A Nigerian living in the U.S. finds corruption, delight and ghosts on a return visit to Lagos in this rich, rougher-edged predecessor to Cole’s celebrated debut novel (Open City, 2011).
First published in Nigeria in 2007, this novella records the unnamed narrator’s impressions of the city he left 13 years earlier. His observations range from comic to bitterly critical, playing off memories of growing up in Lagos and his life abroad. Cole paints brisk scenes that convey the dangers and allure of the “gigantic metropolis” in prose that varies from plain to almost poetic to overwrought. The narrator says a woman holding a book by Michael Ondaatje “makes my heart leap up into my mouth and thrash about like a catfish in a bucket.” Bribe-hungry police, a vibrant street market, perilous bus rides, brazen home invaders: From the locally commonplace emerge sharp contrasts with the West. Coming to the market, for instance, he recalls an 11-year-old boy burned alive for petty theft. In the city’s many new Internet cafes, a “sign of the newly vital Nigerian economy,” teens write emails to perpetrate the “advance fee fraud” for which the country has become infamous. The returnee laments the dilapidation and skewed historical record of the National Museum before admiring the world-class facilities of the Musical Society of Nigeria Centre. It’s a graphic contrast that billboards questions bedeviling the narrator: Why did I leave? Should I return for good? What have I gained? Or lost? Such an exile’s catechism could serve with slight variations the many displaced people Cole writes of in the “open city” of New York.
And as with the novel, the influence of W.G. Sebald arises again here, not least in Cole’s addition of photographs that are much like the novella’s prose: uneven yet often evocative.