Lagos instead of Shillington. This wasn’t intended to be a harsh assessment. Good as it may be to work one tiny American patch, the world is bigger than that now and, as I’ve suggested before, that multifarious influence must be present in all our literatures. Nostalgia absolutely cannot help us now.

So, for as long as there are human beings who delight in the possibilities of language, there should be no suggestion that men and women of letters will ever vanish from the earth. In the meantime, through Updike’s deathless prose, a certain narrow slice of American life and experience will remain forever alive. And that, too, is part of the world’s story .

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