Prison literature

Kalakuta Republic

Chris Abani <em>Saqi Books, 116pp, £8.95</em>

ISBN 0863563228

Anyone who spends time rummaging through the weekly cascade of new books knows the feeling: an uneasy sense that somewhere at the bottom of the pile, not winking in any obvious or fashion-conscious way, lies an unheralded chunk of authentic literature. Every now and then, luck or fate induces such a book to fall open in front of our eyes. We don't have to do anything but recognise it.

Kalakuta Republic, a sequence of poems scraped from the harsh walls of a prison cell in Nigeria, is a book of this sort. I had not heard of the author, Chris Abani, but the details on the back cover were enough to make the most jaded reader wince. At the age of 18, Abani wrote a novel: his reward was a six-month stint in a Nigerian prison. Two years later, he wrote another, and was again arrested and detained. In 1991, he was seized for the third time, and was held, with zealous brutality, on death row. The poems in this volume have been dragged, not painlessly, from that experience. They are short, bloodstained notes from a place where few of us have any wish to go.

Abani's poems do not answer to the hackneyed notion of what counts as poetic. There is nothing silvered o'er as slow waves topple in the lunatic night of my dreams, blah, blah. This is verse scratched into the dirt between punches. But the hot needles of sensation do form into a resonant narrative. Abani enters prison feeling heroic: he waits for Amnesty International to rescue him, even prepares to smile for the "camera-toting journalists". But they never come, and suddenly - "guns, boots, truncheons, knuckles" - he realises that it's too late. He is lost in a world of vile interrogations - "teeth pulled from their roots with rusty pliers" - beatings, sadistic games and death. "I know I am alive," he writes. "Because terror drips down my legs."

It certainly isn't pretty. Some of it is merely a numb recital of fearful facts: "Wooden frame with skirt of sheet metal/ 6 foot by 3 foot by 3 foot." A good deal of it is gruesome: "Some, unable to stomach/the truth that all love is light/amputate their own penes, laughing insanely/as they bleed to a stump." And nearly all of it is unnerving: "Skills/learned in prison are meant to/prepare you to assimilate on the outside,/But what to do with/a disciplined anus that can hide a/sharpened nail, piece of glass or even pencil?"

It is true: these are not skills often required in the book-reviewing business. And as I said, it isn't pretty - how could it be? Nor is it especially susceptible to quotation: Abani can't really afford the luxury of cooking up fine after-dinner phrases. Ordinary words are precious enough. The steady parade of torment he describes, however, along with a sense of blank bewilderment in the face of such cruelty, is acutely drawn and held very tight. The literature of suffering - though it seems tacky to think of it as a genre - often invites us to wonder whether appalling experiences are somehow "worth" the poetry they can inspire. Abani gives us a terse answer: no. At the end, free yet never free, he arrives in London: "When I first arrived/everyone spoke of the Angel at Islington./I went seeking redemption, but found/only an old bum searching the bins outside Burger King."

Styrofoam has rarely seemed so sad. When you have watched a man bleed to death, his penis bolted to a table with a six-inch nail, what on earth are you supposed to make of a cheeseburger? Abani has lived to tell the tale. The least we can do, belittled as we can't help but feel, is listen to it.

This article first appeared in the 21 May 2001 issue of the New Statesman, A spin too far