Various Nigerian Narratives, Part 1: Print Culture

February 22, 2010 § Leave a comment

Now reading: GraceLand.

Sprinkled throughout this book are these fascinating little glimpses into Nigerian pop culture of the ’70s and ’80s.  Because of my work, I’m especially interested in the print culture in evidence here: the interesting uses and kinds of books that Elvis comes across in Lagos.  And I initially meant to write just about these, but so many fascinating little memes about movies, memories, and music kept popping up that I had to expand my vision of narrative to include these, and will address them in future posts.  But to begin with print culture:

References to Elvis’s reading pop up again and again throughout the book: it is in part a Bildungsroman, and a very interesting one, though I think it’s also more than that.  Elvis reads Rilke, the Koran, Gibran’s The Prophet, and many other books.  There are two book-focused episodes in particular that stand out.

The first is in chapter five, where we get a glimpse of Elvis’s library use.  We find that he has been using the United States Information Service Library on Victoria Island, which carries “the show-biz magazine Entertainment” among many other things.  Here’s what he has to say about the local library:

Apart from the endless old tomes on chemistry, physics, electronics and philosophy, the local library had an anthropology section that only had books with the word “Bantu” in their titles… Something about the word “Bantu” bothered him and made him think it was pejorative.  Maybe it had something to do with not ever hearing that word used outside of that section in the library.  The only other books there were treatises on Russian and Chinese culture and politics.  These came either printed in bold glossy colors or in badly bound volumes with the fading print slanted on the page as if set by a drunken printer or as though, tired of the lies, the words were trying to run off the page.

This is fascinating in a number of ways: Elvis’s preference for the US-sponsored library, his distrust of his own local library’s labeling and categorization of African people as “anthropological,” the shelves of “endless old tomes” and propaganda that are supposed to edify but have no interest for him.  The USIS library is a propaganda tool, too, but an attractive, useful, well-stocked one, with the products (however curated and propagandized) of a free press.  In a culture with an American pop-culture obsession, access to an American library for a kid like Elvis is a real treasure.  I think Abani is interrogating that America obsession throughout the novel, but more so with mass-media products like movies and magazines than with books.  I think he presents the USIS library as a good thing, however Elvis chooses to use it.  (The USIS was actually disbanded in 1999, another Cold-War casualty.)

The second is in chapter eleven, when Elvis visits the huge Tejuosho Market to buy some clothes.  It’s a very evocative scene, with Elvis threading his way through the open-air stalls viewing the fruits and vegetables for sale, hearing the cries of kids selling Cokes, the crowded bustle of people about their business.  And then he stops at a used bookseller’s cart: Abani’s descriptions of the Western-canonical paperbacks (Dickens) and West-African novels (Achebe, but also “thrillers like Kalu Okpi’s The Road“) give you the true feel for the cart and for the market.  It has the ring of truth, this mix of used books, at least to someone who’s never set foot in Africa.  Elvis buys two books, slyly symbolic of the crossroads he’s facing: “a torn copy of Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment and a near-pristine copy of James Baldwin’s Another Country.”  There it is, in a nutshell: will Elvis turn to the life of crime, corruption, and self-interest, of masculine posturing and violence, or will he follow his artistic dream, his desire to help and support his people and his country, and (perhaps) his homosexual inclinations?  But the books are not just symbols or signifiers of Elvis’s identity crisis; they’re possible pathways out of that crisis.  In other words, it’s not just important that we the readers get the significance; it’s also important that he get it — that he read the books.  That he’s buying them in the first place, when he’s dropped out of school and has very little access to books in general, adds important complexity to his personality.

Then Elvis hears another bookseller calling out from an adjacent stall, and we’re introduced to another fascinating aspect of Nigeria’s print culture: the Onitsha Market pamphlets.  As the bookseller sells them, they are “de books written by our people for de people.”  Here’s Abani’s description:

These pamphlets, written between 1910 and 1970, were produced on small presses in the eastern market town of Onitsha, hence their name.  They were the Nigerian equivalent of dime drugstore pulp fiction crossed with pulp pop self-help books.  They were morality tales with their subject matter and tone translated straight out of the oral culture…. The covers mirrored American pulp fiction with luscious, full-breasted Sophia Loren look-alike white women.  Elvis had read a lot of them, though he wouldn’t admit it publicly.

