Reading Around: Annemarie Schwarzenbach's Impossible Journeys

Plus Noo Saro-Wiwa's Looking for Transwonderland

What she finds makes compelling reading. She evokes Lagos in its full crazy boil: terrifying rides on tiny motorbikes; a population desperate to get indoors before dark, when the thieves take over; the hollering of evangelical street preachers; low-level politicians who insist on being called “your excellency”; street kids who are born and die without ever leaving an imprint on any official record. The Transwonderland of the title is a Nigerian amusement park now gone to pot. More interesting than such large-scale, West-inspired failures are the homegrown innovations, like the made-on-the-cheap Nollywood movies she catches. These tend to be dramatic tales of sin and redemption steeped in southern Nigeria's mash-up religiosity: African animism and fear of witchcraft meets the Western-style evangelicalism of the prosperity gospel.

Saro-Wiwa can be prickly, in an amusing way, and she's always honest about her difficulties adapting to life far from the comforts of London. (A university library, she sadly notes, has fewer books than she will own in her lifetime.) She's happy to theorize about why democratic government has been so long in coming to Nigeria—and is still so terribly corrupt. The African way, she argues, has been to look out for your family first, not your entire community, and certainly not something as abstract as a whole country, so it makes perfect sense for a politician to staff government jobs with unqualified cousins. Perhaps that's true, but Saro-Wiwa is at her best when she's at her most amused: dancing at a wedding, gabbing with strangers, telephoning the young men who have placed hilariously frank newspaper ads seeking “sugar mummies." (“Victor from Port Harcourt needs a fat sugar mummy with big boobs. He promises to satisfy her needs.”)

By the end, after she's donned a djellaba and surveyed Nigeria's northern, Muslim cities, Saro-Wiwa has made her peace with her homeland. That's no surprise. Unlike Schwarzenbach, who felt so stranded abroad, Saro-Wiwa has the benefit of our new cultural understanding of physical journeys as narratives not just of travel but of the discovery of self. Trained to “process” all we experience, our adventures abroad are about finding rather than losing ourselves, and there's no longer much need to hide what we may arrive at being.

That makes for better lives but less exciting books. Here there's never any doubt about whether the writer will get through it or will be better off for having journeyed. The one thing Looking for Transwonderland is missing, other than a strong opening line, is a fuller evocation of that feeling Saro-Wiwa suffered briefly on a Nigerian rollercoaster: a sense that the narrative—or her conclusions—might spin fully out of control.

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