NOT TO BE MISSED
"Avale", a novel by Sefi ATTA
Translated fom English into French by Charlotte Woillez. Original title: "Swallow" 
Arles: Actes Sud, 2011. (284p.).
Ce compte rendu en français
Swallow ("Avale") by Nigerian author Sefi Atta is definitely a good read: a story of Tolani and Rose's endurance in the face of limited work opportunities, insecurity and injustice. It is also a powerful indictment of Nigerian urban society dominated by violence and desperation. "No woman can afford to be nice in this place" (p.11), Rose contends, but beyond this pretence, one will also discover a string of free-spirited individuals whose determination is more effectual in changing social attitudes than governmental rhetoric and slogans.
Attracted by the lure of freedom, love and money, Tolani and Rose have settled in Lagos. They are around forty, life is a drudge and they hate their job. Furthermore, the only place they can afford on their meagre salary is a dilapidated flat in a distant suburb, thus the many hours spent every day travelling in treacherous conditions on overcrowded buses, to and from work. Bad as it is, life takes a turn for the worse when Rose loses her job for slapping her boss. The crisis reaches its peak soon after when Tolani, who works in the same bank, is molested by the same guy and, upon filing a formal complaint, also loses her post. Gaining redress proves unattainable and finding new employment impossible, but both women refuse to submit passively to their fate.
Rose is headstrong but loyal to her friends. Unfortunately, she does not have many of the latter as she always manages to turn them into enemies. She is at loggerheads with her women-folk and her relationship with men is no better: "Rose had been with eight men in the time I knew her." (p.10), Tolani says. And all these relationships have ended in stormy breakups. As Rose tells her flatmate: "Six months and no marriage, I'm free to meet someone else; that is my rule." (p.9). However, when she loses her job, it is no longer a long-term relationship she is looking for, but money and, with no hesitation, she befriends a drug dealer who promises her a small fortune to carry some heroin overseas: means justify the end, she says, and she agrees to become a mule.
At first, Tolani reacts violently to her friend's decision. To her, turning to the underworld in order to make ends meet is not an option and she is determined to stay on the straight and narrow, whatever happens. However, when her boyfriend squanders all her savings in a shoddy deal and she finds herself jobless and broke, she begins to believe that fate is pushing her in a new direction: carrying drugs does not seem as shocking as it used to be and Rose's reasoning seems increasingly convincing: "Our heads of state steal, our board of directors steals. Who asks where their money comes from? People praise them. They run after them and beg them to spread some of their wealth. I am tired of being poor." (p.139).
Ultimately, it will be destiny rather than clear thinking that will decide the fate of both women, but their relationship with their respective families also makes a difference to their fortune. While Rose hails from a highly dysfunctional milieu, Tolani is able to lean on the memory of strong women who preceded her: her mother Arike and the latter's auntie, Iya Alaro, for example. Both embody the determination of previous generations of Nigerian women in fighting exploitation, oppressive customary practices and gender bias: Iya Alaro a master fabric dyer led one of the first successful charge against forced marriage by calling for a march on the Oba's [King's] Palace. And her niece and protégée Arike, who followed in her footsteps, became the first woman of the area to crisscross the countryside on a small Vespa.
The narration of Arike's life runs parallel albeit asynchronously with that of her daughter and it proposes a fascinating look at Nigeria's not-so-distant past. It tells the life-story of intrepid individuals and shows the continuity of Yoruba and Nigerian women's struggle that led to an ongoing push for social change and adaptation to new living conditions: "My grandmother cooked vegetable soups over firewood. The fire was their light at night; the smoke was the smell of the compound, a small clearing of six homes. [...] Women traded and elders watched over children [...] At dawn they woke up and swept the grounds [...] at night, they listened to stories. [...] That was the Makoku of my mother's childhood. My own Makoku, the one I grew up in, was more modern. The path of red dust was now a wide tarred road [...] Good Health Chemist stocked provisions we couldn't find in the market-place, like lemon and honey throat lozenges and powdered milk. Niger Hotel sold Coca-Cola. The Mobil station had a hot curried meat pie. [...] Each time I returned to Makoku, I noticed that the towns-people were providing more and more services: car repairs, tailoring, photocopying, and hairdressing. The farming settlements my mother grew up in were shrinking [...] What would the towns-people eventually eat? I thought. Car spare parts? Watches? Videos, clothes, shoes, bags, and children's toys from Taiwan? There were more goods traders than food traders in the market-place..." (pp.38-40).