Elvis scans one that the bookseller suggests for an “educated man,” called Beware of Harlots and Many Friends. He turns it down, though, opting for the more narrative-driven Mabel the Sweet Honey That Poured Away. These are, apparently, real Onitsha pamphlets: Abani gives their full citations in his acknowledgments.  And if you’re really curious, you can see a bibliography of over 100 and 21 digitized examples from the Spencer Research Library at the University of Kansas here.  Elvis hides his pamphlet between the Dostoyevsky and the Baldwin, and this too signifies, I think, in some way: the indigenous culture Elvis is embarrassed of, but that Abani celebrates — giving us an excerpt from Mabel between this chapter and the next.

I’ll have more to say later about the use of Elvis’s mother’s journal and other excerpts from written works later on.  For now, I hope I’ve given a taste of the complex, intricate ways that Abani is using books and Nigeria’s print culture in the text.  It reminds me a little of Joyce, in Ulysses, with the various books and pamphlets and scraps of culture that Bloom and Stephen come across and mull over in their heads.  (Not a huge stretch.  This is a really, really good book.)

Winning a Bundle, Losing It All

February 1, 2010 § Leave a comment

Just finished: The Gambler.

Dostoyevsky had a serious gambling problem.  This is not news.  Still, it’s incredible that a mind like his could seriously think that he would get rich playing roulette.  It’s so incredible, in fact, that Edward Wasiolek, in his introduction to this edition, makes a pretty convincing counter-argument: Dostoyevsky was a serious masochist, happy in life and in love only when miserable, and always played until he lost everything or nearly everything because, deep down, he wanted to lose.  What good is faith if it actually gets you something?  Fyodor’s soul probably wandered up to the Pearly Gates and then “accidentally” took the path back to purgatory.

All of which makes for great psychodrama in the novel’s climax.  Alexsei decides to gamble his meager savings to try to save his beloved Polina from the suave Frenchman, de Grieux, who has loaned Polina’s father 50,000 francs.  This swing for the fences is presented in startlingly romantic terms by Dostoyevsky:

Yes, sometimes the wildest idea, an idea which should seem utterly impossible, will become fixed in one’s mind so firmly that one finally begins to take it for something practicable… Even more than that: once such an idea is connected with a powerful, passionate desire, one may eventually take it for something fated, inevitable, predestined, for something that simply must be and is bound to happen!

And so Alexsei begins an “utterly impossible” run of luck.  This gambling to win the freedom of the beloved is reprised in Tom Tykwer’s 1998 film Run Lola Run; the pertinent scene is below:

There is a massive amount of tension and satisfaction built into scenes like this — the clear-cut conflict of man vs. fate, a bounce of the ball meaning the difference between love and misery, life and death.  The major difference between the two strokes of luck is that Alexsei’s run is much longer, and much more plausible (even though still highly implausible) than Lola’s: while she wins her entire necessary amount (100,000 marks) on two spins at 37:1 odds, he builds his stake surely, but incrementally, with losses and gains, until he rides red for a remarkable streak of 14 consecutive plays.  For Lola, roulette’s simply the quickest means to her end: she is desperate and needs money quickly, so she picks the number foremost in her mind and guides the ball to it through sheer will and intimidation.  On the other hand, Alexsei — and through him, Dostoyevsky — recounts his streak with loving detail, with a fond memory for how the plays developed and how the piles of money grew, recounting with a frenzied passion the euphoria of winning with massive amounts of money on the line.  It’s obvious, as he tells the story, that it’s not about Polina anymore: he’s in love with gambling.  He’s in love with the chase.  He’s an addict.

