Mike Davis, in Planet of Slums, references Abani’s book several times. Planet of Slums is a non-fiction tome, but the reference helps to illustrate how fiction can take the reader into the experience of life lead within a particular environment far more effectively than facts and figures. Abani’s book rises up out of Lagos’ Maroko slum like another one of its rickety, fantastical structures. Its words and images are balanced above the lapping tides, resisting the onset of the floods, the bulldozers and the developers.
The book’s narrative tells the story of Elvis, a sixteen year old wannabe dancer, whose idealistic vision leaves him ill-prepared for life in the slum. Elvis reads Rilke and tries to make a living doing Elvis interpretations on the beach for tourists, impressions they fail to appreciate. He is one of the millions trying to get by. He’s also a curious, adventurous soul, convinced there has to be a way to achieve a brighter life than the one he’s living (cf my next entry). HIs game approach leads to him getting into dangerous scrapes, which ultimately only go to show that the slum, and the politics behind the sum, are stronger than he is, and his only real hope is to get out.
Abani’s novel is a dense tale, full of characters and stories. Perhaps its nearest contemporary is the work of Rohinton Mistry. The book is peppered with Elvis’ dead mother’s recipes, something which felt, to this reader, like a slightly twee touch which didn’t really benefit the novel, no matter how important food might be to our understanding of culture. Beneath these artful notes lurk more robust, powerful flavours. The Zolas and Dickens’ of the twenty first century will emerge from the “developing” world. Elvis, defined by his optimism in the face of a world which has little time or space for optimism, feels like a second cousin, several times removed, of Pip.
Many, many years ago, I had a job looking after a Nigerian theatre group who came to London under the auspices of the Royal Court to do a show. They were about a dozen actors and I became quite close to some of them. On the last day, I was due to drive them in a minibus to Heathrow. One of the troupe had already absconded. I stayed the night in a room in their digs in Notting Hill. We had to leave early in the morning to catch the plane. They were still up when I went to bed. In the morning, three of them had vanished, including Peter, the one I was closest to. I drove the remaining members of the reduced troupe to the airport. The mood in the minibus was sombre. I asked one of them, Femi, what people would say when they got back to Nigeria about the absconders. He told me that they would say: Why have you not joined the others in staying in London? Why have you come back?