Thursday, October 09, 2008

My Six

“The first thing critics tell you about our ministers’ official residences is that each has seven bedrooms and seven bathrooms, one for each day of the week. All I can say is that on the first night there was no room in my mind for great criticism. I was simply hypnotized by the luxury of the great suite assigned to me. When I lay down in the double bed that seemed to ride on a cushion of air, and switched on that reading lamp and saw all the beautiful furniture anew from the lying down position and looked beyond the door to the gleaming bathroom and the towels as large as a lappa I had to confess that if I were at that moment made a minister I would be the most anxious to remain one for ever. And maybe I should have thanked God I wasn’t. We ignore a man’s basic nature if we say, as some critics do, that because a man like Nanga had arisen overnight from poverty and insignificance to his present opulence he could be persuaded without much trouble to give up again and return to his original state.

A man who has just come in from the rain and dried his body and put on dry clothes is more reluctant to go out again than another who has been indoors all the time. The trouble with our new nation—as I saw it then lying on that bed—was that none of us had been indoors long enough to be able to say “To hell with it.” We had all been in the rain together yesterday. Then a handful of us—the smart and the lucky and hardly ever the best—had scrambled for the one shelter our former rulers left, and had taken it over and barricaded themselves in.”

A Man of the People by Chinua Achebe

It was a shock of recognition, reading that passage from Chinua Achebe’s A Man of the People. It was like I was back to the year before, breathlessly flipping through African Woman Magazine, amazed at a home like former Health minister Mike Mukula’s existed in Kampala, behind walls on a road I had walked on searching for a boda ride ostentation I would hardly believe was behind those walls that warned I do not approach KK Security guarded this home. Eye popping! In breathless astonishment listening to the wonders of those who had managed to sneak into Foreign Minister Sam Kutesa’s mansion, a home with its own private chapel just like those Italian Renaissance rulers’ villas. All in Uganda wow!

Running on that extracted passage…. “And from within they sought to persuade the rest through numerous loud speakers, that the first phase of the struggle had been won and that the next phase-- the extension of our house-- was even more important and called for new and original tactics….”
Now where have we heard that before?!

Reading that I discovered I now have six favourite novels, writing that better than any other (of course you might disagree and have your own favourites, do tell me!) pins down the little lies our leaders get us to swallow. Well, not so little, when you look back on your life and realise you lived a counterfeit life, cheated, you never lived the life that you could have if someone had not been awarded that scholarship because they had better connections, secured the job that you were naturally talented to do because they were the right tribe, were born deformed because your mother was too poor to go for proper medical care carrying you in her womb and the local herbalists need money too. Yeah, you existed but never lived because you were convinced you did not deserve any inherited birthright. Corruption does that.

They knew, by candlelight, Tilley lamp, gaslight, in library quiet, motor car countryside roaming, backstreets in the evening hurrying; the snares of corruption; in their lives, in the lives of their friends, countries, in the work they were writing. My six books of corruption:

1. Dead Souls by Nikolai Gogol (After reading Dead Souls, you will understand why Gogol had to run mad. Die raving mad, burning up the sequel. Russia seems to not have changed much since he wrote this, the Tsars replaced by the Oil oligarchs, and the scrambling, denied resentful hungry beneath, hatred filled or devious minded, plot their downfall or how to chip away some.)

2. The People’s Bachelor by Austin Bukenya (The continuing baffling mystery that Uganda’s best novel is out of print, most booksellers in first hand and second hand bookshops have never heard of it nor the author continues, hurts. One of the best novels you have never read, the stunning last pages that predict the Uganda we live in today do not lose their power to shock.)

3. The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born by Ayi Kwei Armah (The honest man in spite of himself, I have known those strange, home foot-dragging dawns, bizarre skies, watching those eating unable to eat yourself. The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born in the Heinemann African Writers Series imprint also possibly has one of the most perfect front book covers ever designed, as moving as the writing inside.)

4. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald (The failed love affair with his dreams, the appalled and temporarily paralyzing sudden second sight at the unworthiness of our dreams; the poverty of spirit, the curse of answered prayers, Fitzgerald’s prose stretches on you on the rack and compels suspension of disbelief briefly and then lingers like a popular song from one’s departed youth.)

5. Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov (The prose musician, the shameless seducer, that Russian! Imagine reading The Red Pepper –3 AM or Mr. Hyena-- and not feeling guilty or disgusted. Thrilled in fact. The novel that achieves what Oscar Wilde in The Picture of Dorian Gray set out to achieve and failed, corrupt the reader or at least sense the silent tread and sometimes wonder if you are not a part of it. A verbal magician!)

6. A Man of the People by Chinua Achebe (The closet admission that given a chance perhaps we would not be so high and mighty if we too had the chance and choices to be corrupt or not. The first African nugu novel I have read. The one novel that convinces me that while Achebe is not a great writer, he is an important one.)

Okay, now really, I know you have your favourite corruption novels, films, songs, paintings, photographs, anecdotes, share! Me I want to know! I have this upcoming cocktail thing where I want to be witty-witty!


solomon said...

I think the Picture of Dorian Gray is a powerful story of the evils within ourselves. I only read it in passing, so I'm not an authority.

On the other hand, I've always meant to read all those books you mentioned.

A man of the people does sound familiar though...

I think I should start hunting again.

Pity the Austin Bukenya thing is out of print.

solomon king /

eastafricanpoet said...




eastafricanpoet said...

and to think that i read?

carlo said...

The Picture of Dorian Gray yes! I don't know if I have the heart to read Fitzgerald. I mean, a bit much eh? But I'm adding your other books to my to-read list.

Iwaya said...

Really Carlo, Fitzgerald will far from disappoint, give him a try. I'm staking a reputation here!

Oscar Wilde is good for a quote but I wonder if the opinion of him should be so high...welll...still making up my mind on that :-)