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Johannesburg and Lagos: two striking new portraits

These two city books are linked by an inquiry into the mysterious ways in which the spaces of our early lives come to structure imagination, creativity and the self.

City limits: scavengers on a landfill site in Lagos. Teju Cole charts the underside of Nigeria's growth. Photo: Jacob Silberberg/Panos
City limits: scavengers on a landfill site in Lagos. Teju Cole charts the underside of Nigeria's growth. Photo: Jacob Silberberg/Panos

Every Day Is for the Thief
Teju Cole
Faber & Faber, 163pp, £12.99

Dispatcher: Lost and Found in Johannesburg
Mark Gevisser
Granta Books, 368pp, £18.99

 

Lagos and Johannesburg: the two big, bad economic powerhouses of the African continent, neck and neck at the top of the GDP charts. Every Day Is for the Thief by Teju Cole and Dispatcher by Mark Gevisser are meditations on each city, respectively: one slim and spare; one garrulous and super­abundant. Both are eagerly awaited follow-ups to highly acclaimed works, and each must face the challenges created by second-album syndrome.

Thief reads as a deliberately minor after­word to the literary hit of Open City (like Kid A after OK Computer) – but this Faber edition is in fact a remastered version of a book first published in 2007 by Cassava Press, the Nigerian imprint. That same year brought Gevisser’s monumental biography of the then South African president, Thabo Mbeki, The Dream Deferred. His Joburg memoir, Dispatcher, takes the other option for follow-up albums: the hyper-ambitious, super-produced, everything-and-the-kitchen-sink approach. Yet these two city books are linked by an inquiry into the mysterious ways in which the spaces of our early lives come to structure imagination, creativity, the self – and what happens when these primal attachments must weather disaffection, estrangement and violence.

“Every day is for the thief,” reads the Yoruba proverb that stands as the epigraph to Cole’s work, “but one day is for the owner.” The pages that follow comprise a notebook of a return to his native land, a travelogue in short sections as artfully composed and sharply focused (or impressionistically unfocused) as the photographs with which they are interspersed. The thievery begins at a New York consulate, as the narrator applies for a new Nigerian passport to return home and learns about extra, under-the-counter fees required for “expediting” the process. Having touched down in Lagos, he keeps a meticulous balance sheet of all the demands for bribes and micro-extortions that he encounters – which generally take place under huge billboards asking the public to report corruption.

Set against this punctilious social accoun­ting is a more elusive and expansive register that records the complex experiences of re-encountering old friends and old flames; of reinhabiting family spaces and feeling the return of a generosity that marks a break from the cold, cramped quarters of his years in the north, “endured like a prince in exile”. In an unusual and affecting passage, the narrative inverts the customary memoirist’s description of returning to a childhood home and finding it smaller than remembered. Instead, this “great house in Africa” seems enlarged: “It is as though I have shrunk in the years since I was last here, or the house itself has gently expanded in the heat.” Yet anything verging on easy nostalgia is handled very cautiously, even clinically, and the stern litmus tests that the narrator applies to any context he finds himself in – museums, bookshops, concert halls – do not let up. There is something almost Naipaulian about the way he constantly holds Nigeria’s institutions up against some universal (Anglo-American?) ideal of excellence and generally finds them wanting.

One section evokes the complex ecosystem of the Tomsed cyber café, where the narrator spies the man next to him pecking out an email that includes the words “transfer”, “dear friend”, and “deposited in your account forthwith”. Seeing one of the fabled “419 scams” (the number refers to the relevant article of the Nigerian Criminal Code), he remarks: “I feel as though I have discovered the source of the Nile or the Niger.” Looking at all these “yahoo boys”, tapping out their supplications, trawling the world for credulous internet users through their chat functions, he imagines Lagos as “a city of Scheherazades”: “The stories unfold in ever more fanciful iterations and, as in the myth, those who tell the best stories are richly rewarded.” But the fascination soon fades as he realises that this is hardly a noteworthy sight: just part of a daily cycle of humiliation and blackmail, the police periodically hauling out a scammer to defraud him in turn. By way of a quick detour to the Yahoos of Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, we are led to the conclusion that the Lagos equivalents have reversed Marx’s dictum and bucked a trend: the Yahoos show up the first time as farce and “the second, in Nigeria, as something more tragic”.

It is clever, no doubt. Thief is made of clever, perceptive and limpid prose at every turn. But its cleverness is of a different order from that of Open City, and perhaps less interesting. That earlier/later work places its own cleverness and erudition under searching question even as it uses it to seduce us. The result is a profoundly disconcerting book, for reasons that have something to do with what a novel can do that even the most creative experiment in non-fiction cannot. It can deploy an unreliable narrator – and not just a reliably unreliable narrator (a fairly common literary device, as James Wood points out), but an unreliably unreliable narrator.

