Given its title, I was surprised by just how funny this book is. Tracing the tales of Meme and his two sons, Calamatus and Abel, who each in succession find the previous diaries, Diaries of a Dead African is a merciless comedy, which doesn’t shy away from the problems faced by its Nigerian protagonists, but nor does it present them as mere victims. Calama’s involvement in the 419 scams is nicely nuanced, and the letters he writes are increasingly inventive and amusing – his section reminded me of another Nigerian novel, I Do Not Come To You By Chance by Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani, which deals with the same theme, and is also well worth reading.
For me, the final section was the most interesting, probably because Abel is an aspiring writer, with a bit of a chip on his shoulder: “Why won’t publishers take a chance on me? Must everybody write like Chinua Achebe? I like to write about Tortoises. That is how I am.” His (partly) unwitting involvement in politics brings yet another dimension to a book that functions on many levels, a book that (when I eventually have time for such things) I will definitely reread. Nwokolo himself is a deeply impressive man, and his website is well worth checking out: http://www.nwokolo.com/
Instead, I will just say that I found The Night Watch a refreshing change from some of the more ‘heavyweight’ stuff we’ve had to read for the course (yes, Sebald, I’m talking about you) – another reminder of the fact that what I am really looking for in a novel is a cracking story and great characters. Sue me. The reverse chronology of the novel (the three sections move backwards in time from 1947) worked for me, although it does create a lack of resolution at the end of the novel which some may find unsatisfying.
The spectre of death, as suggested by the collection’s title, looms as large as the ever-present hyperinflation in many of the stories, but there is also gentle humour and a quotidian normality that grounds the stories in everyday life. ‘Our Man in Geneva Wins a Million Euros’ is a lovely twist on the scams mentioned in my first review, and ‘The Negociated Settlement’ is an understated and complex depiction of a marriage that may or may not be breaking down. Gappah is a writer I will definitely be keeping an eye on; luckily she has a blog, too, so that makes things easier: http://petinagappah.blogspot.com/
Having said that, the story is extremely well-told (like Waters, Adichie plays around with the chronology, so that we are presented with four sections: ‘Palm Sunday’, ‘Before Palm Sunday’, ‘After Palm Sunday’ and ‘The Present’) and her language is just the sort of prose I enjoy, clean without being too spare, descriptive without being overwritten. Her book of short stories, The Thing Around My Neck, arrived from Amazon today – I’m looking forward to seeing what Adichie does with the short story form.