Interestingly, both Run Lola Run and The Gambler arguably undercut their romantic notions of the power of love and the intervention of fate or God into the casino’s operations.  Lola only gets to her trip to the casino after we’ve seen her quest fail and be restarted twice, leaving us to choose whether to believe in the “reality” of this version or to think of it all as a fantasy or delusion.  And Alexsei’s triumphant offering to Polina is rejected after their night together, leaving him to throw it all away with money-grubbing Blanche in Paris (a move which makes sense only if you believe he is consciously trying to get rid of his money) and become a sordid casino-haunter, working for gambling money when he must.  (But couldn’t that be construed as classically romantic in its own way?  The fallen man, rejected by his love, slumming around Europe, gambling just so he can feel something, either hope or despair?)

Grandma Goes Gambling

January 30, 2010 § Leave a comment

Now reading: The Gambler.

Reading next: The Graveyard Book, by Neil Gaiman.

I love gambling, though I’m too cheap to gamble for anything but small stakes.  Gambling as a powerful force in American life has forced its way to the surface in the past fifteen or so years after a long, long existence underground: the poker craze (now, maybe, dying out, though the World Series of Poker events and online poker rooms are still drawing more and more players each year, I believe), offshore Internet gambling, stocks and other sordid financial risks.  Maybe most of all, gambling on sports.  I remain convinced that the two biggest reasons why pro (and to a lesser degree, college) football has become the overwhelming spectator sport of choice in the last 30 years have been the perfection of its scoring system and statistics to facilitate gambling (on point spreads, over/under total points, fantasy leagues, and the like), and the matching of the pace and flow of the game to television broadcast.  College basketball might have died out completely by now, were it not for gambling on the NCAA tournament.

All of which has nearly nothing to do with Dostoyevsky.  Nearly, but not absolutely nothing: the darker aspects of American culture that are revealed in its gambling economy (in its various forms, from semi-secret to publicly financed) are also examined in the section of The Gambler in which Grandmother, the matriarch of the group waiting and hoping for her to die, goes on a spree at the roulette wheel.

Grandmother’s gambling is crucial to the plot, but Dostoyevsky also structures his telling of her spree as a kind of self-contained vignette: a primer on how not to gamble, or the worst that can happen with gambling to the wrong sort of personality.  Grandmother has the bad luck to have very good beginner’s luck: seeing zero come up on her first bet (zero being the number in roulette that loses all bets except those on zero), she becomes convinced that she should bet on zero until it comes up, and it does, twice more, soon thereafter, and becoming convinced of her mastery of the wheel, she then bets everything she’s won on red — and wins again. Satisfied, she stops for the night, having won a massive amount.

But now she has the fever.  Grandmother is quite used to things going her way, to people obeying her commands — she is a Russian noblewoman, after all, owner of entire “villages” of people.  Her first observations of people playing roulette convince her that people are just “fools” for placing the wrong bets; they just don’t have God on their side, they just aren’t marked for greatness the way she is.  And so she goes back, and the bets she placed the previous day don’t work now, and she loses, and loses, and loses, and exchanges her Russian funds at a truly usurious rate, and loses some more, and even when she’s full of rage at how much she’s lost she remains convinced that she’ll win it all back, and cancels her first train back to Moscow, and goes through one more round of losing nearly everything she has.

This is how pure gambling (in games with no skill at all involved) works.  It reveals the obvious: there’s no rhyme or reason to luck.  God is absent, on no one’s side, particularly — unless it’s the house’s, which is a rather monstrous thought.  Or isn’t He?  Does He abase Grandmother?  All of this is interesting in relation to Dostoyevsky.  His telling of the passages in the casino is quite detailed, in terms of the wagers placed, the outcomes, the ebb and flow of the game; there is an investment in the play-by-play of the action which reveals his own gambling obsession, his attempts to work out how and why roulette seems so maddeningly simple and yet continues to take her (and his) money.  He is interested in these minutiae, and you can almost hear the frenzy of his narration of the events.

Most of the time the outcomes and wagers are realistically inconsistent, if that makes sense.  Dostoyevsky (through Alexsei, his narrator) inserts observations of how the game seems to work, with runs of numbers coming up over and over and then passing out of favor, with red or black coming up more than the other on a particular night and how this affects the wagers.  He seems honestly perplexed about whether these observations actually mean anything, reveal any system operating behind the random motion of the ball and the wheel.

