By Ikeazor Akaraiwe
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah affected me like few books have done, and I found myself looking at the author’s photograph at the inside front cover again and again as I read, trying to read her inscrutable expression, and wondering if the story of Ifemelu, both heroine and villain in my view was also her story.
Americanah sustains the reader’s interest because it is many stories, feelingly told and woven into one story in an unpretentious and daring book full of vivid metaphor and colourful imagery. It sucks you along and makes you want to laugh, cry and have empathy in turn with virtually every character.
If Chimamanda’s description of Ifemelu’s father, and his attempt to disguise his relative lack of education with speaking high-sounding words was funny, his loss of his job because he refused to call his boss ‘Mummy’ was beyond funny. Also hilarious was the account of Ifemelu’s pentecostal mother gently chiding her husband for not calling his boss ‘Mummy’ if that was all that was needed to save his job!
I couldn’t stop laughing reading the account of the tragic-hero Obinze Maduewesi, the University of Nigeria Professor’s son who had to clean toilets to earn a living in London (a job he found tolerable only because the toilets were generally not dirty). Someday, however, he finds a mound of shit on the toilet cover! In Obinze’s view, this mound of shit carelessly deposited on the toilet seat cover was uncharacteristic of the modest, understated nature of the English, and caused him to wonder if it was deliberately deposited there to spite him! And so he resigned the toilet – cleaning job.
I suffered along with Obinze especially when Ifemelu cut off all links with him after she was forced (by circumstances) into a one-day stint with, for want a better word, prostitution in the United State. Filled with self-loathing, she found it difficult as a result to stay in touch with Obinze, causing him much pain. The rest of his life appears thereafter more or less defined by this rejection
For me, the book ends rather anti-climatically, even unrealistically because it appears to violate the saying, ‘you cannot eat your cake and have it’, but Ifemelu does both. She eats her cake, but still gets to keep the cake. She leaves a trail of broken-hearted and perplexed men behind, first Obinze, then Curt, then Blaine. At the end, she wins back Obinze’s heart at the expense of another heart Kosi, Obinze’s wife. I thought it was unfair, and worked against the what-you-sow-you-reap laws of God and nature.
I am romantic enough to be happy that Obinze and Ifemelu got back together but I am upset that Kosi, the perfect wife is rejected by an uncharacteristically self-absorbed Obinze for the self-centred Ifemelu, his first-love. Since I was actually hoping for a reconciliation by Obinze and Ifemelu, I know it sounds contradictory but Ifemelu got away with far too much because the end of the story appears to glorify self-centredness.
I would have preferred Obinze to take Ifemelu as second wife, and both Kosi and Ifemelu to be miserable and assaulted by his decision but ultimately yielding to it. That way, Ifemelu doesn’t exactly eat her cake and have it since she is going to be sharing Obinze, and well, Kosi doesn’t get to lose everything. After all, polygamy is alive and well in the native Nigeria of the two principal characters.
But I know why a polygamous ending could never have been introduced in this book written in 2013 by a well-known African writer writing for an international audience. Certainly not a book titled ‘Americanah’. The book would have been dead on arrival except in Africa. While I choose monogamy over polygamy, I would rather a polygamous ending to a ‘divorce-permitting’ ending.
All in all, Americanah is one of the best books I have ever read. I bought it on the 23rd day of August 2013 at The Hub in The Palms Shopping Mall, Lekki Peninsula, Lagos, started reading it on the 25th and concluded on my birthday August 29th in the midst of a hectic Bar Association conference at Calabar.
The respective stories of all the characters are so rich that they become like people you already knew, and apart from Ifemelu and Obinze, I cannot explain why I grew to like Ranyinudo; while Aunty Uju’s tragic trajectory contained nuggets of moral instruction for many a young lady. Emenike carries the day though as the typical classless Nigerian wannabe in diaspora, pitiable in his nouveau riche condescension towards former friends. He did remind me of some people.
All in all, it is a five-star book, masterfully written encompassing three continents, various cultures and sub-cultures. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is a master story-teller, able to weave many tales into a single, coherent piece. For example, while telling Ifemelu’s story Chimamanda captures the sub-theme of Ifemelu’s writing career complete with the articles she wrote for her blogs!
Easy-to-read and casting positive hue to contemporary Igbo and Nigerian modern culture, Americanah is a valuable contribution to literature and storytelling. But more than that, it reveals much of the acquisitive sociology, bankrupt philosophy and moral relativism which undergird the modern African elite. To that extent, Americanah will remain a valuable resource for those who want to study Nigeria and who dare to hope for a way out of the failing state definition staring Africa’s most influential country in the face.
I vote for Obinze as the hero of the book, albeit a tragic-hero. And Ifemelu as the villain, albeit likeable in her villainy. Okay, let us say Ifemelu is a bit tragic-hero and a bit villain. Inspite of the pain she continually causes, Ifemelu’s story is basically sunny throughout. She goes from one ‘enjoyment’ to the other in the United States, beclouded only by sundry episodes of sadness, like the attempted suicide of her beloved cousin Dike, or the absolute refusal of Curt her white knight in shining armor to forgive her another sexual indiscretion. Prediction? This book will be made into a film.
Ikeazor Akaraiwe, Legal Practitioner.
August 29, 1962