A story of struggle and survival in a small Nigerian village is the fruitful subject of African-born Habila’s second novel (following his prize-winning debut, Waiting for an Angel, 2003).
Twin brothers Mamo and LaMamo grow up in the comfortable home of their widowed father Lamang, a prosperous cattle merchant bent on carving out for himself a prestigious political career. But he’s an unloving father, and vigorous, energetic LaMamo runs off to join the army (despite the sorrowful example of the boys’ Uncle Haruna, a corpse-like casualty of the Biafran War), while frail, introspective Mamo (the protagonist), weakened by congenital sickle-cell anemia, must return ingloriously home. Throughout the 1970s, infrequent letters from his adventurous brother give Mamo an imaginative connection to the complexities and perils of African nationalism, as he grows to manhood to become a history teacher, a published writer and the pet intellectual of regional political leaders (the Mai and his colleague—and rival—the Waziri). Habila juxtaposes the depiction of Mamo’s intellectual growth with the story of Lamang’s self-destructive ambitions and, in a fascinating story within a story, the biography of the Mai he’s commissioned to write (for reasons that, he’ll discover, are less than celebratory). Mamo finds love with Zara, a beautiful and intelligent fledgling novelist, but, like his brother before her, she departs, in pursuit of a romantic dream. Famine strikes his village, religious fundamentalists spark violent riots and, when LaMamo, wounded and disillusioned, returns home, Mamo realizes he still has much to lose. The novel ends with Mamo’s resolution to write the “biography” of his people, thus celebrating their survival—through the age-old practice of communication with other cultures and respectful assimilation of their values. Few messages could resonate more strongly in these troubled times.
An unusually rich and rewarding novel, which in its (many) best pages becomes something very like a native African Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.