This pattern breaks during Grandmother’s losing streak, when zero emerges as a Satanic figure.  Twice it comes up at crucial junctures right after she has forsaken it, speeding her fall while also fueling her rage and determination to win it all back; the cruel timing of these appearances in Dostoyevsky’s narrative, after zero has tempted Grandmother into earlier belief in its power, suggests that his roulette is not random, that it is an expression of the metaphysical.  (That Grandmother has been gambling with funds she’d originally earmarked for the renovation of a church is also quite suggestive of the Satanic power at work here.)  But this is not the end of the story.  Will Alexsei gamble his own money?  What will happen when he does?

In Dostoyevskyland

January 26, 2010 § 2 Comments

Now reading: The Gambler, by Fyodor Dostoyevsky.

It’s been a long time since I’ve read Dostoyevsky, or any Russian writers at all, for that matter; I think the last thing I read was The Brothers Karamazov, maybe six or seven years ago.  I’m amazed at how suddenly the force of his writing came back to me.  Partly this is due to the nature of The Gambler, which begins very much in media res and plunges headlong, with part of the “fun” being to determine what’s going on among these seemingly sordid characters.  But I think it’s also at least in part due to the very distinctive world Dostoyevsky creates in his books.

We don’t hear much about Dostoyevsky the creator of imaginative recreations of the world, of cities and places, as we do with, say, Dickens.  Mostly this is because Dostoyevsky spends precious little time doing any sort of describing or scene-setting.  And yet his focus on psychology, voice, relationship, and character create a kind of claustrophobic universe just as visceral and recognizable as the London of Dickens.  You’re plunged into an alternate reality — or, if you prefer, a fantasy — with Dostoyevsky just as surely as you are in a science fiction novel; it’s just the alternate reality of a mind, usually a mind in serious trouble.

For me, this intense, almost hallucinatory quality to Dostoyevsky’s works makes for an odd reading experience.  I find myself quite involved with the books as I read them, gobbling up chunks of text, catching intricacies of interrelationship and forebodings of coming events, savoring Dostoyevsky’s little flashes of surreality and powerful emotion.  And then, when I finish… they somehow vanish.  I’m astounded by how little I remember of what I’ve read of his.  I remember more of Anna Karenina, read about ten years ago, than any of the three major Dostoyevsky works I read since.  I’m baffled by this.

No one claims The Gambler is Dostoyevsky’s masterpiece; it’s better known for his having to write it in a hurry under great pressure, and for its autobiographical elements, than for anything actually involved in the text itself.  But in a way its subject and setting — a group of nobles desperate for money and love, set loose on the roulette tables of a fictional spa town — are perfect for the fevered tone of his prose (or at least, his prose as it seems in translation).  The most remarkable passage so far is in chapter two: in a single three-page paragraph, the narrator (about whom we know next to nothing at the point) discourses on the “two kinds of gambling: the genteel kind, and the plebeian or mercenary, such as that played by all sorts of riffraff.”  (The translation I’m reading, by the way, is by Victor Terras.)  He ranges over a variety of observations and anecdotes; he is witty and interesting on the various kinds of gambling; and yet the length and intensity of the discussion, and the switchbacks and asides and seeming contradictions and pronouncements such as “of late I have been finding it somehow extremely repulsive to apply any kind of moral standard to my actions and thoughts” contribute to a sense of derangement.  The narrator (and an author?) plunge into their monologue to such a depth as to barely find their way back to the surface, the masterful tics and ramblings giving the sense of a character seriously lost in their subject, betraying a very likely problematic fascination.

The Dreams of Montague Tigg and Jonas Chuzzlewit

January 11, 2009 § Leave a comment

Now reading: Martin Chuzzlewit.

Reading next: The Question of Bruno, by Aleksandar Hemon.

