Thursday, March 28, 2013

I Do Not Come to You by Chance by Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani

This is a page turner of a book and Nwaubani in I Do Not Come to You by Chance (2010) has been able to master a well written novel with great comedic style through caricature, something I have not seen in Nigerian authors.  Not unlike Noo Saro-Wiwa, her father was an activist, although Chukwuma Hope Nwaubani never paid with his life.  She was born in Enugu, grew up in Umuahia and has stayed in Nigeria, graduating from the Univ. of Ibadan, now living in Lagos after time spent in Abuja.  Got that?  The story takes place in Abia State and involves the Igbo tribe ("the niggers of Nigeria," pp. 234, 254) as does much Nigerian fiction. 
The title was inspired by Ecclesiastes 9:11.  "I returned, and saw under the sun,that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all."  The author found the titular line from a '419' letter (p. 178) to an unsuspecting foreigner or "mugu" (p. 177).
It is interesting that this young woman writes a novel through the eyes of a young man, Kingsley Onyeaghalanwanneya Ibe.  He is an "opara" (pp. 15, 182, 376) the eldest son.  The author's name Adaobi means first daughter.  He loses his idealism and joins his Uncle Boniface aka Cash Daddy in a 419 Nigerian Letter scam.  The mugu is lured into various fees to be paid before he receives the big money, be it hidden money in a Swiss bank account or whatever. 
Ikhide Ikheloa ( opines that the book 'reeks of rampant anti-intellectualism.  Cash Daddy chides Kingsley for his bookish aspirations. 
 The book is loaded with hilarity.  We learn that the National Electric Power Authority is best called Never Expect Power Always (p. 64).  "it felt as if 2,2,4-trimethylpentane had been pumped into my heart and set alight with a stick of match" (p.95) refers to the octane isomer used in octane rating.  Ben & Jerry's ice cream seems a staple of the 419ers (p. 145).  Kings' father relates the story of how the tortoise broke his back (p. 158), yet this fable already appeared in Adiche's Purple Hibiscus (2003), oops !  Kings notes that as Cash Daddy emerges from the shower "his five limbs were thick and long" (214).

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Two Years Before the Mast by Richard Henry Dana, Jr.

What was the first book written by an American author to be widely read overseas?  Dana's Two Years Before the Mast (1840).  There is also little doubt that it served as an inspiration for Melville's Moby-Dick (1851).  The character Sam Sparks (p. 81) had a speech impediment that may have been an inspiration for Billy Budd.  When "California 'broke out' 1848, and so large a portion of the Anglo-Saxon race flocked to it, there was no book upon California but mine" (p. 315).  I had been meaning to read this book since 1989, when I moved into a 1916 Colonial Revival house designed by Dana's eponymous great grandson, an Ecole des Beaux Arts architect of the Madison Ave. firm Murphy & Dana.

Dana was a student at Harvard in 1831, but measles left his eyesight weakened.  He joined the crew of the ship Pilgrim for a 2-year trip to California (actually Alto California, Mexico's northernmost state) around Cape Horn and documented the voyage in this seafaring adventure narrative.  Upon his return, he completed Harvard in 1837 and became a lawyer well known for defending the rights of the common man.  His chronicles of sailor life and the brutal floggings meted out by the Captain are the more memorable sections of the book.  He returned to California (now one of the United States) 24 years later in 1859 by steamboat and also chronicled that trip in a coda.  He died in Rome in 1882 and was buried in the Protestant Cemetery near the graves of Keats and Shelly.

The sea terminology is unparalleled.  I was well into the book before I realized that there was an illustration (fig. opposite p. 269) of the brig and ship sails with the names of each sail in the Great Illustrated Classics edition of the book.  The book gets it's name from the fact that the crew made their quarters in the forecastle (fig. opposite p. 10), before the mast.  Dana chose to live with the crew despite his elevated social status.  "There is not so hopeless and pitiable an object as a landsman beginning a sailor's life" (p. 2).  Many of the nautical terms are simple, like "hove," (p. 2) the past tense of "heave," to haul with a rope.  To "reef" (p. 5) a topsail is to fold and tie it down.  A "brig" (p. 14) is a two-mast ship with square sails.  A "hermaphrodite brig" (p. 15) is two-mast with only forward sales square.  The word "hazing" (p. 77) seems to be an old sailor term.  I even see the word "Yahoos" (p. 112).  "Doubling" (p. 266) is to sail around a projection of land as in doubling Cape Horn.

The geography from 1834 is fascinating.  The "Pacific well deserves its name, has few storms" (p. 43).  At that time, Hawaii was known as the Sandwich Islands (p. 45).  Much of the book describes the natives - "The Californians are an idle, thriftless people, and can make nothing for themselves" (p. 62), yet "the climate as good as any in the world" (p. 68).  Boats from Sitka are coming down from Russian America (p. 188), under Russian control until 1899.  We learn that ships could take an inland route above Tierra del Fuego through the Straits of Magellan (p. 264).  It is interesting to note that the California Gold Rush broke out in 1848 in Alto California, statehood two years later (1850) was inevitable.

If you loved the book, the 1946 film (not yet on DVD) awaits, yet has little to do with Dana's story line.  Alan Ladd plays Charles Stewart (not in the book), son of the ship's owner and Brian Donlevy plays Dana (no mention of Harvard).  Mexican 1930s film diva Esther Fern├índez plays passenger and Ladd's love interest Maria Dominguez (most certainly not in the book !).  It's your basic swashbuckler and worth watching.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Oil on Water by Helon Habila

Helon Habila is a new wave Nigerian author, presently a professor at George Mason Univ.  The novel Oil on Water (2010) follows two Port Harcourt journalists, Rufus and his mentor Zaq (dying of dengue fever, p. 150), into the Niger Delta in search of a kidnapped oil executive (p. 72) James Floode's wife, Isabel Floode (p. 191).  Of course, the kidnap assist is provided by her driver Salomon, and let's be clear that the executive has impregnated (p. 218) his girlfriend Koko (p. 202).  Naive he is too as he laments on the rebel attacks on the oil infrastructure "The people don't understand what they do to themselves..." (p. 103).

The story line aside, the style of writing is based on interwoven flashbacks, while our journalists are seeking the wife on Irikefe Island (imaginary, p. 225).  The book opens on "our ninth day on her trail" (p. 5).  Their odyssey is Conradian, and the flashback hazy style is reminiscent of Heart of Darkness.  Nigeria's dictator Sani Abacha (p. 236) died in 1998 - he was famous for colluding with Big Oil, this story unfolds ten years later.  Yet the triangular entanglements between rebels, the oil companies, and the Nigerian military are ever present.