Dark Journey: A squatter’s tale

by Ikhide R. Ikheloa

Reproduced here for archival purposes only. First published in August 2006.

The other day I stumbled upon a Nigerian’s blog and it offered me a gem – a great reading list of contemporary Nigerian writing. It is not an exhaustive list but it includes Sefi Atta’s Everything Good Will Come, Chimamanda Adichie’s Purple Hibiscus, Chris Abani’s Graceland, Helon Habila’s Waiting for An Angel, Okey Ndibe’s Arrows of Rain, Ike Oguine’s A Squatter’s Tale, Unoma Azuah’s Sky High Flames, Uzodinma Iweala’s Beast of No Nation, Diane Evans’ 26A, Helen Oyeyemi’s The Icarus Girl and so on. I have since put several of these books on American “layaway” out of respect for my hopelessly wretched wallet. I have since managed to retrieve Oguine’s A Squatter’s Tale out of this “hire-purchase” plan and all I can say is what a trip this novel is. I have not laughed this hard since reading Peter Pan Enahoro’s How To Be A Nigerian.  A Squatter’s Tale had me in stitches; I laughed so hard, my trembling hands could not hold the book. My spouse decreed that I was now officially a lunatic because I was still up at dawn reading and laughing in the dark. It was literally impossible to put the book down and do something else. I no longer have the book in my possession; I loaned it to a friend and he can’t bring himself to return it to me – he says he needs it nearby to keep him laughing. I have ordered another copy and this time I am not sharing.

A Squatter’s Tale ought to be required reading for anyone interested in the immigrant experience. In terms of importance, I rate this book very highly. Which is a shame. Because it doesn’t appear to me that Heinemann, the book’s publisher did much in terms of advertising and marketing the book. Lesser books have sold for buckets of money, thanks to the wonders of marketing hype. Scouring the Internet, I could only find one review of the book by Tony Kan Onwordi (Between Dreams and Nightmares, ThisDay Online, November 16, 2004). It would be a crime if this book was not re-packaged and re-issued by a more aggressive publisher. The story has been told; it should be made available to the willing reader. And there are legions out there. Even the blurb at the back of the book in describing the book does a great disservice to a most complex story:

“Young financier Obi enjoys life in the fast lane in 1990’s Lagos. He walks tall in designer suits with his girlfriend at his side, enjoying the envy of those with empty purses. When his finance company collapses, Obi’s decadent lifestyle comes to an abrupt end, and he is forced to flee to the United States. There he has to live on the margins of society. Obi wants money, he wants a woman, and he wants to live the good life. This fast-paced novel, by turns comic and moving, reveals what success and failure mean for the young Nigerian at home and in exile.”

The plot is more complex than the blurb’s telling of it. And a thousand times darker. This is a work of dark genius that manages to cobble together a riotous story that gets your heart pumping every step of the way. A Squatter’s Tale is a fast-paced roller-coaster of a little book that takes your emotions for an unforgettable ride. I am not one for roller-coasters but boy am I glad that I clambered aboard this one.  The main character Obi is a cynical jerk, and narcissistic in the worst possible way. An unrepentant asshole with few redeeming values, Obi leads a riotous cast of pure-bred assholes in weaving a story that would have been improbable if not that we all to varying degrees live it daily. Obi comes across as a sneering, snide, snickering genius of a beast too self-absorbed and jaded to see joy in anything. He is also cursed with a heart that is allergic to affections except maybe for those of his girlfriend Robo. He rejects meaningful friendships with the same fervor that a born again Christian rejects the devil. Obi shuttles from wide-eyed wonder to a clinical detachment that borders on the cynical and jaded as he confronts the mistake that is his world.