Dickens gets really dark in the last third of this book: given how muddled the resolution of the supposed “main” plot of the young and old Martin Chuzzlewits is, I think he simply became more interested in the unremittingly dark, selfish, horrified and horrifying character of Jonas, and his path toward the murder of Montague.  (This seemed, by the way, to happen to Dickens a lot: e.g., Fagin and the Artful Dodger as opposed to Oliver, in Oliver Twist.)

Reading Dickens psychologically is tricky at best, downright dishonest at worst, especially for a layman like myself.  But Dickens, here, does seem to be more interested than in many of his books in the self, and its makeup.  There’s the whole question of how we come to care about other people, and value them as actual people like ourselves and not as obstacles, comforts, or other satellites of the self — one of the central questions of the book.  There’s also the explorations of identity inherent in the non-character of Mrs. Harris, the creation of Mrs. Gamp, who approves of Gamp’s every impulse, notion, and thought; the cipher-characters of Nadgett the detective and the porter of the Anglo-Bengalee Company, whose entire existences are based on being inconspicuous and conspicuous, respectively — entirely internal and external; and the social adventuring and posing and self-creating of Montague Tigg and Bailey Jr.

It somehow seems impossible to avoid the conclusion that Dickens was fascinated by his attraction to the worst aspects of his world and (perhaps) his self: the way his writing explodes to life when exploring London’s seedy underbelly, the way he seems most masterful — to me, anyway — when seeing the world through the eyes of those driven on by their basest instincts to horrible acts.  Did Dickens always see the miracle of his avoidance of that life, after the imprisonment of his father and his despair at going to work at age 12?

At any rate, nothing in this book feels as personal for Dickens as the two nightmares: Tigg’s, in chapter 42, shortly before his murder, and Jonas’s, in chapter 47, right before committing the act.  You get the feeling, reading each dream, that they were real: that Dickens had experienced nightmares very like these, that they are not created but remembered.  Tigg dreams of the door in his hotel room: there’s a “dreadful secret” about this door, and it nags at him in that he feels he both knows and does not know this secret, and this aspect of the dream is “incoherently intertwined” with another, in which the door hides “an enemy, a shadow, a phantom.”  The way this door is one thing and another, and the way it maddens him with its known/unknown secret: this smacks of truth, to me.  Although it works perfectly for the fiction, it’s also much messier than it necessarily needs to be.  This is the way real nightmares work, not fabricated nightmares.

The really brilliant thing about this dream, though, is the way “Nadgett, and he [Tigg], and a strange man with a bloody smear upon his head (who told him that he had been his playfellow, and told him, too, the real name of an old schoolmate, forgotten until then)” work to drive “iron plates and nails” into the door to make it secure.  But “the nails broke, or changed to soft twigs, or what was worse, to worms,” and the door crumbles, splinters, and refuses to accept nails.  A footnote tells me that one Joseph Brogunier suggests that the “strange man” is Tigg himself, and the “old schoolmate” is Tigg, too: keep in mind that he’s known at this point as Tigg Montague, and has raised himself from a begging, swindling, scrubby scoundrel into the dandified head of an insurance company (still a swindler, but on a grand scale, and therefore worthy of respect).

The nightmare works brilliantly on different levels: for in reality, the door connects to Jonas’s room, and Tigg wakes to find Jonas hovering over his bed (which is some scary shit, frankly, and would’ve made my heart explode in that situation).  Tigg has already become ambiguously afraid of Jonas, who creeps him out in hard-to-define ways.  But besides fictionally effective foreshadowing of murder, there is also the free-floating anxiety of getting found out: of Montague Tigg/Tigg Montague always afraid he’ll be found out, both as a fraud (although I think he could deal with that alone) and as a kid, a “schoolmate.”  I think Dickens — leaving things really mysterious, ambiguous, and unresolved, here, for once in his life — taps into some of that anxiety we all feel in dreams, and it makes an incredible counterpoint to the self-centered monstrousness of both Jonas and Tigg: the fear we (or at least I) often have in dreams that we are somehow not valid people, not adults, never to escape childhood or the people we once were.

