A Debut Novel of Political and Personal Upheaval in Late-20th-Century Nigeria

By Nnamdi Ehirim

“Prince of Monkeys” speaks in constant hyperbolic language; the kind where characters use adages like, “Every problem has its own man of God ascribed to it,” and chapters close with phrases such as, “Always pay attention to the secrets in colors that are too terrible to be spoken aloud.” And how could they not? Taking place in Nigeria during the 1980s and ’90s, Nnamdi Ehirim’s first novel shows us a Nigeria that exists in both fantastic and tragic terms. It’s a Nigeria in which a group of friends, anchored by the protagonist, Ihechi, can lose almost everything in a single night out, to see their idol, Fela Anikulapo Kuti, perform at the Afrika Shrine.

That night is punctuated by a sudden riot that serves the same purpose as others that occur throughout the novel: It is both a funeral and an awakening. In “Prince of Monkeys,” though, those become necessary baptisms, offering a diverse cast (Ihechi, a “nonbeliever” named Pastor’s son, Mendaus, Maradona, Zeenat), separated by class, religion, education and eventually much, much more, a chance to redefine themselves by those contradictions and inequalities, and by the strife that continuously pocks their homeland. Their preachy vernacular and pop-culture diversions (“Citizen Kane,” “The Aristocats,” Chaka Khan and Luther Vandross) all become exercises in avoiding vulnerability directly. This dishonesty, inherited from their elders, who also speak in a too-golden tongue, plagues these characters as both children and adults.

The group experiences the aftermath of a classist unrest that they were not there to witness. Traversing from Lagos to Enugu, Ihechi encounters firsthand Nigeria’s religious extremes, from his mother’s Ifa to his Aunt Kosiso’s devout Christianity. To Ihechi, the Ifa practice appears grotesque, where the practices of the Pentecostal church are smoothed out to appear proper — despite the bloody history of how it insinuated itself into Nigerian society.

But time and again “Prince of Monkeys” reminds us that differences of religion are arbitrary tools given by the white man to Nigerians for sowing deep divides among themselves, divides that are used to justify abandonments: of families, faiths, morals, entire systems. Mistakenly thinking that the scarcity they’re sold to believe in represents the only option they have, each character struggles to be born anew, whether that be Maradona of the many identities; Mendaus, who goes from a bookish rascal to a movement leader; or Ihechi’s cousins, Tessy and Effy, who slip in and out of clothes just as easily as they do their adherence to their faith.

“Prince of Monkeys” is rife with character soliloquies that relay some of the central issues of Nigerian life, then and now. Given the exhausting struggle to get by amid what feels like an uninterrupted cycle of bombings, riots and corruption, you can’t blame these characters for relentlessly remaking themselves. Their facades often break not in the most violent moments, but in the quietest, when they’re left with nothing but the memories of the choices they have made and those who have been buried. And so at Ihechi’s home in Lagos, his father screams mercilessly at the nightly news while his mother feverishly prays to the Ifa gods, and in Enugu, Aunt Kosiso retells of a bloody day that shattered the family’s innocence. Because so much goes painfully unspoken between characters, Kosiso is heartbreakingly unaware of how much her nephew relates to what she shares.

Yet Ihechi struggles to clarify those connections for himself sometimes; his own maddening motivations, to either restore order to the people or profit from the chaos, place him within forces he’s slow to understand as he becomes ensnared in Nigeria’s political systems. The protagonist, as a result, doesn’t see Nigeria as clearly as Ehirim presents it for us: Nigeria is beset by a commanding, contradictory menagerie of would-be gods of money, power and avarice — the very same afflictions that dig Nigeria’s face into the mud and hold it there.

When “Prince of Monkeys” finally emerges on the other side of sociopolitical crisis, an early passage comes into sharper focus as media cameras capture a rapturous Mendaus’s proclamation to a gathered mass: “We, once heirs of paradise, live by choice as monkeys in a zoo. … And we, once princes of monkeys, shall die kings among men in paradise.” As Ihechi climbs the ranks of society toward financial freedom, he paradoxically finds later in the novel that, as he wrestles with a past he seeks to make peace with, its collisions with his present and future feel as calamitous as the riots. As the novel closes, Ihechi finds himself involved in another moment of upheaval, one that proves he can be transformed yet again.

Tre Johnson writes about race, culture and politics for Rolling Stone and Vox.

By Nnamdi Ehirim
274 pp. Counterpoint. $26.

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