Obi’s odyssey starts with the visit of his American-based Uncle Happiness to Nigeria. Uncle Happiness is a jolly uncle of many dreams and schemes, all of them unrealistic and unattainable. But he keeps on dreaming and scheming. When Happiness arrives in Nigeria from California, on a short visit, for young Obi, it is an enchanting time of joy, lovely stories and gifts. Uncle Happiness is a one-man joy minting press. He regales Obi, and whomever else is listening, with tales of America – that land flowing with an abundance of everything from milk, to useful US dollars, and as it turns out, oodles of lies. He showers attention and gifts on young Obi and in between mouthfuls of made-in-America roasted turkey and chicken, Obi dreams of someday landing in that nirvana called America. Fast forward to eighteen years later. Be careful what you dream of; you might just get it. Obi ends up in America alright, but it is not the America of his dreams. It is the America of his nightmares. And that of every Nigerian immigrant, it appears. America is harsh on Obi and every immigrant of color that Obi encounters. This book is a deeply disturbing look into the journey called exile and Oguine mines his own anxieties and neuroses with the precision of a well trained neurosurgeon.

Obi soon finds out that choosing between America and Nigeria is like choosing between a rock and a hard place. What comes across as unalloyed cynicism is hard reality. For Obi, America is Bleak House redux. He lands in Uncle Happiness’s apartment in California and is dismayed by the lies, hopelessness and despair that taunt his uncle’s wretched existence.  Here is how Obi describes Happiness’s wretched apartment:

“The brown sofa on which I sat was a massive semi-circle; it took up more than two-thirds of the living room, but each thread on it sagged as though someone had painstakingly pulled on every one of them.  The sofa faced a huge cabinet that rose nearly to the ceiling. Someone had taken a sharp object and made marks all over the carpet. Rusted cassette decks, amplifiers and turntables were piled on it in no particular order, like junk. In the centre was an ancient 26-inch TV which surprisingly showed bright pictures, but you couldn’t hear what was being said because of a constant vicious hiss that came from the back of it. The walls of the living room, originally painted white, suffered from a spreading spotted grey eczema. On the floor was a carpet long trampled to a dusty-milk death; its farthest edges showed that, while alive, it has green and yellow designs. A fierce smell, an oppressive compound of cigarette smoke and frying oil, sweat and damp, decay and despair ruled the room. “(p 10)

Oguine offers an exquisite analysis of acute, painfully felt dislocation from one’s own culture in an alien dispensation. The result is a character-fest of sad caricatures furtively living a lie either in Lagos or in Oakland, California. Obi went to America, in his own words, to seek success, not to keep company with failure. In the end he kept a lot of company with failure.

The book’s enduring appeal is how it seamlessly showcases the universality of the lies that people perpetuate just to live a lie on either side of the Atlantic. Obi’s uncle Happiness says of America, “T]his country turns you into a liar and a thief, or maybe we are all already liars and thieves and this country just provides you with many opportunities to do those things.” (p 199). He might as well have been talking about Nigeria.

And there is fraud everywhere. In Nigeria and in America fraud is perpetuated at multiple levels and the beginning of a transaction is almost always fraudulent. Example: Once in America, Obi needs fake papers in order to work (he is on a visiting visa and cannot legally work). Uncle Happiness procures the necessary fake papers for him in exchange for five hundred dollars. Obi finds out later that the documents only cost his uncle three hundred dollars – the difference being illegal profit. Obi is furious at Uncle Happiness’s’ dishonesty. He cannot understand why another human being would seek to defraud him in a fraudulent transaction and the dark beauty of Oguine’s prose shines through as Obi describes his angst against his thieving uncle. Happiness “shrunk even further in my eyes, became a bald headed wrinkled worm; not just a failure who filled his head with childish fantasies but also a small time crook who would steal from his own blood.”(p 28).  A thief stealing from a thief. Brilliant, absolutely brilliant.

The common denominator that strafes the book’s pages is an eviscerating alienation of the soul and of a people, one that is most painful to read about. Obi sees all this sense of alienation and subsequent denial in his uncle Happiness and he marvels “at this fifty-year old child who hid away from the world that had beaten him in fantasy houses of his own construction.” Oguine also captures the self-hatred that some in the Diaspora unconsciously express in their thoughts and attitudes through Ego, the surgeon’s wife. Here is Ego proudly describing the “white” neighborhood that they live in: “There is only one other black family living here. The man is the Vice President of a big company in San Francisco and there are two or three Indians and some Chinese and Koreans. Apart from that, the rest are white.”

