Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: An issues novel unashamedly open about its intentions

Adichie's observations are always sharp, intelligent, humorous and humane. They show a radically defamiliarised version of western society, seen through African eyes.

Americanah
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Fourth Estate, 400pp, £20

In the interests of full disclosure: I am wary – an acquired wariness; all tastes are acquired – of the novel as platform. Legitimately, editorials are platforms, opinion pieces are platforms, blogs are platforms. But fiction that announces its debate too loudly risks simplification. “Subtle”, “complex” and “nuanced” are almost always positive critical terms.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun (the 2006 Orange Prize winner) was subtle, complex and nuanced. The book dealt with the experiences of Igbo civilians during the Biafran war. It was a tense, high-wire walk of a novel that took in politics and history without forgetting the primacy of the personal. With Americanah, Adichie has chosen to loosen that tightrope – to step on to the more dangerous slackrope. The heroine, Ifemelu, and her first love, Obinze, grow up in modern-day Nigeria. During university strikes, Ifemelu decides to continue her studies in the US; after graduating, Obinze moves to Britain. Both are intelligent, educated and middle class: compelled to emigrate not by conflict or poverty but by “the oppressive lethargy of choicelessness”.

For many years Ifemelu and Obinze lose touch, and the bulk of the novel is dedicated to charting their experiences in the US and the UK. Ifemelu gets the most airtime. She eventually becomes a famous blogger writing “Various Observations About American Blacks (Those Formerly Known as Negroes) by a Non-American Black” – a blog started after her enthusiastically received post on happilykinkynappy. com (devoted to natural African hair). “Posting on the website was like giving testimony in church; the echoing roar of approval revived her.” Her blog posts – many are included in the novel – have a deliberately preachy flavour, more parable than anecdote. Sample opening line: “So this guy said to Professor Hunk, ‘White privilege is nonsense. How can I be privileged?’”

Although the blog posts are clearly Ifemelu’s polemics, and although the narrative surrounding them is more (to use that word again) nuanced, the subject of the book is race. At times, it feels like an anthology of examples – an agglomeration rather than an arrangement. We have the under-representation of black women in fashion magazines, the white woman who indiscriminately calls black women “beautiful”, the black man who insults Ifemelu for her “jungle” look (ie, non-westernised hair), the absurdity of privileged westerners treasuring roughly finished ethnic tableware.

No issue is left uncovered. Everything is held to account. And Adichie’s observations are always sharp, intelligent, humorous and humane. They will challenge the way you think about race and show you a radically defamiliarised version of western society, as seen through African eyes.

An issues novel, then, that is unashamedly open about its intentions. Formally, Americanahis baggy. The story often feels like a vehicle for the discussion. There are wobbles, moments when the whole book risks losing its balance. Adichie is aware of the danger. For readers uncomfortable with the novel’s relentness focus, she includes what seems to be a small manifesto, or perhaps even a warning. Shan, an African-American writer, is annoyed when her white editor wants to change various anecdotes in her memoir.

“He says it’s not subtle. Like life is always fucking subtle,” Shan tells her friends. “He thinks we should complicate it, so it’s not race alone. And I say, but it was race . . . ‘Nuance’ means keep people comfortable so everyone is free to think of themselves as individuals and everyone got where they are because of their achievement.”

Adichie is a very skilful writer and her talent for illuminating the intricacies of human interactions carries her. Although I will continue to prefer the elegance displayed in Half of a Yellow Sun, this bold book is – among many other things – an important reminder of the privilege inherent in that preference.

Claire Lowdon is an assistant editor at Areté

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie speaking from the pulpit at Westminster Abbey. Photograph: Getty Images.

This article first appeared in the 15 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The New Machiavelli

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Mathias Énard is the most brazen French writer since Houellebecq

Énard's latest novel, Street of Thieves, has ideas and charisma to burn.

This book, though no kind of failure, may seem a little pinched and bashful to readers of Mathias Énard’s novel Zone, a 500-page, single-sentence rumination on European cruelty that was published last summer to giddy applause. A back-cover blurb by the writer Patrick McGuinness, who also teaches French at Oxford, claims that Street of Thieves is “what the great contemporary French novel should be”, but this is a description better deserved by its predecessor – and possibly its successor, Boussole (“compass”), a grand-scale effort published in French this month by Actes Sud, which promises the reader “staggering erudition” and “heartbreaking lucidity”. Street of Thieves never calls for adjectives of that order (“involving” would be closer to the mark) though it still confirms Énard as the most brazenly lapel-grabbing French writer since Michel Houellebecq. Even on a quiet day, he has ideas and charisma to burn.

