Heart of darkness

Sukhdev Sandhu on weird and wonderful books from around the world

A list of famous postcolonial writers would probably include Ben Okri, Michael Ondaatje any Salman Rushdie. But Comrade Alfred Wada? To the international police, he is a criminal, a member of Nigeria’s biggest industry after oil and cocoa. But according to Henning Wagenbreth, the compiler of Cry for Help (Gingko Press), Wada, along with the other Nigerians whose conspiratorial emails clog our inboxes each morning, is a supreme fabulist who has developed a new literary genre that merges rogue autobiography, business manual and modern-day pardoner’s tale.

These African emails are ghost fictions. Some are composed in shaky English, but most err on the side of polysyllabic orotundity. One from Patrick King Elsworth features an elaborate and not entirely convincing metaphor comparing life to the manufacture of golf balls: "It takes some rough spots in your life to make you go your farthest."

The drama contained in these scam emails rivals that to be found in most magical-realist novels. Here are tales of overthrows and coups, of crooked arms dealers, of doctors who discover boxes containing huge fortunes belonging to their recently deceased German patients. Wagenbreth argues that these cyber fictions are anti-imperial narratives, examples of how dispossessed people, unable to gain access to European and North American markets, are turning a medium often associated with globalisation – the internet – against its creators.

Also unlikely to feature on the syllabuses of university Third World Studies departments is

the comic serial-killer novel African Psycho (Soft Skull) by the Congolese author Alain Mabanckou. Abandoned by his parents, Gregoire Nakobomayo decides to become a violent sex-attacker and murderer. But during the course of many blackly funny scenes in his shanty-town home, he fails to wipe out his enemies or even to raise an erection when trying to rape his victims. A beast and an idiot, he is also a satiric visionary: amid all his crazed outpourings, he is able to lampoon the pomposity of local lawyers, professors, media personalities and government officials. While Mabanckou has clearly read Jean Genet’s The Thief’s Journal, and his prose owes a debt to Michel Houelle-becq, this is a distinctive contri-bution to the slum-fiction genre.

Moving eastwards, Sarnath Banerjee has followed up Corridor (2004), the first ever Indian graphic novel, with the hugely ambitious The Barn Owl’s Wondrous Capers (Penguin India). Its story, which draws as heavily on Bengali pulp literature as it does on Iain Sinclair-esque psychogeography, chronicles a lovesick hero’s return from London to Calcutta in order to hunt down a mysterious book, assisted by radical historian Digital Dutta and a smell-obsessed cartographer. The action, imbued with a love for the crepuscular mysteries of big cities, shifts from 18th-century India to modern east London. The result is visually and dramatically beguiling.

This article first appeared in the 25 June 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Israel, Gaza and a summer of war?