I would class the young doctor Julius of Open City in these Rumsfeldian terms: I am not sure how much distance to take from his perfectly modulated sentences; I’m not sure if there is any unreliability at all – but, at second glance, there must be. Some late-in-the-day revelations about him detonate backwards through the novel, posing the question of just how much trust can be invested in the controlling narrative intelligence, which flaunts its breadth of cultural reference and discriminates so finely. Is his earnest enthusiasm for avant-garde Slovakian chamber music for real? On the one hand: yes, of course, and why not? Part of the energy of Cole’s project comes from its unashamed interest in difficult artistic work. On the other hand, there is the creeping sensation that this investment in high culture might be camouflaging some unsavoury aspects of Julius’s history; that somewhere, somehow, a false note is being struck. Or, to change metaphors: like a digital camera struggling with an elusively lit scene, the reader’s interpretive apparatus whirrs, focuses, defocuses, tries again, can’t quite come to rest. And there is no way of resolving the issue on the evidence in front of us. The matter is, like the city, left open.

In Thief, this prose mechanism is not quite perfected. On the title page the work is described as fiction, but (unless I am missing something super-subtle) there is little to prevent us from mapping the “I” of the narrative fairly directly on to the experience of its author. But we can hear the more complex voice of Open City evolving. The narrator experiments with a voice that is intended to rile, to discomfort and to provoke. Again, the trigger that comes to mind here is Naipaul, whom Cole writes about meeting in an essay for the New Yorker. At a fancy party in a loft apartment, the young literary sensation toasts the wily old master: “ ‘I don’t agree with all your views, and in fact there are many of them I strongly disagree with,’ – I said ‘strongly’ with what I hoped was a menacing tone – ‘but from you I have learned how to be productively disagreeable in my own views.’ ”

There are countless examples of Naipaul being disagreeable, but one of my favourites is his 1987 attack on magical realism, “the way of fantasy and extravagance” that such writers as García Márquez, Okri and Rushdie once established as almost the default setting for post-colonial fiction in the late 20th century: “It is safe . . . empty, morally and intellectually,” he fumes; “it makes writing . . . an aspect of the corruption of the countries out of which it emerges.” At one point, the narrator of Thief describes the abundant “literary texture” of Nigeria, the “lives full of unpredictable narrative” that seem like details from a Márquez novel, just “awaiting their recording angel”. In fact, Cole’s prose tends always towards the other end of the spectrum, eschewing any fictional special effects for the long, hard, secular look: the world is what it is.

Once most definitely persona non grata in the post-colonial seminar room, Naipaul and his divisive techniques are, it seems, being cited increasingly by writers who are wary of boosterish African literary prizes, Afropolitan fashion weeks and African art shows – the cultural roadshow that seems to be riding on the back of the “Africa Rising” idea, as trumpeted by the likes of the Economist. These writers are looking for more analytic bite in tackling the venality of the ruling elite, and for a way of bringing home how rising GDP means nothing if it creates rising inequality – indeed, less than nothing, given that more unequal societies inexorably become more violent and dysfunctional.

Thief unfolds at a moment when Nigeria is beginning to move up a gear, a phase in which it has just eclipsed South Africa as the continent’s largest economy. But the book also charts the underside to this change, most powerfully in a hopeless and fearful scene in which some thuggish “area boys” menace the narrator’s uncle Tunde: they hang around and demand their share as the family attempts to unload a shipping container from the United States that is meant to supply a local school. In another passage the narrator makes the immensely disagreeable argument that “Nigerians do not always have the philosophical equipment to deal with the material goods they are so eager to consume”. Instead (we are told) they fall back on the catchphrase idea l’a need: “all we need is the general idea or concept”. Unclear reception and only one channel from satellite TV? “Why bother with sharp reception when you can have snowy reception?” Broken safety belt? “Oh, pull it across your chest and sit on the buckle, he says, idea l’a need. Safety is not the point. The semblance of safety is what we were after.”

Do Nigerian readers flinch at such sweeping social diagnoses? But here again we see the deliberate disagreeableness of Cole’s literary personae: clever men who possess the secret strength of not wanting or needing to be liked. Indian critics remarked, after An Area of Darkness, that they agreed with Naipaul while they were at home but disagreed with him when abroad. Trading on its insider-outsider status, Cole’s writing about his motherland compels us to respond, to argue, and to be difficult: to be sand rather than oil in the cogs of the world.

 

****

 

“Probably the finest piece of non-fiction to come out of South Africa since the end of apartheid” – this verdict from the TLS on Mark Gevisser’s biography of Thabo Mbeki appears on the back of his new book. And this within a very strong field: there has been an outpouring of innovative and ambitious non-fiction here in the past few decades (although, as David Shields remarks, to use this term for such a range of narrative forms is like using the phrase “non-socks” for a whole wardrobe of clothes). Even so, the praise is hardly dust-jacket hyperbole. The Dream Deferred is a baggy monster of a biography that reads like a political thriller, ranging all over the world to trace the cultural formation of South Africa’s toppled philosopher-king.

At one point, the president thinks back to when the leadership of the African National Congress was invited to attend a psychedelic extravaganza at the Shrine, Fela Kuti’s club in Lagos: “Thabo Mbeki opened his eyes again and found himself back in his official presidential residence in August 2000, before him not a musician in underpants holding a saxophone but a biographer in a suit holding a tape recorder.” It is an example of how the political journalism by which Gevisser made his name has always been freighted with literary texture; and how his portraits of others have always held slivers of self. The Dream Deferred overspills its initial brief and becomes a coded attempt to assess the writer’s own place – and the possibilities of his humanist intellectual formation – in contemporary South Africa.

