Monday, 30 January 2017

Book of the Month: Americanah (Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Ifemelu, the feisty protagonist of Americanah, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s third novel, has views on most things, and, not having been blessed with much in the way of frontal control, Ifemelu does not shy away from airing her views, which, more often than not, amount to acerbic animadversion: be they her dismissal of V.S. Naipaul’s A Bend in the River, which, apparently, is all about the battered self-image of an Indian man, fatally wounded about not being born a European, or the racism—in particular those of the liberals—in America.

There are lots of characters in Americanah, but at its centre are Ifemelu and Obinze. Ifemelu and Obinze are childhood sweethearts, both belonging to the educated Nigerian middle-class, Obinze, being the child of a university professor, perhaps a few rungs higher than Ifemelu. Obinze and Ifemelu both want to migrate to America. Why? They are not starving or fleeing war or starvation, as Ifemelu admits at one point. They both are “raised well”. Yet they want to immigrate because they are fleeing “the oppressive lethargy of choicelessness” in Nigeria. Such examples as are given of the lack of choice available to the young and educated protagonists include recurrent strikes in Nigeria and the obligatory corruption scandals (both of which are, of course, unheard of in Europe or America). So Ifemelu and Obinze wish to escape Nigeria and find a haven of satisfaction and fulfilment in America, except that Ifemelu ends up, as planned, in America, while Obinze travels to England. Neither finds the conditions in the countries to which they have immigrated quite up to their satisfaction. Indeed, as their story unfolds—Ifemelu spends many years doing menial jobs as a nanny and au pair; Obinze is a manual labourer. Both do illegal things to make ends meet, Obinze even attempting a sham marriage after his valid visa expires in order to extend his stay in the United Kingdom—you wonder whether the “lethargy of choicelessness” in Nigeria would have been all that worse than the shadowy, humiliating, soul-destroying lives they lead in America and England. Obinze, who is less irritating of the two main protagonists—probably because he does not hold clichéd views about the country to which he has chosen to spend his life in—is caught at the registry office just when he is about to declare his marriage to a woman of Angolan-Portuguese descent, and is deported back to Nigeria. Obinze accepts his fate without protestation. He does not fight the deportation citing human rights abuse; and, upon his return to Nigeria, does that which he could have done without travelling to the United Kingdom to do back-breaking work in a warehouse: he becomes the middle-man of a local big man—a property developer more dodgy than the donor kebab in your local Turkish Takeaway—and becomes filthy rich. He marries a good Nigerian woman who has child-bearing thighs, who goes to the local Church, and responds to Obinze’s every wish as a dictate from the Holy Trinity. What more can a man want? In Obinze’s case, he wants Ifemelu, who, after she went to America, inexplicably (to Obinze) dropped him. Ifemelu, in America, has done somewhat better than Obinze (she does not get deported, for a start): she lands a job with a liberal white family as an au pair (and repays the awkward kindness shown her by her employer by nursing a smouldering resentment); then hooks up with a stinking rich nephew of the mother of the children she is looking after. When the nephew ditches her (because she is unfaithful) Ifemelu gets together with an African-American academic faster than a stripper in Devil’s Advocate gets out of her outfit. All of this leaves Ifemelu with plenty of time and energy to run a blog about race (“Raceteenth or Various Observations about American Blacks”), which is a perfect outlet to give vent to the negative energy—a radioactive fusion of feud and resentment, fostered by Ifemelu’s talent for ferreting out insults and snubs by the whites, when probably none is intended—which Ifemelu possesses in abundance. In this blog—which becomes more popular than that of the woman who wrote Eat Praay and LoveIfemelu writes on topics such as Barak Obama (yawn), her relationship with her white boyfriend (yawn, yawn), the difference between African-American and American-African (honestly, do the majority of the African-Americans or American-Africans care?), and hair of the Africans (rather a lot on this topic: that the majority of African-American (or American-African, for that matter) women do not allow the hair to grow into a natural afro and endure unspeakable miseries and hardship to make them soft and straight, is down to the racism of white folk—don’t ask me how; I didn’t get it either). In the blog, Ifemelu makes profound observations such as she did not realise that she was black in her native Nigeria, and how she fit the description only after she arrived in America (probably because, unlike America, Nigeria is not a multi-racial, multi-cultural society—surely, this would not have escaped Ifemelu’s notice). Finally, Ifemelu, too, returns to Nigeria, where—guess what?—she decides, eventually, to start another blog (an idea that evidently did not occur to her before she went to America and lived illegally). She reignites her relationship with Obinze, who, unsurprisingly and notwithstanding his wife’s child-bearing thighs (perhaps because of them), is still holding out a candle for Ifemelu. As this sprawling novel comes to an end, the reader is reasonably certain that Ifemelu has wrecked Obinze’s marriage.

Ifemelu exists on the most captivating edge of cynicism when it comes to race, although you get the impression that she can’t be truly sardonic: despite her outward scornful and mocking disposition, Ifemelu does seem to be in touch with her emotions, and her various actions throughout the novel suggest that she is also a hard-nosed realist. In other words, in Ifemelu, Adichie has valiantly tried to create a character that is complicated: witty, mordant, intelligent, outspoken, but also with its vulnerable side, all of which ought to make Ifemelu the kind of girl-friend every red-blooded man with higher than average IQ would wish for, the kind of girl-friend who would fulfil all your dirty desires in bed, and, afterwards, hold an intellectually invigorating discussion with you on the race-relations in America, making provocative statements, if you happen to have an interest in the matter.

Americanaha attempts simultaneously to be a love story as well as a commentary on the race relations in America from the eyes of an immigrant (hence the distinction between African-American and American-African), but manages, regrettably, to do neither convincingly. The key event in the novel that makes Ifemelu sever contact with Obinze is unconvincing, not least in light of the trajectory of Ifemelu’s life after this supposedly seminal event. As for the various observations focusing on the attitudes of whites, their hypocrisies and unconscious prejudices, towards blacks, these are, no doubt, intended to be incisive, pithy, trenchant etcetera. To be fair to Adichie, they are all of these at times; however, for the most part they seem just shallow, banal and petulant. It is impossible to draw generalized conclusions based on these observations, which rarely rise above the cliché. Ifemelu, you get the impression, is, forever, like the first year university student who is trying oh-so-hard to be interesting, cool, and different from the rest. She is mildly amusing in the beginning; afterwards she grates on your nerves.

The strength of the novel is Adichie’s prose, which flows smoothly and, and times, manages to be sharp and observant. That, however, is not good enough, I am afraid, to shift the novel out of the second lane. This is not a novel that is generous in its tone. It lacks poignancy. It also lacks drama. It is not a novel that makes you think, something which Sir Vidiya’s novel did with great success.