Ojo gbogbo ni tole, ojo kan ni ti olohun / Everyday (is) for the thief, one day (is) for the owner

Every Day is for the Thief, Teju Cole (extract)


"The penultimate passenger to enter the danfo at Ojodu-Berger is a woman in an adire blouse. She holds a large book. The book's dust-jacket is off-white, matte. I cannot see her face, though I try to. But, as she sits down, I crane my neck to see what is printed on the book cover, and I catch sight of the author's name. What I see makes my heart leap up into my mouth and thrash about like a catfish in a bucket: Michael Ondaatje. One of my favourites. It is he who has the dream about acrobats in a great house. A reader of Ondaatje in these circumstances. It is incongruous. I could hardly be more surprised had she been singing a tune from Des Knaben Wunderhorn.


Of course, Nigerians read. There are the readers of newspapers, such as the gentleman next to me. Magazines of various kinds are popular, as are religious books. But to see an adult reading a challenging work of literary fiction on Lagos public transportation: that's a sight rare as hen's teeth. The Nigerian literacy rate is low, estimated at fifty-seven percent. But, worse, actual literary habits are inculcated in very few of the so-called literate. I meet only a small number of readers, and those few read tabloids, romance novels by Mills and Boon, or tracts that promise 'victorious living' according to certain spiritual principles. It is a hostile environment for the life of the mind. Once we pass the fly-over at Ojota, the rush-hour congestion eases. The speed we are gathering on the road means the journey is surprisingly cool. The breeze through the open window is constant. The man next to me folds away his newspaper and begins to nod. Everyone else stares into space. The reader, of whom I can see only scarf and shoulders, reads.


Mysterious woman. The condition of the book, from the brief glimpse I have of it, suggests that it is new. Where could she have bought it? Only in two or three of the few bookshops I know of in the city. And if she bought it in Lagos, how much would it have cost her? More than any normal rider of the Lagos public transportation would consider reasonable, that is for sure. Why, then, is she on the bus? Because it is what she could afford, or is it because she, too, is an eccentric? The questions come to my mind one after the other, and I cannot untangle them from each other. I am dying to have a conversation with my secret sharer, about whom, because I know this one thing, I know many things.


'What, lady, do you make of Ondaatje's labyrinthine sentences, his sensuous prose? How does his intense visuality strike you? But is it hard to concentrate on such poetry in Lagos traffic, with the noise of the crowd, as the tout's body odour wafts over you? I see all those gathered here, and I believe in you most.'


My mind runs a monologue as I watch the back of her head for the duration of the journey. I hope fervently that she will not get off the bus before my stop at CMS, so that I can hop off as she does, walk alongside her, interrogate her. So that I can say to her, with the wild look common to all those who are crazed by over-identification, 'We must talk. We have much to say to each other. Let me explain.' In the last row of the danfo, I work on my courage. Lagosians are distrustful of strangers, and I have to speak the right words to win her confidence. The bus crosses from Yaba over the Third Mainland Bridge into Lagos Island. In the shadow of skyscrapers, half-nude men in dugouts cast nets into the lagoon. The work of arms and shoulders. I think of Auden's line: Poetry makes nothing happen. The bus comes to a stop. She disembarks, at Obalende, with her book, and quickly vanishes into the bookless crowd. Just like that, she is gone. Gone, but seared into my mind still. That woman, like an image made with the lens wide open."



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