Then there’s Jonas’s dream.  This whole chapter, incidentally, is a work of genius: it’s frenzied, blood-red, taut, surreal in the way you feel surreal when you’re about to do or have just done something terrifying or climactic.  Jonas, riding in a carriage to murder Tigg, dreams he’s in his own bed and is awakened by the old clerk, Chuffey (whom he abused so often).  They go into “a strange city” with the signs written in a strange language, but Jonas remembers he’s been there before.  The streets are at various levels, connected by ladders and ropes connected to bells.  There’s a huge crowd, and Jonas learns it’s Judgment Day.  His companion keeps changing from one person to another.  A head rises up from the crowd, “livid and deadly, but the same as he had known it,” and blames Jonas for “appoint[ing] that dreadful day to happen.”  Presumably, this is Tigg.  He tries to strike him down, but they struggle without a conclusion, and he awakes.

Again — in the protean companion, Jonas’s anxiety about the way he’s dressed, and the brilliant dreamscape of streets at various levels, for the social rising and falling of urban life — we see a kind of verisimilitude of dreams, I think.  We also see anxiety about the self, about identity, about being found out.  And, while it’s easy to see the “livid and deadly” head as that of Tigg, you could also see it as that of Jonas’s father, or his own.  What’s meant by “deadly,” after all?  Is it deadly as in dead, as his father is?  Is it deadly as in potentially fatal to Jonas, as he sees that Tigg could be?  Is it deadly as in having murder on its mind, as Jonas himself does, constantly, to the brink of paranoid insanity?

I’ll write a little more about Jonas and the murder in the next post.  There’s just so much that’s great about this section of the book.  It really is very reminiscent of Dostoyevsky, especially Crime and Punishment: it’s similarly claustrophobic.

Morrison, Ellison, and the Grotesque

February 3, 2008 § Leave a comment

Now reading: Invisible Man, by Ralph Ellison.

Yesterday, Groundhog Day, was another case of literary serendipity, for me. In the morning I read the first chapter of Invisible Man–not expecting the famous “Battle Royal” chapter, awed references to which in various places finally spurred me to read this book (somehow it was never assigned to me in school). A couple of hours later, I heard Toni Morrison read, in Duke Chapel at the Reynolds Price Jubilee here, from her manuscript for a forthcoming novel set in 1690.

But first, IM. The first 50 pages have basically exhausted everything I knew about the book. The prologue–a tour de force itself–introduces the titular character, squatting in his famous light-bulb-filled, Dostoyevskian “hole.” He takes a reefer-fueled trip into the “cave” behind the “hot tempo” of the Louis Armstrong song “What Did I Do to Be so Black and Blue” and hears a rousing sermon there. (This sermon, with its Jonah references, is an homage to Moby-Dick; Melville and Dostoyevsky are both all over this prologue, and, while we’re playing the “Literary Influence Parlor Game,” the IM’s trip into the grooves of the Armstrong song reminded me strongly of a similarly hallucinogenic scene involving jazz in Gravity’s Rainbow.)

And after that, we get the battle royal. This raging, pseudo-allegorical, horribly violent, soul-bearing chapter must have felt like a kick in the head when it first appeared (modified, of course) as a short story in a magazine in the late ’40s. Grotesque is the exact word to describe it. How else would you sum up a fight among ten young, black, blindfolded men, staged for the amusement of a town’s respected leaders–followed by the same fighters being forced to grab for money on an electrified carpet?

Anyway, seeing Morrison (her reading was excellent) reminded me of Beloved, and the grotesque elements in that novel, as well. Ellison’s achievement in the battle royal chapter, I think, is to make his scene heavily symbolic while simultaneously deeply troubling, visceral, and realistic. Really, how often do you come across a piece of symbolism–say, Eliot’s Waste Land (another influence, it seems)–which also seems like it could have actually happened–or, what’s more, is happening? That’s how this chapter feels. It feels real. And I speculate that this effect has resonated throughout subsequent African-American literature; I speculate that Morrison’s depiction of the grotesqueries of slavery may have been abetted, if not consciously inspired, by just this chapter, and its deft balance of character, violence, allegory, and emotion.

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