When Igoni Barret wrote BlackAss, he set the bar high for any writer looking to depict the city of Lagos in a story. In BlackAss, Lagos throbbed, hummed and sparkled in every line you read. The story about the Lagosian who woke up one morning and found himself wearing a white man’s skin gave so much life to the prevailing Nigerian metropolis called Lagos.
Toni Kan’s The Carnivorous City did no such justice.
The Carnivorous City is the story about a man, Abel, whose relatively quiet and idyllic life of a lecturer and a man of simple needs gets a major heave-ho when he gets a text message alerting him to the disappearance of his younger brother, Soni. Abel hastens to Lagos, where his brother lives, with “two pairs of jeans and three T-shirts”, “ageing black shoes”, and “three books”, Yes, the fact that Abel loves to read books is impressed on the reader at several junctures in the story. Abel gets to Lagos, and as he encounters the city in search of his brother, he unaware, until it is late, that the city itself is encountering him as well and gradually consuming the man he is.
Right from the onset, it is immediately evident that Toni Kan seeks to impress on the reader the wonder and complexity of Lagos. And there are a number of places where he hits the mark. One aspect of Lagos that is very beholden to it is the traffic and its instability, and Toni Kan appropriately touched on that facet when he said:
“Driving in Lagos at night revealed it to be a small city with a distended belly. You could drive from Lekki to the airport in less than thirty minutes if you had a voracious appetite for speed, but in the daytime, Lagos was sluggish like a python that had swallowed something huge.
“The traffic was the something huge clogging the gut of the city. The roads were bad and the arteries few, so once one was clogged, the others would be too, causing a gridlock.”
There was also magic that Toni Kan wove in the story that I responded to. The one character in the story that no one gets to meet happens to be more alive than all the other characters in the book. Abel comes to Lagos to help look for his brother, and in the process, he realizes that he is on a startling rediscovery of who his brother is. With every acquaintance he makes and every report he encounters, it becomes clearer to him that the person he’s always believed his brother to be may not have been who he truly is. Soni aka Sunderland aka Sabato Rabato aka 9 inches thus assumes a presence in the story that very nearly eclipses everyone else’s. I knew and loved him more than I cared for Abel (who I found more than a little annoying). I admired Soni’s spirit. I wanted him found. I was rooting for him. I wanted him to return to his throne of command over the city that had made him and marred him.
However, there were more misses than hits in this book. I began to get the impression the further I read that the Lagos Toni Kan was writing about wasn’t for Nigerians, but for Westerners or Nigerians in Diaspora. The book read like a tour guide for tourists. Every drive by and road trip made by the characters was described with such exacting detail, it quickly became exasperating to read. By the time you got through how Ada “turned off Third Mainland Bridge into Adekunle, then drove the length of Herbert Macaulay and past Sabo bus stop until they got to Jibowu where she then turned into the road that led to Yaba College of Technology…”, you’d almost forget exactly what it was Ada set out to do in the first place.
Secondly, I also found it odd how tenuously Abel’s sickness was handled. For an ailment that assumed such importance n his life, it lacked any real depth in the story. I didn’t know what it was. I didn’t understand it. At first, I thought it was sickle cell anemia, but the writer took care to eliminate that alternative fact – and then proceeded not to even give it a name. This cursory handling of the ailment made its inclusion seem contrived, like it was just put in the story to support a narrative and then tossed back out again, like a highly disregarded supporting actor of a Hollywood flick.
There were other incongruities I discovered in the book, very simple inconsistencies that I was surprised made it into the final publication. First was with Abel’s characteristic as a man who reads. Reading is a habit I believe people cultivate for various reasons which range from education to entertainment. Reading is also a surefire way for one to improve on his lexicon. This is why I found it odd that Abel would go to a boutique and hear the saleswoman talk about a “lovely tan bag” and he “wasn’t sure what she meant by tan”. I have never bought any lovely tan bags in my life, and I know what ‘tan’ is. That section singlehandedly wrecked my impression of Abel as a studious man who reads books like Toni Morrison’s A Mercy and teaches English Literature.
Another oddity was in the tenses used when reference was made to Soni. Soni is missing. That was even the introductory chapter of the book. He is missing. Not dead. So, for the life of me, I could not understand why conversations referred to him in the past tense. Soni was a good man. Soni was a nice guy. Soni was my younger brother. Was? At this point of the narrative, the working assumption everyone had was that he was missing. So why then did references to him come off like obituaries?
The Carnivorous City reads like a short story that was determinedly stretched into a novel. And many junctures in the book, all of them contrived, serve as a testament to this. I however love the ultimate moral of the story, that the city of Lagos has a way of reaching into you and turning out detestable aspects of you that you never knew existed. I should know; I visited Owerri, the sleepy place of my birth, after three years away, and I almost couldn’t reconcile who I’d become with the person who grew up there.
I’d give this book a rating of 2/5, majorly because reading it in the wake of Igoni Barret’s BlackAss ruined for me whatever chance Toni Kan had of impressing me with his own version of Lagos as a carnivorous city.
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