Previous generations did not need modern conveniences to be happy, and Tolani's analysis and concerns are pertinent, but just the same she does not want to be cut off from consumerism and deprived of worldly goods. Like generations of women before her, she is pushed by the desire to fulfil her dreams and expectations, and like them her endeavours are constrained by the context of her time. In an era dominated by accumulation and consumerism, money has become the universal key to freedom, thus "Why deny it?", she says, "I needed money, plenty, plenty." (p.147).
As it were, money already played in important part in the relationship between Tolani's parents; one that embodied two different visions of the world. Tolani's father was a drummer who lived for his music. He had no interest in secular matters, domestic chores and material accumulation. As Arike tells her daughter: "Your father was earning a lot as a member of Tunde Twinkle's band. He was travelling a lot too, and when he returned, he was spending a lot. [...] Our house became a meeting point. We had people who ended up staying for days." (p.164).
This permanent influx of unsolicited visitors was the norm in all African compounds, even if it was not always born of honourable intentions. As Arike puts it: "the rubbish people, as I called them, [...] came because they wanted to be around your father, or anyone who was well-known. Theirs was to eat free food and take gifts" (p.172). That did not bother Tolani's father at all. Magnanimous and unconcerned, he always refused to judge his contemporaries and welcomed them all with open arms. In contrast, the attitude of his wife Arike was far more down to earth. This barrage of intruders put much pressure on her activities and resources and her efforts to please everyone went largely unrecognised. While it was her husband that welcomed everyone in, the responsibility to make sure that all the guests were well catered for befell her, and her alone.
Housing, feeding and entertaining generously all kind of visitors, remote parents and total strangers for as long as they wanted had been part of tradition from time immemorial. Arike had nothing against that. What she minded, however, was her husband's indiscriminate welcoming of both genuine travellers in need of hospitality and parasites who were taking advantage of the situation. "I was worried about his generosity. There were people who became friendly with us because they had heard how easily he parted with money. [...] That was my main concern, my only concern, until I realized that I was cooking for these people and your father did not seem to care what was happening to me. In one day, I could cook for almost twenty people. He never asked how the food was prepared, where the food came from, or how much it cost [...]" (p.164).
Things come to a head when Tolani's father hands over a big chunk of his wife's savings to his "friend" Taofik one of the parasites who has been staying at their place for weeks. The man gets offended when Arike asks her husband for an explanation and her money back: "Ah, my lord", Taofik says to his host, "it appears this woman needs to be thoroughly lashed. Thoroughly." (p.177). That, of course, sparks a violent reaction by Arike who not only forcefully expels this rude and undesirable guest on the spot, but also ceases to subsidise her husband's wild spending with her own money. Thus her later recommendation to her daughter: "In your life, you will meet people who are not quite right and you will try to help them if you follow your father's way of thinking. He will give you many reasons why you should not look down on other people, and I can tell you one good reason why you should. If you sleep in the dirt, you will eventually begin to smell like it." (p.162).
Rural Nigeria a few generations ago may seem to have little to do with life in a modern African megalopolis, yet the issues confronting Tolani and Rose in Lagos are not much different from that of their parents: many men's attitude toward their women-folk has not changed much; women are still expected to have many children and to keep their families afloat; parasites are still flourishing and money still determines social status. Human exploitation and violence continue to dominate the scene: Tolani's colleague who is beaten up by her husband almost every day makes this all to obvious: Taofik's brutal approach to conflict resolution is still very much alive. And this ingrained violence is not limited to men. Women also play a part in its perpetuation, fighting with friends and foes, as Rose does, or caning their children to teach them good manners and obedience, like their neighbour Mme Durojaiye.
Tolani has inherited the unassuming personality of her father but, like her mother Arike and her Aunty Iya Alaro, she has to assert herself and find the best way to move forward in difficult circumstances: the way of ensuring her independence and yet remaining true to herself. That, of course, is no easier in Lagos in 2010 than it was half a century earlier in Makoku. On the surface, things have changed beyond recognition, but people's fundamental feelings, hopes, needs, fears, emotions and search for contentment are still the same.
This interesting novel is well served by the plot, the imaginative story-line and the lively depiction of contemporary life in Lagos; yet one of its best features is definitely the cast of characters which evokes vividly the complex make-up of ordinary human beings and echoes their secular and spiritual preoccupations. The complex web of thoughts, feelings and idiosyncratic influences hiding behind the public face of Rose and Tolani makes us privy to their innermost concerns. That highlights the complexity of everyone's existence and in this context, Arike's simple reckoning at the end of the novel speaks volumes: "I certainly do not have a simple existence. Is this ever possible?" (p.294).
This review is based on the French translation of the novel but page numbers relate to the English edition published by Interlink books in 2010.
The University of Western Australia/School of Humanities