A Reader’s Impression of The Mechanics of Yenagoa by Michael Afenfia (2020)

Reading this novel as I did over the better part of two days during the Eid break felt like binging on accumulated episodes of a TV series like Grey’s Anatomy, House, or Bones. The episodic nature was unmistakable, a carryover of the way the novel was birthed. It started life as a weekly blog. The chapters are the episodes. A new chapter starts by jumping forward a little along the story line and then briefly revisiting the past episode and connecting it to the current chapter.

The plot is not straightforward, having twisted and turned a thousand times in the three hundred pages. The protagonist, Ebinimi, is a good-hearted man, who seems to have the knack for falling in and out of hot water. No doubt, the book is a page-turner. You keep expecting the next twist or turn.Michael Afenfia’s characters in this novel are so vivid that I kept visualizing them on an imaginary television. These colorful characters emerge solely from action and dialogue. By the end of the novel they seem like real people that you have known for ages.

The cast: Saka the talented performer who has the dubious gift of mangling the lyrics of popular songs but nevertheless becomes a celebrity. Reverend Ebizimor the manipulative pastor of the Jerusalem Warriors International, a veritable religious charlatan who could have been the archetype for many so-called men of God these days. Broderick, the delinquent young man who shouldn’t have made it to the happy end of the story but for Ebinimi’s generosity which kept him in the mechanic workshop. Oputi, the tech-savvy young graduate who chooses a most unlikely profession and ends up falling in love with Ebitimi, the mechanic. Blessing and Ebiakpor, two crazy women who have a lot in common and contributing in no small measure to Ebinimi’s travails. Aaron Barnabas-Treatment, the Minister of State who typifies many politicians from the Niger Delta. Nay, many Nigerian politicians.

Except for the two interludes, the novel is narrated by the central character in the story, which means that he can’t be an omniscient narrator. The author is compelled to intervene as an omniscient narrator in an interlude at the end of the first part of the novel. The second interlude is also a sleight of hand, a ploy brought in to quickly tie loose ends in the dense plot before the narration sprints to its happy ending. But it still left many bare threads.

The novel was unapologetically and unabashedly written for a Nigerian audience. This is one of the greatest virtues of the book. A North American or European editor would have sucked out its Nigerian marrow and left us the bones. The book is well-grounded in Nigeria and not some multi-cultural universal country that does not exist.The language of the dialogue is realistic and mainly in delicious authentic pidgin. In the first few chapters, I was elated to find many uniquely Nigerian words un-italicized. Non-Nigerians should go and google them, a beg. Then I came upon the italicization of words and expressions like okpolo eyes, Ghana-must-go, mumu, aristo, early momo, off light, bring light, ajebutter. This editorial inconsistency is disappointing.

The pidgin orthography is generally spot on except when ‘wen’ becomes mostly ‘when’ and mutates back to ‘wen’ once more. ‘Wen’ is a sweeter variant of ‘wey’; as in ‘Dat guy wen come here yesterday’. Spelling it as ‘when’ can be confusing because ‘when’ is also used in pidgin orthography in its original meaning of ‘what time’, ‘at the time’, ‘at which time’ etcThe novel is quite entertaining and funny but seems to lack that ineffable touch of enduring literature. It has the literary quality of those stories in Hints magazine of old. But who am I to say what will endure?

The book inadvertently perpetuates the stereotypes of the Hausa man who speaks poor English and has kolanut-stained teeth. The narrator also uses the ethnic slur ‘aboki’ a number of times. But there is a thin blurry line between the voice of the novelist and that of the narrator who is the main character in the story. The word ‘aboki’ is often used with pejorative undertones in the South. It’s even used to insult people. You can hear people saying things like ‘why are you behaving like an aboki?’ or ‘is this one an aboki?’. The use of ethnic slurs and derogatory epithets seems to be universal, often deeply ingrained and unconscious. Even automatic. It may even appear innocent but it’s never to be condoned. Many are innocent everyday words like ‘aboki’ that became loaded with contempt.

The printing is of excellent quality. The artwork on the cover is eye-catching, dominated by turquoise and coffee brown. Masobe, the publishers, did a good job here. They have previously published well-received titles from Adaobi Tricia Uwaubani (Beneath the Baobab Tree and I Do Not Come to You by Chance), Tunde Leye (Afonja: the Rise) and will soon release titles from Abubakar Adam Ibrahim (Dreams and Assorted Nightmares), and Ukamaka Olisakwe (Ogadinma).

Given this publishing experience, I expected the editing to be top-notch but was disappointed. There are just too many typos and solecisms in the book that I recommend that they should be corrected before more copies are printed. Some of the errors: he’s name (his name), loss our father (lost our father), highlighted (alighted), potion (portion), slepping (sleeping), menancing (menacing). Then there’s the use of the word ‘impotent’ to describe Ebiakpor’s husband’s condition when the correct term should have been infertile. If he had been impotent (not able to have or sustain an erection), it would have been clear to him that he was not responsible for his wife’s pregnancy. Somewhere, a character uses the word ‘soda’ instead of the more likely ‘soft drink’. The common erroneous usage of ‘laps’ also creeps in somewhere. An individual cannot have more than one lap. Lap is the horizontal surface formed when the two thighs of a person are brought together.

I support publishing with our local publishers, but they have to improve on their proof-reading and editing. I think Masobe, along with Paressia and Cassava Republic are doing a great job of making available Nigerian writing at affordable prices. All they need to do is pay more attention to the editing and they will have arrived.

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