In a doomy, plague-ridden future, Lakhdar recalls a late adolescence torn between his duties as a Moroccan-born Muslim and the temptations extended by the north, an alternate universe situated just across the Strait of Gibraltar. In one scale sit “prayers, the Quran and God, who was a little like a second father, minus the kicks in the rear”. In the other sit miniskirted female tourists and the pleasures portrayed in the French detective novels that Lakhdar consumes “by the dozen”: “sex . . . blondes, cars, whisky”. When he is thrown out by his family for having an affair with his cousin, it looks as if fate is tipping the balance. But it doesn’t work out that way. Poverty keeps him tethered to his homeland, and he takes a job working as a bookseller for Sheikh Nureddin, the local imam.

Meanwhile, Lakhdar’s best friend, Bassam, is playing out the same conflict in more volatile ways. Though no less lustful and weed-smoking, he is devoted to Nureddin, for whom, it soon emerges, the Propagation of Quranic Thought is an activity broadly defined, accommodating sticks and stones – and knives and bombs – as well as the pamphlets peddled by Lakhdar.

For much of the first half, the novel is an odd mixture of picaresque and parable. Lakhdar is sometimes an object or victim of fate, sometimes a plaything of his author’s purposes, and the gear changes required can be jerky. One moment, Lakhdar will tell the reader, “And that’s how I entered the service of Marcelo Cruz, funeral services,” in a fish-out-of-water, “isn’t life funny?” sort of way. The next moment, he coolly notes the thematic overlap of his work for Cruz with a previous position that involved digitising the records of an Algerian infantry regiment in the First World War. “The idea of sending real stiffs back to Morocco after having imported dead soldiers to it virtually was rather amusing, I thought.”

Énard’s parable-making instincts frequently take control of the plot, with results that verge on tiresome. When Lakhdar sets sail on a boat named after one of his heroes, the 14th-century traveller Ibn Batuta, the vessel equals Freedom. But lack of an exit visa confines him to the port of Algeciras, then a dispute with the Spanish government keeps the boat there, too. So the Ibn Batuta becomes a symbol for the way that life dashes our best hopes – or upends them. Dreams of freedom produce a nightmare reality. An ideal of escape leads to more stasis.

Yet it feels churlish to grumble about the novel’s design when it enables so much potent writing. Sending Lakhdar from Tangier to Barcelona is a contrivance that you wouldn’t want undone. As well as furnishing different possibilities in terms of scene-setting and atmosphere, it turns the novel into a comparative portrait of two societies through their common factor circa 2011: a period of civic unrest and popular anger that failed to produce a revolution. Morocco is the country that the Arab spring forgot, while in Barcelona the deepening despair is only punctuated, never alleviated, by the occasional protest.

In the Barcelona section, richer by far than those set in Tangier and Algeciras, Énard uses Lakhdar’s outsider perspective to lay bare the shallowness of the type of dissent you find in a democracy. He notes that a general strike is claimed as a victory both by the organisers, because “they reach such-and-such a percentage of strikers”, and by the government, which didn’t have to make any changes. To Lakhdar, Spain appears “a land beyond politics”, where the nationalist government “no longer gave a shit about anyone” and industrial action has become an end in itself.

The workings of orientalism – or whatever cross-cultural logic shapes European responses to North Africa – are exposed with clarity, even flair. A feeling for paradox crowds out the platitude, derived from ­Edward Said, whereby representatives of the developed west are only ever blundering and stupid. It’s true that Judit, a student of Arabic literature at Barcelona University, so narrowly associates Tangier with sexual licence and foreign visitors (Burroughs, Paul Bowles) that Lakhdar, as a Muslim from the suburbs, feels that “we were discussing a different city”. But Énard – who teaches Arabic literature in Barcelona – is careful not to present Lakhdar’s Tangier as the “true” version and Judit’s as a romantic Other-laden mirage. Despite her overemphases, Judit never comes across as a dabbler, and it is Lakhdar’s mistiness about Barcelona that receives the harsher humbling. (The “street of thieves” lies not in Tangier, but in the Raval district of Barcelona.)

So, it is a shame, given this balancing of myopic perspectives, that Énard also feels the need to grant the older, reminiscing Lakhdar, smug in his 20/20 hindsight, a prominent place in the telling. But then Street of Thieves gives the consistent impression of a writer who, not unlike Houellebecq, views formal choices as not just secondary, but irritating. The unpunctuated first-person rant, as used in Zone, is surely Énard’s ideal device. It turns crude technique into an engine. The more intricate demands of the novel – the niceties of plotting and narrative point-of-view – merely serve to slow him down. Lakhdar is most convincing when neither a picaro nor a symbolic type, neither totally himself nor entirely representative, but a balance better suited to Énard’s analytic needs: specific enough to be vivid, while clearly standing in for the migrant who, drawn by fantasies of easy passage to streets paved with gold and teeming with blondes, finds instead an obstacle course from one site of crisis to another. 

Street of Thieves is available now from Fitzcarraldo Editions (£12.99)

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism