By Dami Ajayi
One might begin by stating the obvious: both authors are Nigerians and trained professionals though in different endeavours—Mr. Imasuen is a medical doctor, Mr. Iduma is a lawyer. One cannot however say for certain if both are practicing and this might not be important; it suffices to say that they are both locally published novelists.
There has been a hitherto unattended gap in Nigeria’s literary landscape. Few books have addressed the milieu of dictatorship especially in the 90s save Helon Habila’s Waiting for Angel. Farad and Fine Boys are both responses to this thematic deficit but with markedly different approaches. This review is an attempt to crystallize their methods.
It is arguable that both authors are prose stylists. Eghosa, a second-time novelist having previously published an alternate reality novel thinly disguised as a detective novel, approached his second novel with aplomb. He recruits a unique language, introducing the Nigerian idiom that has characterized the Nigerian speech but has not been sufficiently showcased in our style of writing. In Fine Boys, Fair girls become yellow; diastema becomes open teeth, not tooth-gap; NEPA poles are yardsticks for measuring distance. The novel is comfortable in its skin; there are no attempts at explaining our culture. That is what Google is made for, I suppose.
Emmanuel Iduma is a debut novelist. His prose is effortless and sparse. His style lies in a simplicity that holds a tinge of deception. His language is fluent and tangy, organic. Iduma deploys a meta-psychological technique where his characters are dissected for both experiences and motives; the innards of his characters are exhibited as though for contemplation or for seeking similarities. And in spite of this experimental foray, their humanity is left intact.
Fine Boys follows a character steadfastly through its entire course. The novel is a coming-of-age tale of a teenager who narrates his initiation into real life at the university after being divested of the protective cocoon of family. His experiences are colorfully charted from his first sexual intercourse to his first cigarette and bottle of beer. His story is framed after that of every Nigerian who attended tertiary institutions in the 90s. The growing spate of cult groups and its attendant problems, illegal bootlegging of handouts by lecturers and victimization of erring students, and the uneasy atmosphere that characterized the military regime is palpable. Farad also shares this uneasy atmosphere of military regime: that of strict censorship, massive inflation and hard living conditions. Although Farad is a novel, it is told in stories, complex narratives that pass batons on to each other in a seemingly endless marathon. Farad can almost be characterized as plotless, but for the lack of better word, one can sit comfortably with amorphous. The diverse narratives seem divergent until they coalesce in a university chapel. The stories then begin to knit into each other, building into a piquant climax. The variety of characters is seemingly impressive and just as diverse: clergymen and their sons, psychiatrists and deranged military men ex-lovers, lecturers, fledgling musicians and students, choristers.
Farad can be viewed as a telescopic attempt at magnifying the responses and attitude of the middle-class to dictatorship. The Middleclass, known for conservatism and a desire for being upwardly-mobile or the need to be seen as such, was suffocated during the military regime; middle-class was almost precariously merged with the lower-class as inflation and widespread corruption swept the country like a desert fire. The threat to the middle-class was lazily responded to by the largest aggregation of the middle class found in Universities. Their unions embark on incessant strikes to confront the military dictatorship and tyranny.
It becomes intriguing and perhaps an interesting coincidence that both novels are set in universities. The bulk of action in Fine Boys takes place at the University of Benin, Farad climaxes in a University Chapel at Ife. While the rising spate of campus cultist groups, their lure for new members to perpetuate their hideous legacies were the immediate concerns of the plot of Fine Boy, one can also imagine that the actions of the Confraternities in the university, their terror which was meted on whosoever crossed their parts, portrayed the evils of the dictatorship. The university had just become a microcosm to mirror the Nigerian society. Key events of that decade, especially June12, its first year anniversary and a wildfire of protests whose cause still remains confounding are sparingly detailed in preference for the coming of age of story of Ewaen, his rather ambiguous loves and his foray through medical school. There is also the story of friendship. His friend, Wilhelm, who was known to pursue any of his desires to a fault, was lured into a cultist group and the book climaxes in a murder. Murder was a common place event then in the Nigerian society and universities. The memory of the six students murdered in a cult group clash in the University of Ife got a very flimsy mention, I suppose, in Farad.
Mr Iduma seemed to be more concerned with the social milieu of the whole dictatorship, a very ambitious predisposition. No single character is the protagonist. The protagonist is the capacitance of the characters and how they react to their live events. This alludes to the title of the novel, Farad, the scientific unit for measuring capacitance. Fine Boys is also an apt title for Mr Imasuen’s novel. The protagonist is Ewaen, a teenager who struggles with medical school, the pressure of campus cultism, his parent’s shaky marriage.
One cannot believe the amount of autobiographical material that went into both novels. Both authors are alumni of their respective universities. Eghosa Imasuen’s a trained doctor, Ewaen could easily be conceptualized as Mr Imasuen as an undergraduate. Mr Iduma, whose characters are like collage pieces, must have torn part of his reality into parallel narratives. Although, when one merges the incidents in Farad—that of a student murder in a school protest and the Religious crisis in Jos—with the time-frame of dictatorship, a distortion in history can be ascribed to Farad. Clearly, these incidents did not occur during the dictatorship. This distortion perhaps might be an authorial attempt to deploy fiction into reality or it might be an idiom towards the imperfection of written Nigerian history.
Mr Iduma and Mr Imasuen have written novels that have obvious social functions: both books enthusiastically account for the dearth of literature about the military dictatorship in the 90s in Nigeria. However this recent past must still be explored, vigorously even. After all, a hiatus of ten years prescribed by controversial author Norman Mailer to write about history has been exhausted.