Certain cities — New York, London, Paris, Berlin — are commonly associated with the drama of self-exploration. Their stories, at the center of countless novels, plays and films, are familiar, their terrain well-worn. In comparison, postcolonial cities feel fresh, the landscape of their literary and artistic production ripe with potential. And with that their narratives continue to change, not just in how they are told but in who does the telling and to whom.
“Welcome to Lagos,” the American debut of Chibundu Onuzo, a Nigerian writer whose previous novel, “The Spider King’s Daughter,” won Britain’s Betty Trask Award, offers an earnest — though at times frustratingly frenetic — portrait of Nigeria’s sprawling metropolis. The book opens in the Niger Delta, with an army officer, Chike Ameobi, and his friend Pvt. Yemi Oke, who are tired of killing civilians in the name of an obscure national mission. Chike is a serious man with “a rigid morality underlying his mildness”; despite his self-proclaimed agnosticism, he finds solace in the Bible. Yemi, on the other hand, remains a mystery for much of the novel and his quiet demeanor is often mistaken for stupidity.
During yet another violent raid on a village, the two men abandon their posts and head for Lagos. On the way, they encounter Fineboy, a clever young man obsessed with honing his radio voice; a recently orphaned young woman named Isoken; and Oma, who is running from her abusive husband and oppressive life. The five form a kind of family, each hoping to fashion a different, if not altogether new, life.
Lagos comes most alive early in the novel, when survival is the group’s only concern. Their walks through the streets, attempts to find jobs and search for makeshift lodging give Onuzo an opportunity to provide colorful commentary on the city. The crew’s first home, under a bridge, offers a view of hawkers who “sauntered by, holding their wares to passing traffic while traders sat beside fresh fruit and vegetables, waiting for customers to beckon,” and “thin, agile conductors” who hang from moving minibuses, “calling for passengers.” A near accident with a motorcycle snaps Chike out of a daydream and reminds him that “Lagos would kill you if you wasted time on yesterday.” Nostalgia is a luxury he can’t afford.
Unfortunately, in the second half of the book, Onuzo sacrifices meditative sketches of the city to narrative momentum. Characters initially thought to be minor — like Ahmed, the idealistic editor of a Nigerian newspaper, and Chief Sandayo, the former minister of education, on the run after stealing $10 million from the government — play larger roles after colliding with Chike’s ragtag crew. As Onuzo attempts to juggle the stories of these individuals (and many others), the novel abandons its portrait of Lagos in favor of fast-paced comedy. When the members of the group place Sandayo under citizen’s arrest, they decide to donate his money anonymously to schools across Nigeria. Yet this good deed is interrupted when Sandayo leaks information about government corruption to Ahmed, turning a regional story into an international political scandal.
But despite the blunders, missteps and excessive plot twists of “Welcome to Lagos,” its dialogue rings true. Conversations between Onuzo’s characters move fluidly between Igbo, Yoruba, pidgin and English, demonstrating her skilled ear. In a scene where Sandayo tries to bond with Yemi over their shared Yoruba heritage, the dialogue reinforces their differences and loyalties:
“It’s like he didn’t really like the dancing,” Sandayo says, referring to Yemi and Chike’s job controlling traffic.
“Nah so he talk? He no sabi better thing,” Yemi replies.
“Of course. The two of you won’t be able to see eye to eye. Iru ore wo l’omo Yoruba nse pelu omo Ibo?”
To the uninitiated, the complexity of Lagos can seem like chaos. But, as Teju Cole wrote in his novel “Every Day Is for the Thief,” this is a city dense with stories: “All I have to do is prod gently, and people open up. And that literary texture, of lives full of unpredictable narrative, is what appeals.” Like any city, Lagos is evolving, shedding old stories for new ones told by those who understand its contours and see beyond “a self-effacing sprawl that makes no sense,” as the poet John Koethe foolishly wrote in 1945. A steady stream of writers, from Cole to Chris Abani and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, has kept the city’s depiction in capable hands, with each attempt to render its image feeling more evocative than the last. Navigating these urban landscapes requires a willingness to experiment with the delicate interplay of individual stories while preserving the city’s character. “Welcome to Lagos” starts this way, but by the end Onuzo has split her narrative into too many parts. The band of characters we met at the beginning has been lost in the crowd.