I am blown away by the book’s honesty and fearlessness. For instance, Oguine touches upon a seldom discussed topic – prejudice against African Americans by African immigrants. Obi observes that the African immigrant sometimes exhibits as much prejudice towards his African American cousin as the worst white racist and he offers several anecdotes that the reader would readily recognize. The prejudice that Obi sees cuts both ways; African Americans have been known to exhibit similar prejudices towards immigrants. But Obi has no interest in being balanced and objective; he simply wants to tell his own story, political correctness be damned. Let the aggrieved tell their own version. I find that attitude refreshing.

Obi observes that Nigerians in the Diaspora tend to exhibit naiveté in their discussions of Nigeria’s politics by ascribing most of Nigeria’s failures to the evil of ethnicity. He posits that the reality is much simpler:  “A few so-called leaders, waving the ethnic banner, struck deals all the time with whoever happened to hold or want political power and they were handsomely paid for their trouble. Ethnic politics was good business; the ethnic groups were political commodities whose prices changed seasonally, like farm produce. A shrewd politician was one who knew how to hoard and when to sell.”  (p 129)

Like most Nigerian immigrants, Obi feels the pain of exile acutely and expresses his home-sickness in lovelorn prose:

”… I missed home more than I thought possible. Robo’s thin-fingered touch, her unhurried, meandering laugh, her bra-free jiggling breasts. Lagos – the Lagoon, blue and wonderful, the city free of chaos, bad temper and violence, filth and evil smells, the nightclubs filled to the brim with beautiful people, energy and good cheer at full throttle – a Lagos that existed only in my cold homesick mind. My ageless mother, rippling with strength, leading the women in church in an almost erotic, buttock-shaking dance of thanksgiving to the Lord at the services I attended once in a while. My gorgeous sister, Nwaka, going through some of the most confusing years of her life without the counsel of her big bro. Over and over I asked myself: What are you doing here for God’s sake? Why can’t you just go home and get any kind of job? As if jobs littered the streets of Lagos.” (p 140)

As cynical as the book comes across, it is not too far from reality. In Oguine’s book, we see what happens when what passes for free enterprise is layered on a rickety structure of governance. The result is capitalism of the worst sort, of a swarm of locusts engaged in self immolation – a relentless march of self destruction ravaging and raping the heart and soul of a once proud people. We see this in Oguine’s Nigeria and in his Republican-run America (Newt Gingrich and that Contract With America! Ha!). In the end, only the weak are left standing, shivering under the weight of a merciless hurricane.  The strong are sheltered in the warmth of their big houses, snickering in their white neighborhoods, sleeping off the tsunami. For them, this too shall pass. Not so for the poor and truly dispossessed.

A Squatter’s Tale is a veritable repository of exquisite prose. Obi describes a white lady straining to understand his thick accent by the condescending habit of slowly repeating his words, “speaking the words slowly, pronouncing each of them carefully in her American accent, rescuing them, like abused children, from the violence my accent had done to them.” (p 47).  While driving along down the freeway in California, Obi marvels: “And the lights of a town at the bottom of a valley would hang in the air for seconds, an endless blanket of distant fireflies, and then vanish, only to re-appear at the other side of a hill.” (p 25) This book is sheer delight.

This book is a must read. It is an important book – a powerful time-stamp of a never-ending period of loss and despair, not only in Nigeria, but in the Diaspora. Oguine captures with startling effectiveness the hollowness, the lack of an ideology, the me-ism , the hollow yearning for materialism that never seems to satisfy, and the tragicomedy of timid attempts at mainstreaming and social integration in an alien land. Oguine captures all of this so brilliantly, it is hard to believe that this is his first novel.  Oguine steps out smartly, out of the shadows of nowhere to deliver a stinging indictment of the state of our being in Nigeria and in the Diaspora. And then he steps back into the shadows as swiftly as he came. May this brilliant comet return to taunt our conscience with the truth.