With Dispatcher, Gevisser swivels his sights 180 degrees, turning on the self and making explicit this previously submerged personal journey. The title offers the master metaphor of the text: a game that he would play as a child with the Holmden’s Register of Johannesburg, sending couriers on imag­inary journeys through the city’s streets. But Holmden’s, he came to realise, showed the suburbs as discrete, bounded entities, like islands. Unlike the London A-Z, it was a non-continuous map, with no hint of how to pass, say, from the rich suburbs of Sandton to the “dark city” of Alexandra. Dispatcher is generously supplied with images that show us the “long tradition of Soweto-denial” in Joburg map-making: the townships of the south-west are usually obscured by a magnified inset of the city centre. As the young Gevisser puzzles these matters out, he begins to understand the extreme injustice of the city into which he has been born: “Thus began, cartographically, the dawning of my political consciousness.”

But cartomania is only one of many literary topoi (thematic or figurative “places”, literally) in the book. There are brilliant watery meditations on urban rivers as boundaries but also as “gaps in the urban stitching of apartheid”; on the suburban swimming pools of “Fringe Country”, where various races covertly frolicked, violating the apartheid “Immorality Act” in the 1960s. There are disquisitions on the ground plan of Johannesburg’s old Braamfontein Cemetery; on Super 8 film; on the figure of the flâneur. Gevisser invokes Baudelaire, Joyce and Open City – but only to suggest how their wandering protagonists are an impossibility in his metropolis of the global South. Here the walkers are workers and migrants without access to public transport: “the stories their feet tell . . . are often ones of pain and dislocation. The rest of us drive.”

He traces a family history that leads back to Lithuania and the horrific experience of Jewish communities there during the Holocaust. He analyses his family’s photo albums, noting how servants tend to be focal points within the images, given that they alone look at the camera; he visits the artist William Kentridge, who cuts up street guides of Johannesburg. And that’s just the first 50 pages.

As Dispatcher unfolds, it moves underground. We are taken into the subterranean universe of Johannesburg’s vast mine workings, “another civilisation, in which the components of surface life – space, time, sound, light, climate – had been rearranged unintelligibly”. At the same time, the writing evolves a risky equivalence between this literal underground and the concealed, once-illicit underworld of gay sexuality, adding a vertical axis to the horizontal despatch routes. And finally: welded on to this already busy conceptual architecture is an account of an armed robbery perpetrated on the author and two friends.

Gevisser remarked at a book launch that he had not wanted to write the usual book about fear, crime and loathing in Johannesburg. But then, revising a draft of his work during a visit back from France, he was subjected to a much more traumatic form of boundary-crossing. Three men slipped effortlessly in through the sliding door of a Joburg apartment and kept their victims trussed and sick with suspense for over three hours. A long section is devoted to processing this event and its aftermath, jolting what had been an expansive, unhurried memoir into very different gear.

Whether this absorbing but unwieldy mass of text holds together as a single work will probably depend on how you respond to the rhetorical performance at its centre: a narrator who guides, anticipates your questions, circles back, reminds you of this or that, helps you make connections. If Cole’s persona is deliberately disagreeable, that of Gevisser is quite the opposite: he wants very much to be liked. At times the effect is like being on the receiving end of 300-plus pages of dinner-table anecdotes, as told by a host who is just too charming to interrupt and tell that it really is time you got going.

But Gevisser’s work takes in far more of the city than most Joburg books, wading in where others (more cowed by critiques of white writers producing accounts of black lives) would fear to tread. In one of the most affecting sections, “The Ballad of Phil and Edgar”, he excavates the histories of two gay men from Soweto, known as “After Nines” because they embarked on their secret lives at night. Gevisser provides fascinating histories of other gaps in the urban stitching of apartheid: spaces of cross-racial intimacy that range from Hillbrow nightclubs to Bachelor’s Cove on the Atlantic seaboard in Cape Town.

As the book generates momentum, the restlessness and sheer scope of Gevisser’s despatching produces an array of unexpected and generative encounters that begin a process of healing after the trauma of the home invasion. At one point a stern bureaucrat in the department of home affairs lectures Mark, explaining that he and his husband-to-be are part of the constitution, and consequently he should be making a much bigger deal of their wedding ceremony: “Do you think you are a second-class citizen just because you are gay? You have full rights in this new South Africa. You have the right to make a fuss.”

This aesthetic of abundance and openness is the most powerful element of the work. It stems unstoppably from the author’s impulse to put his body in places where it has never been; to ignore the kind of cultural policing that decides who can write about what. As such, Dispatcher joins a range of experiments in non-fiction from South Africa that are by turns compelling and troubling, generous and chaotic – and which, in their willingness to take on as much as they do, are able to get to places that the post-apartheid novel struggles to reach. For South African writers, as the saying goes, don’t know their country well enough to write fiction about it.

Hedley Twidle is a senior lecturer in English at the University of Cape Town