Usain Bolt is the world’s “fastest” man, but he knows better than to go up against Mo Farah over 800 or 1500 metres. While Usain Bolt possesses this fundamental understanding of his… well, profession, Elnathan John does not appear to. If he did, “Bayan Layi” would never have become Born on a Tuesday. Born on a Tuesday is exactly what happens when Usain Bolt attempts to race over longer distances.
“Bayan Layi” is the short story that Elnathan extends into his novel. The short story is artful, poignant, expertly contained. The irony is, as we are wont to say these days, on fleek. Dantala kills, but responsibility is outsourced to Allah, with no qualms whatsoever. This writer knew what he was doing, till he decided to dilute his perfect little bottle of Coke in a calabash of water. Coke is Art. Born on a Tuesday is coloured water with a distant, very distant, taste of cola.
Sparse, unadorned prose. Naïve, but searching voice. Of Dantala. Wait, what? Let’s even forget about the voice for a second and ask ourselves what Dantala could see. Is he placed so that he can truly observe the myriad choices that went into the making of a tragedy? The protagonist of this novel is society, easy as it is to mistake it for Dantala. If the voice is naïve, should sight be too? And if we are so enamoured by realism, why not write those initial parts in Hausa, seeing as the boy had no English yet? Why not?
Well, the reason is that the boy only begins to write his story after gaining some passable mastery over English. The narrative is retrospective, not immediate. Born on a Tuesday is Dantala’s autobiography, in spirit and in truth. Or is it?
Banda concedes. I wait for them to come out. I strike a match and throw. The boy was right. I love the way the fire leaps out of the window and reaches for the ceiling. (15)
Wait, what is happening here? Isn’t narration retrospective? Hasn’t the fellow (the narrator, who, mind, is different from the author) just declared that the story he will tell is past? What is this real time narration then? What manner of technical naivete is this? If the narrator is naïve, is the artistic effect not predicated upon the author being experienced?
And before passages such as
The men in the Small Party asked us to say so and gave us all one hundred naira to register and even though the people registering us complained, they registered us anyway. My head was so big in the picture on the voter card, Banda and Achisuru kept laughing at me. (8)
are thrown in my face, I’ll say this: in the real-time method, narration is only mostly real-time, not completely real-time. Narrators appear to have no advantage over the reader in the apprehension of events. Passages such as the above are an aberration in Elnathan’s novel, in the real-time novel. That said, I’ll throw this in anyone’s. They are the final statements of the novel.
I am lightheaded. I heave a sigh. My heart tells me he is OK. Jibril is OK. I stretch out on the cool concrete floor. Time slows down again. I think of all the things I must do: cut my hair, wash with hot water, start writing out my story. (261)
If you think this is a small problem, well, it’s not. Some really rigorous thought goes into deciding methods of representation. It’s not a simple matter of trying to be cute. Artists who try to be cute often happen to deeply understand what the commonplaces are. This understanding appears to be absent. If it were not, Elnathan would not have made this astounding error. He could have taken advantage of the distance he is offered by the story being past. Then the novel might have been resonant, and maximally meaningful. Heck, it might have been Art. It’s like insisting on taking aerial photographs with your eyes when you have been offered a powerful camera drone. First of all, your eyes can’t take photographs. Secondly, your eyes can’t take photographs. Thirdly, see 1 and 2. Don’t be as unyielding as a turgid penis.
Lastly, let’s not mistake rarity for artistic accomplishment. Yes, Northern Nigerian narratives are missing and needed, very much needed. But you won’t give your child a stone when he’s hungry all because the stone can keep his mouth busy. A novel is still Art. We still await that Art woven from Northern Nigerian realities. However, (Elnathan) John the Baptist was the forerunner to Christ. I am hopeful.
If the novel fails at Art, it certainly succeeds at politics, like Nawal El Saadawi’s Woman at Point Zero. People will sit up and notice (and promptly forget), (This is not quite related but in an interview somewhere, Elnathan makes an excellent point that more satirists should understand: satire is utterly useless as not-entertainment). There might even be a movie in its future, a la Beasts of No Nation, although the latter is highly authentic (and the former seems, come to think of it, rather derivative). “Those Northerners” aren’t simple-minded, blood-thirsty savages after all, as too many of us in the South seem to assume. Like us, they are humans animated by myriad purposes. Born on a Tuesday goes some way in addressing this myopic stereotyping, but a) you have to be able to read English; and b) you have to possess the means to obtain a copy.
Sometimes when I need to take medication, I wrap it up in piping hot amala, swirl some ewedu about it and swallow the bloody thing. This way, I bypass my sensitive tongue, and my uppity oesophagus. This is how fiction operates. It facilitates the unproblematic ingestion of the unpalatable. At a Mainland Book Cafe event in June 2016, I observed a young woman swallow the pill of the humanity of “those Northerners,” Whether you have to see your doctor after three days is another matter.