The cosmopolitan: Teju Cole and the new African internationalism
In his memoir, One Day is for the Thief, Teju Cole remarks that Nigeria is a “hostile environment for the life of the mind.” This is a statement that I am sure will come back to haunt him. For in making it, he ranges himself within the ranks of those who still subscribe to the old colonial thesis which portrayed Africans as savages, incapable of elevated thought or achievement, so that it became necessary for the white colonizer to assume the burden of bringing us civilization and enlightenment.
This thesis persists today in the claims we still hear about the role of foreign agents in the genesis and growth of African literature, even at this time when we have taken charge of our intellectual and artistic life. Indeed, what is remarkable is that there is no evidence in Teju Cole’s book that there is a culture of reflection in Nigeria. He is either uninformed or blind to its manifestations as sustained by regular features in our journals and can be tracked in the regular flow of exchanges on list serves that the digital age has fostered among us. These are signs that cannot be discounted in any appraisal of the level of consciousness that prevails among us.
In conformity with Cole’s assertion, there is no intimation of such public events as the annual lecture of the Nigerian Academy of Letters, of literary events such as the Macmillan Literary Night, now in its 12th year, of the Liquefied Natural Gas prize awarded annually to an outstanding literary work, no awareness of the stream of literary and cultural events, of festivals and of the constant round of activity all over the country with culture as mainspring of initiatives and focus of attention, of the vibrant intellectual life within and outside the universities, all this attended by a noticeable resurgence of publishing in recent years: in short, of the varied manifestations of a relentless vigour in the unfolding of our contemporary culture.
What is especially disturbing is the primacy he accords to those areas of expressive culture that are peripheral to the particular context of our collective endeavour. To cite an example, the sole indication of cultural activity in Nigeria that seems to him worthy of attention – if not of esteem – is provided by the activities of the Musical Society of Nigeria (MUSON). He does not seem to be troubled by the limited conception of musical culture that its programme represents, nor by the association of this conception of culture with privilege in our particular circumstances, an association that is underlined by the coupling of MUSON with the exclusive restaurant, “Tosca,” whose name is intended to evoke the Italian operatic tradition, notwithstanding the sordid plot and brutal ending of Puccini’s opera. Even when the view of music as essentially a form of “high culture” is the only definition that Teju Cole seems inclined to accept, for him and the patrons of MUSON that he endorses, it does not include the work of Nigerian composers: no Fela Sowande, no Akin Euba, no Lazarus Ekwueme. It is no surprise therefore that the obvious anomaly of the entire MUSON enterprise escapes him, especially the fact that it is sustained largely by foreign patronage. Indeed, so absorbed is he in the high valuation of the western classical tradition that the local musical environment escapes his attention entirely. No Jazzhole, No Shrine. Nothing of the vibrancy of the new musical idiom that the independent churches are in the process of elaborating.
Perhaps the most significant moment in his memoir is that in which he recounts having espied a young woman in a bus holding a copy of Oondaatje’s The English Patient. A cry of triumph leaps from the page, so to speak. But it registers no acknowledgement that a vital relation to world literature and to its most advanced exemplifications has always been an important aspect of literary creation and intellectual awareness in Nigeria. The bleak image of Nigeria as an area of cultural and intellectual endeavor is underlined by his account of the dilapidated condition of the National Museum at Onikan. Even when we obliged to acquiesce in his denunciation of the inept management of the museum, there lingers a tone of condescension that is unacceptable.
We might observe that Teju Cole’s deprecatory view of Nigeria as a mindless and disorderly national community seems of a piece with a negative appraisal of the social fabric of life in this country. Bribery and robbery are the leading motifs of the account he offers of his visit; they provide the framework of a critical review of the background of his early life, a background in which he was formed and which he now feels somehow obliged to disavow. This leads to a dystopic representation, a simplification in which the fullness and exuberance of life as lived in our country today, with all its tensions and contradictions, is totally missed in Cole’s record of his visit.
There is of course no question that the political and social environment of our contemporary existence is bedeviled by myriad problems. No one in this country is inclined to ignore the gravity of what may be termed our national predicament. But if the intensity of the debates that are going on about our fortunes is anything to go by, we can be described as indeed grappling with these problems at the level of mind. It is the total disregard of this aspect of the Nigerian situation that is troubling in our author’s narrative of his return to the native land.
Teju Cole has gone on to publish two more works: Open City, a compelling recreation of his life in New York as a parable of an existential adventure in the world, and Known and Strange Things, an admirable collection of essays covering a wide range of subjects. He reveals himself in these two books as an enormously gifted writer, with an acute perception of the world around him and a rare command of language that enables him to project his insights in a memorable way. Set against his achievement in these later books, his hewing to a commonplace of western prejudice in his first book does a disservice to his genius, which is barely to be glimpsed in his memoir.
• Prof. Irele, a distinguished literary critic is now at Harvard University, Cambridge-Massachusetts, USA.
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