“History is littered with them ruined underpants of small people leaping about in vex style and trying to save they bread from the long throats of big people,” Brian Chikwava’s unnamed hero, fresh off the plane from Zimbabwe, tells us. Which is why he’s going to stay in “Harare North”, or London, only just long enough to make the $5,000 needed to pay off the police back home, and then he’ll return. In the meantime, he will not be duped by any of the British newspapers’ “propagandising” about His Excellency Robert Mugabe.
He makes contact with a childhood friend, Shingi, and moves into a cramped Brixton squat with several other immigrants, including a girl who rents out her baby to women trying to defraud social services and, later on, two smack-addled drifters. Inevitably, he soon learns that this business of getting “graft” is trickier than he imagines, and before long his plans (and his psyche) begin to unravel.
Several miles east of SW9, Peter Akinti’s Forest Gate tells another tale of London’s underclass struggling to survive, though it contains little of Chikwava’s sharp, irreverent levity. Meina and her brother Ashvin, refugees from Somalia’s bloody civil war, have come to live in a place where cops molest kids with impunity and hoodies ride their “pedal bicycles like delirious locusts, guarding a crumbling territory they will never own”. This London has an unreal, horror-film-like quality, and Meina quickly learns that boys here, just as in Somalia, have few choices but to join gangs; there are “the same wars taking place among the poor all over the world”.
Meanwhile, Ashvin, traumatised and bullied at his new school, strikes up a friendship with James, a black London-born boy whom society has taught that “no matter what I do I am not going to matter”. James has five drug-dealing older brothers and a crack-addicted mother. “Think about every tired cliché you’ve ever heard about black men,” he says. “In the end we become what we never imagine we would.” Desperate to escape what seems to be their fate, James and Ashvin make a suicide pact. Their plan goes wrong, however: one of them survives.
While Harare North is related entirely in the lyrical patois of the sole narrator, Forest Gate uses a range of different voices, from James’s crack-dealing elder brother to a seasoned, white police officer. Yet the two novels have striking similarities – even in the eerie resonance between the “ka ka ka” of laughter in Harare North and the “cack cack cack” of a gun in Forest Gate. Chikwava’s hero is cynical about the exaggerated displays of ethnicity he sees among other Africans, whose colourful clothes “make you feel like you is not African enough”. Similarly, in Forest Gate, Meina visits a restaurant frequented by “the shea-butter set, blacks that come as part of their perpetual search for Africa”. Yet “home” back in Africa no longer exists for either of them.
Both novels use language in a skilful, slippery way, too, eliciting how words can be bent out of their meaning. In Harare North, “forgiveness” is a euphemism for the punishment of enemies of the state by Mugabe’s Green Bombers; in Forest Gate, bipolar disorder, described in English medical-speak as “being under the darkest of clouds,” means something entirely different to Meina, who has seen her parents murdered.
Akinti’s political agenda seeps into some unforgettably powerful passages of Forest Gate,
including the nightmare James has in which his teacher says: “I hate all of you. Everyone does. There are no men among you, no leaders. You’re all lying in filthy beds with envy and malice, squabbling on pavements and in one-pound chicken shops, talking loudly, saying nothing. Your women hate you, your mothers don’t believe in you, and you’ll never get jobs because
nobody trusts you.” Elsewhere, however, Akinti overdoes the gritty social realism; it’s simply
implausible that almost every incident reported in black urban London in the past few years is in some way connected to this one person. Add to this a Faulkner-quoting policeman and dutiful moral asides – “That’s the point about the black/ white thing. Mostly it’s character that counts” – and the overall effect is unconvincing.
In Harare North, by contrast, Chikwava does not wear his politics on his sleeve; his narrator is wildly unreliable, yet ultimately more subversive. “We have to acquire what they call culture, so we don’t get embarrassed in company of proper people,” he tells his housemates. But what kind of “culture” indulges in the ludicrous worship of things like “Tommy and Klein”?
Certain venerated British institutions are cut down to size, too – Shingi takes work as a “BBC” (British buttock cleaner) in the House of Commons toilets, and soon attests to the fact that the accumulated shit of “m’learned friends” could support the entire building.
In bringing to life the plight of those often marginalised by mainstream society, both writers have opened up a bleak – yet urgently important – social landscape. But this dark world is much better realised through Harare North’s wit and suggestiveness than through the name-checking of writers such as James Baldwin and Langston Hughes to which the characters in Forest Gate are prone. While Akinti has tried to shoehorn his tale into a particular tradition, Chikwava’s triumph comes from scrambling and reinventing it.