Toni Kan’s “Nights of the Creaking Bed” is a crazy Danfo ride – Adaora Nnadi

The bright yellow cover with the picture of a danfo has appealed to you and you find yourself wondering if it is any good.

The cover also promises “an intriguing insight into the lottery of life and love in Lagos.” Google, God bless the algorithm, has led you to this review.

Well, the cover isn’t lying to you. It is a collection of stories about people who are entirely at the mercy of the raffle draw that is their lives, and how the grand prize always seems to elude them. These are stories that cannot be found anywhere but in Lagos not just because of the absurdity of the stories (every megacity has its fair share of those) but the way it charms you into its arms and shoots you in the head later.

You are prey and the book has hunted you down. Welcome.

We follow sons who yearn for their mothers’ nakedness, bus conductors who risk it all for love and unfaithful yet unfortunate women in this danfo ride of a book.

When you read these stories, you are reminded of the unending stream of bizarre tales that are given full page features in local Nigerian newspapers. They were always stories filled with gore and peculiarities. If they happened anywhere other than Nigeria, they would be considered a societal meltdown but our country has been melting down long before ice caps did and we are quite alright.

Toni Kan says in an interview that he was inspired to write the eponymous storywhen he read an article about a woman being arrested for her lover dying atop her. It only makes sense here, in our motherland. These stories which were published in various journals over the course of twenty years show no progression as the heart of Lagos is unchanging, come removal of seat of power, come Third Mainland Bridge. There are skating rings and gay clubs now but there is no sense of temporal shift in any of these stories.

It is often considered a flaw when all your characters sound the same, but I assume –I hope, actually – that Kan does this for a reason. The narrative voice is so similar in all the stories, always lewd and always vigilant, that it feels like an essence slips in out of these stories projecting a slideshow of tragedies to the reader. The voice is also anxious, and it fears what will happen to the characters as much as we do.

If you read this book a second time, this stagnant voice will become even more obvious. You will start to notice the voice getting even wearier of this city than you are, but you will stay with the voice as it brings you to the end and you will both ponder with each other if you want to see more already broken lives shatter because in a sick way you have started to like it.

In spite of this, the desires you will sense from every character is mercurial and it permeates every page of this collection. Lust is king, wanderlust sits by its side moping and bloodlust dances all around them gaily. Most of this longing is repressed and each story is, at its core, about the release of desires that have festered for so long. “See Lagos and die,” is the statement thrown at a provincial Northern boy on his way to Desireland. The Grim Reaper’s scythe might as well be a character in each story and at its mercy are either the desire or the desired. This makes for one (sometimes two) dimensional stories or characters who are only defined by these desires and the conflicts that come with them. Kan uses flashbacks to better this situation and gives us insight into the origins of these desires. Nobody cares how their fetishes started really, we all just want to judge them for it.

Nevertheless, this book isn’t a bed of thorny roses that you can lay in and relish other people’s despair. It’s last few stories seem to be created for the sake of their endings. Shock value plays a big role in these stories but the last few stories are too short to create the impact needed for Kan’s style of ending with three lines that invalidate the struggle of his characters. Plight doesn’t make the papers but plight and tragedy or death makes the front page. But you’ll discover that this is what Lagos is, all its prestige relies on shock value. All the suffering and starving make no difference unless they have something to advertise. This book turns you into a quintessential jaded Lagosian who loves to play a sport called Na me suffer pass or I don see life pass you.                                                         

In, surprisingly, the only rape scene in this story lies a question that you will think sums up exactly what this book represents. A young woman who just abandoned her child tells her rapist that she is going home and he asks with a gun in his hands, “Wetin be home?” Your house is where you go to lay your head to rest as there is no settling here. The word home is never even used when you are speaking pidgin, the lingua franca of Lagos. There is no room for tenderness and no provision for solace in this hellhole city. There is turbulence everywhere; in the streets, in your car, in your heart and in your bed.  So, when you hear the creaking sounds the worn mattress makes in this place, you will know it’s not just an act of careless copulation, but rather the unrest all around you that disturbs that bed.

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