Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Welcome to Lagos, by Chibundu Onuzu

Staff review by Chris Saliba

Nigerian writer Chibundu Onuzu's second novel is part political satire, part absurdist fiction. It's entertaining, shrewdly observed and wonderfully inventive.  

When army officer Chike Ameobi is ordered to torch the houses of innocent civilians in the Niger Delta, he decides he can't stomach any more human rights abuses and deserts. A private under his command, Yemi, also runs away with him. They soon encounter a young teenager, Fineboy. He's a sassy kid, a fighter with a rebel group not averse to taking hostages and demanding extravagant ransoms, and is on his way to Lagos to fulfill his dream of becoming a hip DJ (he tries to speak in an American accent, one that comes out mangled). The three band together and quickly run into a sixteen-year-old  girl named Isoken. She's fleeing an attempted rape and accuses Fineboy and his fellow rebels of the crime. Fineboy denies the charge and Isoken decides to join the group, keeping a wary eye on Fineboy. Finally they meet Oma, who has fled her husband.

Almost like in The Wizard of Oz, the group sets off for Lagos, a mega-city in Nigeria, looking for an answer to their problems. Their hopes are soon dashed and the group, rather comically, decide to set up home under a bridge that is run by a man called the Chairman. To stay under the bridge he charges them all a fee. As the narration says, to be homeless in Lagos you have to pay nonetheless. Their fortunes  bounce back when Fineboy discovers an abandoned apartment and the five runaways start squatting. Events take a bad turn when the owner of the apartment, Chief Sandayo, turns up. The Chief is the Minister for Education and rather suspiciously, he has with him 10 million American dollars that he is trying to hide.

Following the shady exploits of Chief Sandayo is Ahmed Batare, the editor and owner of the failed newspaper, The Nigerian Journal. Ahmed hopes to revive his paper's fortunes by breaking the scandal.

This is a wild ride of a novel that shoots off in all kinds of mad directions, but is consummately held together nonetheless. It's a mix of absurdist fiction and political satire, with generous dollops of irony, taking a broad and varied look at contemporary Nigerian society. The novel is also consistently funny. It reminded me of Gogol's The Government Inspector, a play that lampoons political corruption in Imperial Russia.

Welcome to Lagos is entertaining, shrewdly observed and wonderfully inventive. Chibundu Onuzu has an eye for the absurd and some of her descriptions are inspired and surreal. The plot cracks along and is always entertaining. If you want to read something smart and funny and incisive, then look no further.

Welcome to Lagos, by Chibundu Onuzu. Published by Faber. ISBN: 9780571268948  RRP: $27.99 

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