In January last year, while reading a copy of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s The Thing Around Your Neck, on my way from Baringo, I was forced to look up when a shadow fell over the page. On looking up, I saw the village madwoman, peering hard through the rolled up car window, trying to read the title on the cover page.
I closed the book and she got a clear view of its title, then shouted: “The thing around your neck is a necklace!” She then marched off, in response to strange siren calls that beckoned her through voices inside her head.
As I sat staring at her retreating figure, I couldn’t help but wonder just how, even in her madness, she had a pretty correct, if too literal assessment of the things we wear around our necks.
Nigerian writer Babatunde Oyateru, in his debut novel The Day The Mad Man Knew, takes us into a neighbourhood which, like my own, has its own madman living alongside the ‘saner’ members of society.
As the book starts, we are immersed into achingly familiar surroundings with characters who could easily pass for our relatives and friends.
There is Ogunmakin, an engineer who is at a loss as to what to do with his sudden swell in wealth.
The tides have changed in his favour and after years of working as an unrewarded civil servant with little pay and lots of boredom, he seems ready to give up honesty.
To, in the words of Shakespeare, “take the tide at the flood so that it leads on to fortune.” Ogunmakin hopes, though, that as he continues to amass his fortune, “the ill feeling at the pit of his stomach will fade with time and a fatter bank account.”
LESSER CELEBRATED FIGURES
We also meet lesser celebrated figures, like Aboki and Iyanu who, despite facing economic hardships themselves, do not shy away from offering help to fellow rejects.
These people seem to be here to remind us of the Pauline principle of the unity of the body of believers where even the lesser parts of the body play an important role to help it fully function.
Oyateru is, clearly, a reader’s writer. For his writing is lucid and his humour shines so brightly through the 297 pages of the book that in the end, we the readers sigh, half in relief and half in regret, at having come to the end of a delightful journey, happier than the bored policeman Swetwaters who secretly curses the police force for keeping him idle, hungry and unnoticed.
We empathise with Swetwaters, realising that the policeman is not just another government machinery for oppression but just as human, just as vulnerable and just as in need of attention as we are.
In the book, Oyateru paints with picturesque decorativeness the hustle and bustle of African city existence. He echoes our struggle to survive, to pay rent, to sustain families and please nagging spouses even as our societies edge more towards capitalistic ideals and our eyes begin to be blind to the suffering of those around us.
The question then asks itself at this point. How are we, webbed in the ebb and flow of daily existence and fighting for survival, any better than the madman, imprisoned in his delusions, cribbed, cabined and confined by the demons in his head?
In an essay titled ‘The Need for Speed’ published awhile back in Pambazuka News online, Mr Oyateru, who lives and works in Kenya, does a rather interesting comparison of the everyday lives of Nigerians and Kenyans. He draws parallels, pointing out the similarities and differences and showing how true the phrase, ‘Naija no dey carry last’ is in summing up the daily existence of Nigerians, their aggressiveness and stubborn ambition that can be ‘too much’ for non-Nigerians.
Interestingly, Oyateru subliminally fronts a similar argument in his book and yet any Kenyan, reading the book 3,393 kilometres away from Oyateru’s homeland is likely to find many more similarities than differences in the actions and reactions to the pressures and daily grind of African life.
In Mr Oyateru’s work, we are introduced to a novelist who seems to be in possession of an unusually keen eye for societal affairs. He merges myriads of occurrences, big and small and creates a patchwork of life episodes so real that the reader is forced to suspend belief and move into the neighbourhood, if only for the duration of the novel. It is probable that, after reading the novel, one will suspect that they have stumbled upon a great novelist. One might even wish to question the writer at length and find out the source of his awareness of the rubs and tumbles of life in an African country.
However, a few times in the book, the reader will notice that the writer has escaped his secret post of observation and thrust himself forward; his opinions, politics and musings freely mixing with those of the characters. This, unfortunately, gets in the way of the story and slows it down somewhat.
On the other hand, the writer redeems himself in the final chapters by tying up the loose ends so neatly that the reader comes to the stark realisation that the madman isn’t an isolated fragment on the fringes of society but is very much a part of its weakening fabric.
This realisation gives one reason to mull over issues, to philosophise and generalise about the loss of values given that the book is being read in 2018, a whooping 2000 years after the birth of Karl Marx.
And at a time when the internet is awash with articles about just how right Marx and his counterpart Friedrich Engels were with their Communist Manifesto.
In his popular political play Betrayal in the City, Kenyan playwright Francis Imbuga writes that “when the madness of an entire nation disturbs a solitary mind, it is not enough to say that the man is mad.”
In Oyateru’s book, we see this reality unravel in the story of the mad man and how his snapping is more a result of societal failings than his own personal failure.
By the end of the book, the reader is left with questions. But the question that asserts itself more urgently seems to be a challenge for each reader to figure out just to what extent the madness of the entire nation has affected their single mind.
The book comes off as a gentle rebuke that, perhaps, we are reading our social media pages with eyes too close to our screens to see the faces of the stranger beside us. It seems as though the author bemoans the death of neighbourliness and the communism that is nought.
Ironically, when all is said and done, it looks as though the madman is the only one not driven insane by the pressures of a fast-paced existence. Oyateru refuses to gratify us in this respect. He instead leads us through a boulevard of broken dreams in which suspicion, greed and selfishness create a general madness that seems to cover the entire neighbourhood.
Though set in an unnamed country in West Africa, thousands of miles away from Kenya, The Day The Madman Knew is also the story of Nairobi. And that of many a Kenyan towns. For it is a book of deep conviction. And the neighbourhood is so real, so palpable that it will be difficult for me to forget it. For I live in it.
The book is available at the Magunga Bookstore and can be ordered online.
Gloria Mwaniga is a teacher and writer currently working on a collection of short stories. She is also a 2017 Ebedi Fellow and has authored a number of children’s books