I’m catching up with teju cole, whom I recommended earlier and who I belatedly remembered is going to pull down the pillars of his blog at the end of the month, and I’ve just hit a remarkable (they’re all remarkable) entry called “amnesiac.” It begins with a quote from Tomas Tranströmer:
One can’t say it aloud, but there is a lot of repressed violence here. That is why the furnishings seem so heavy. And why it is so difficult to see the other thing present: a spot of sun that moves over the house walls and slips over the unaware forest of flickering faces, a biblical saying never set down: ‘Come unto me, for I am as full of contradictions as you.’
It goes on to describe the “fratricidal Yoruba wars of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries” and the bustling slave market they created, which thrived “in spite of a British ban on the trade (in 1808) and a British naval presence in Nigerian waters,” and tells us that “This history is missing from Lagos. There is no monument to the great wound. There is no day of remembrance, no museums.” And then he describes a visit to “the famous CMS bookshop on Lagos Island”:
The interior of the shop is vaguely familiar, from my visits here as a schoolboy, when this was the leading bookseller in the city. We came here when there was something we couldn’t find at the University Bookshop in Akoka or at the Abiola Bookshop in Yaba. But today it is a depressing sight. The books available for sale are few in number and restricted to few categories. Many volumes are dusty or curled at the edges. There are primary and secondary school textbooks and there are assorted volumes on computer programming, on accounting and on law. The largest section of all is devoted to “inspirational” and Christian books. A woman walks in and brusquely asks the attendant where she can find bibles. She is directed to a well-stocked section, the only section of the shop in which there is more than one customer. The titles of the books are reiterations: how to make money quickly by adopting certain simple principles, how to discover God’s plan for your life, how to live a healthy, wealthy and victorious life according to the precepts of the pentecostal church.
The shelf given to general fiction is pitiful. Other than a few tattered copies of plays by Shakespeare and Soyinka (and why are they tattered?), all that is available is a handful of recently published novels: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Purple Hibiscus, Sefi Atta’s Everything Good Will Come. Both of these are first novels by young Nigerian women based in the US and they are here because they have an energetic young Nigerian publisher behind them. There is also a single copy of Dan Brown’s ubiquitous book. And I see a stack of books by James Hadley Chase, a minor imitator of Ian Fleming’s, who was inexplicably popular in Nigeria when I was growing up and apparently still is. But where are the Nigeria-based Nigerian writers? Where is the selection of international literary fiction? The reader I had seen on the danfo had surely not bought her book here. Poets, too, are notable by their absence.
The listless air of the bookshop is tiring. There is an information desk at the back of the shop. I go there with the idea that I might ask some questions. But the woman standing behind the high desk is slumped over, like a large mammal felled by a single shot. But she’s not dead, only sleeping, same as the other woman I saw at the museum. A standing fan slowly shakes its large head from left to right to left. It covers her in breezes. What I am looking for, what Tranströmer described as a moving spot of sun, is somewhere in this city. But it is not here. Here, one must forget about yesterday: it never happened.
Why is history uncontested here? There is no sight of that dispute over words, that battle over versions of stories that marks the inner life of a society. Where are the contradictory voices? I step out of the shop into the midday glare. All around me the unaware forest of flickering faces is visible. The area boys are still hard at work but I imagine they’ll soon break for lunch. The past is not even past.
I don’t want to end on that depressing note, so I’ll quote from a later entry, jazz:
But the following week, a friend took me to a relatively new shop on Awolowo Road in Ikoyi. And there I finally found myself at home, joyous, inspired. The shop is called the Jazzhole/Glendora. The owner is Kunle Tejuosho, and he is one of a small but tenacious breed of Nigerian cultural innovators. It is a combination music and book shop. The presentation is outstanding, as well done as any Waterstones or Borders. There was a broad selection of jazz, pan-African and other international music near the capacious entrance, and rows and rows of books for the general reader towards the back. The shop was tastefully lit, with a cool and quiet interior. Here, I thought to myself, was that “moving spot of sun” I had so hungrily sought. I saw music by Ali Farka Toure, by Salif Keita. There were books by Ian McEwan, Philip Roth and, yes, Michael Ondaatje. The prices were high. Not higher than they would be in an American or British shop, but certainly beyond the reach of most Nigerians. And yet, the Jazzhole is vital. Knowing that there is such a place, in the absence of good libraries or other vendors, makes all the difference to those who must have such sustenance. And better at those high prices than not at all.
And whatever you do, don’t miss dust. A whole novel in a blog entry.