Unlike the recent film The City (La Ciudad), in which immigration is treated as a relentless tragedy perceived in somber black and white, Jaguar traffics in the full spectrum of failures, successes, and inventive solutions devised by foreign workers. Jaguar is an engaging novel based on anthropologist Paul Stoller’s field studies of West African street dealers, who ply their market smarts on New York’s sidewalks, often leaving wives and families behind for years at a time in hopes of finding their fortunes. (The Jaguars were the zealous young men who moved to the market towns of Ghana’s Gold Coast in the ’50s.)
The novel begins with Issa Boureima, a recently married fortune seeker from West Africa’s Republic of Niger, who comes to the United States (illegally, of course) to sell Malcolm X caps, designer knock-offs, and Jersey-manufactured Africana on 125th Street shortly before vendors were forced to relocate in 1994. Stoller describes how Issa arranges his move here, establishes a base of operations, acquires his goods, and integrates himself into a Harlem community of West African immigrants. The years go by and he gradually makes a success of himself selling African wares at “Black American events” in the American “bush,” i.e., anywhere outside of New York City. Back in Niger, meanwhile, Issa’s wife, Khadija, is charting her own course. Ostracized by Issa’s family of Songhay-tribe nobles, Khadija moves away and opens a shop back home, where she awaits either Issa’s return or an invitation to join him abroad. Although the couple have sworn to remain faithful to one another, during their six-year separation they both eventually make sexual accommodations.
Stoller isn’t a natural novelist, and his dialogue has a stilted formality. Nevertheless, he paints a sympathetic, multidimensional portrait of Issa and Khadija’s everyday lives. Issa thinks often of Niger and Khadija, of “the foods, smells, and conversations of his past.” But he equally loves “the brotherly camaraderie of the Jaguars [in New York]. Among them, amity rather than obligation charged their friendships.” How many other would-be Jaguars have felt similarly over the centuries? Issa’s ambivalence, like everything else in Stoller’s sensitive story, remains gently unresolved and, in the end, untidily human.