This is a short book, a novella, about a young man returning to his native Nigeria for a visit, his first after fifteen years in the United States. We never learn his name, or much about him. Arriving in Lagos, where he grew up, he finds that life has become much more complicated, and sometimes dangerous, in those years. He negotiates his way between the familiar and the uneasily new, never quite at home. He is determined to reconnect with the city and with the people. He stays with his aunt and uncle, in their comfortable home in an upscale part of the city. But even there, robbery and kidnapping are common. His family tries to keep him in the relatively safe zone, but he goes out every day to roam around the city. To their dismay, he even insists on riding the danfo, the local buses.
Everyone says I must not travel by danfo. The danfo is a death trap. It is a haven for practitioners of black magic, and is full of thieves. This much is known . . . The degree to which my family members wish me to be separate from the life of the city is matched only by my desire to know that life. The danfo, carrier of the masses, is the perfect symbol of our contest. The energies of Lagos life - creative, malevolent, ambiguous - converge at the bus stops. There is no better place to make an inquiry into what it was I longed for all those times I longed for home.
What he notices most obviously is the corruption and graft that run through every aspect of life in Nigeria, starting with the consular clerk in New York who charges him an "expediting fee" to renew his passport. Everyone in Lagos asks for tips for any service, however small, or for handouts. Sometimes the requests are aggressive and menacing, sometimes just the question, "Do you have anything for me?" But the demand is always there, and the returning visitor soon learns that resistance is futile (and can be dangerous). That corruption is mirrored in the internet cafes that have sprung up all over the city, filled with young men working on the notorious Nigerian email frauds, still drawing in people all over the world. A cousin tells him that the universities "are the nerve centers of this activity." (I still sometimes get these at work, usually now from a government official's wife, dying of breast cancer, who wants to leave her money to orphans and widows. "Dearly beloved," they always begin.)
Wherever the young man goes, he watches people, their interactions. He is sometimes a little detached, observing, sometimes overwhelmed by sounds or colors or scents. He meets old friends again, tracing the paths their lives have taken. He notes the differences between the Nigeria of his childhood, and what he finds today. These observations, with his explorations, made this novella seem more like non-fiction than fiction. I felt like I was traveling through the city with this unknown young man, seeing it through his eyes. The present-tense narration adds to that effect, with a sense of immediacy, as do the photos scattered throughout the chapters (the work of the author).
I was particularly struck by the beauty and poignancy of one short chapter, where the young man meets a cousin, a young girl born in the years since he left Nigeria. They take to each other immediately: "soon, I cannot even remember a time when I did not know her."
A month later, as I prepare to leave, she says she will miss me. And I know I will miss her too, and I see with a pang that every good thing I wish for this country, I secretly wish on her behalf. Any prayer I have that the future be a good one, that the place keep from breaking, is for her sake.
The aunt with whom he is staying supports a school in the city. He goes with her one day to wait for supplies arriving by cargo container from the U.S. Though he does not say who attends the school, it was impossible read this without thinking of the school girls kidnapped by Boko Haram. The narrator mentions the unsettled conditions in the north of the country, with fundamentalism on the rise. It has only grown stronger since this book was first published in Nigeria in 2007. It was published for the first time this year in America and the UK, in a revised edition. I learned from Teju Cole's website that he was born in the U.S. to Nigerian parents and raised in Nigeria. I also see from the website that he is working on a non-fiction book about Lagos. In the meantime, I will be looking for his seond book, Open City.