“The Voyage of Saints” as meditation on forbidden love – Jasper Ugbaa

“Michael Ajose was only twelve years old when he decided that he wanted a wife.”

From that promising first line, Marvin Abe sails through the early years of his main character’s painful childhood in northern Nigeria within the span of one chapter. By chapter two, you would have had a complete novel, plot-wise, save the disappeared love interest but the writer seems to assure us that he has more to say, more to tell us, so we must sit back and get ready for the novel’s acclaimed ‘emotional punch’. By chapter three we are plunged into the colorful world of Lagos in the 1970s and it is in the writer’s powerful capacity for historical detail and nostalgia that the novel is at its strongest.

The Voyage of Saints is an empathetic meditation on forbidden love in the cosmopolitan Lagos of the 1980s. With whip-crack pacing and dexterity Marvin Abe is able to carry the reader through the challenges of a man’s life in a fashion that makes the book read like an autobiography or something close to a memoir, given the distance of a third person point of view.

Whatever the case, the memoir/autobiographic structure of the novel works and fails. It works because the writer is able to give us a close look at Michael’s life; we follow him from his poverty stricken childhood to reuniting with his childhood crush in more financially stable times. It gives room for witty dialogue, the reader laughs along with the characters when one of Michael’s friend calls him an “Ashewo Sailor”. We are also able to get a close picture of what Lagos was like in the 80s, perhaps a hint on the economic climate (a very good house is rented for twenty thousand naira) and absence of the religious fault lines we have today (the lead character is a Yoruba Muslim who changes his name to Michael when he is young, marries a Christian and follows her to consult traditional priests when they need spiritual assistance). The rich plot is able to propel the reader to the end of the novel, in spite of its many failures.

One of the ways the novel fails is in the distance it has from its lead character. Even though the focus is on Michael, even though the story is told from his perspective, we never really get to meet him. We never really get to know who is, what he truly thinks about himself, about the world, about Lami. We know what he wants, we know what he tells her, we are told what he likes and what he does but never shown who he is. And this does nothing for it book; it makes it read like a poorly strung-along report. What happens in between the scenes?

You get the sense of this absence of thought or thought flow as you progress through the book. Beautifully written sections are separated by gaping holes of time and thought. It gets almost frustrating, and as I mentioned earlier, the only thing propelling the reader beyond the first half of the novel is the plot, the desire to know how it all ends and this might not be enough for the seasoned reader. There are also so many sections that are iterations of each other, conversations that would have been summarized with a line, to propel the plot, but in the fashion of biographies or ghostwritten biographies, it tried to capture everything research and memory could provide. This made the flow of the novel veer off course a bit.

There is also the problem of letters; the abundance of letters which should have complimented the already well realized plot made the novel cumbersome to read. It contributed to the terrible sectioning which should have been helped by the editor. The result of the cumbersome letters and shabby sectioning is an untidy ending. I have read lots of experimental fiction, but I have never encountered a ‘prologue’ at the end of a novel, perhaps I really need to read more.

For what  it’ s worth the book offers us a glimpse into the family structure of the 70s and provides us an opportunity to contrast it with the general family structure today in how family members navigate the dynamics of power, acceptability, alienation, sense of duty and bonds. Most millennial readers would be puzzled at Michael’s distress when his mother rejects his fiancée because of superstition. Another reader got to that part and declared to me that ‘this people don’t have real problem.’ For many younger readers, being able to afford a wedding or a life together is of more importance than whatever superstitions their family members might have and this is because the goal posts have shifted, back then young people had other priorities, in fact the educated middle class around the time of Nigeria’s oil boom did not need to worry about these things. Most of them, like the lovers in the book, were more interested in acquiring more degrees.

Of note is also the way familial bonds almost keep the main character from the woman he wants. Even though the brothers are estranged he still feels a sense of duty to them and they still feel entitled to his wealth and life choices, even when he did not depend on them for finances. This sense of duty hasn’t changed in this era though, for many young people it’s about the economy, can they financially afford to go against the wishes of their parents?

Ultimately, A Voyage of Saints, while being marketed as a love story, is actually a study on the dynamics of the modern Nigerian family that emerged from the working class Nigerians of the 60s/70s, and how some homes meant to nurture and support you become your first theatre of war.

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