The opening lines are passionate, promising and effervescent.
In between these early lines, it becomes glaring that Jumoke Verissimo’s A Small Silence has a ring around it: Silence.
In this novel, silence tells stories. There are times characters say so much even without opening their mouths. Through silence, they sometimes communicate love, guilt, sadness and so many other human emotions. This motif runs vastly in this debut of debuts.
There is also another ring: Darkness. This darkness is like the one that envelopes Nigeria, the one Nigeria has spent billions trying to get over unsuccessfully, the darkness that has kept us on the backseat in the comity of nations, the one that makes immigration officials at foreign entry points look down on Nigerians, the one that makes us far less than we should be, and the one that makes the few bad eggs the focal point instead of the millions that are shinning across the globe. From the National Electric Power Authority (NEPA) to Power Holding Company of Nigeria, darkness persists. Name changes but darkness looms.
The darkness in the Nigeria in this novel goes beyond power supply; it shows in other areas of its life, in the take-home pay that cannot take workers home, in the people in power who steal more than armed robbers, in a mother who is at ease asking a brilliant employee to write SSCE for her daughter in exchange for a tertiary education scholarship and in so many minute details of Nigeria’s socio-cultural life captured in this work.
The novel tells the story of Prof, a victim of government high-handedness who ends up in prison. He comes out feeling: “They took me away. I am not the one in this body anymore.”
He is released at a time Olusegun Obasanjo has just defeated Muhammadu Buhari to win the second term of office. He returns to his father’s house where he chooses to stay in darkness except for the light that strays in through the window in the sitting room.
The part of Nigeria he returns to is a place where the general opinion seems to be: “We just have to make something work somehow, somehow, in this country. We don’t have a government. We find ways to do things.”
Darkness regularly takes over the area because of systemic failure which allows noises to leap from generators. Things are programmed to fail and ‘big-big men’ and ‘big-big women’ (and not merit) decide who gets what.
The darkness hovering around the Prof clouds his neighbours’ gaze. They see him as not normal, they imagine him living on cockroaches and insects, they imagine him as carnivorous and they picture him screaming atop his voice. They see so much more from their blurred viewpoints.
He refuses help from his childhood friend and mother. His mother, however, cultivates the habit of dropping by from time to time pleading to be let in, singing his oriki and dropping provisions by the door and upkeep cash through the hole at the lip of the door.
Living alone and in darkness leaves Prof with no choice but to, with open arms, accept instructions and pieces of advice from voices in his head— one of which he personifies and christens Desanya, who constantly engages him in arguments on issues he is struggling with.
For Prof, “You shouldn’t make the mistake of thinking darkness is bad. Sometimes having light is the problem. Darkness is a cypher. Things, possibly, are created in darkness— think of the Bible story in Genesis; the total darkness that engulfed the earth brought light. What brings darkness? Darkness welcomes light all the time. We can see in darkness, only if we let our eyes master the dark.”
With time, he starts letting in a young girl, Desire Babangida Jones, into his dark sitting room. Desire is a ‘crazy’ girl, the type bold enough to tell a boy “I’m good in bed. Try me” and buys two packs of condoms on her first visit to him.
Prof and Desire, whose father actually named Undesirable because he wanted a boy, chat almost every night until the grandfather clock chimes it is midnight. They talk about politics and everything else— all in the dark.
The young girl knew him before his time in prison, when the government demolished Maroko to pave way for the high and mighty to turn it to Lekki Peninsula. Her love for his activism at the time drives her to him and keeps her knocking and knocking until he opens the door for her to become the only visitor to his dark chamber.
The novel is also a different kind of Lagos story; the Lagos it portrays is one less seen in fiction: Lagos suburbs. Abesan Estate in Ipaja comes alive in this work; so do Ojo, Oshodi, Mushin, Isale-Eko and the now-dead Maroko on whose remains we now have Lekki. Lagos suburbs pop up in unflattering prose that depicts stench, hard drug usage, street hawking, traffic gridlock, decrepit infrastructure and broken spirits. Using these places, urban Nigerian life is imaginatively recreated in this beautifully imagined work, which also exposes the nakedness of the giant of Africa.
Mental health and the hush-hush way it is handled in Nigeria also come alive in Verissimo’s treatment of Desire’s mother’s condition.
The work equally highlights the evil of decades of military rule in Nigeria, which have erected in the people a destructive impassiveness that permits repressive systems.
The use of fringe characters, such as streetwise Basira, Remilekun—the daughter of Desire’s benefactor who is being forced to acquire a tertiary education— and Ireti, help Verissimo to deliver a work with stunning range, pitch, pacing and depth!
Verissimo uses several literary tricks, including a close third person from Prof and Desire’s points of view. One particular trick is striking: the way she lets the reader in on the possibility of Prof having a child he is unaware of. Like a slow burner, the trick evolves. The author first drops the hint of a resemblance between Prof and Ireti, aka Ghandi Reloaded, then that discussion between Desire and Prof about a love child and other bit-by-bit related revelations.
This is a not-so-linear work, which goes back and forth to beam the light on dark patches and makes us grasp scenes and sceneries. It displays the author’s unsparing panache with writing about sadness.
Verissimo tells an intriguing tale with unusual characters whose actions and inactions thrill and, in the same breath, give us more than a glimpse into human connections in ways we are unlikely to consider on our own.
One more thing: The last bit of the book is very intense. It is what a climax should read like: It keeps the heart pulsating.
This is a persistently solemn work with the capacity to pull the reader into its melancholic world.
–Yishau is the author of Vaults of Secrets and In The Name of Our Father.