Review of Ayo Arigbabu’s A Fistful of Tales
Ayo Arigbabu is one of those multi-hyphenates: architect, author, publisher and art administrator. The creative and administrative brain behind DADA books, Ayo’s second literary coming happened five years after he gave us Blue Tones, which was nominated for the ANA/Lantern Books 2005 prize for short stories. One of the stories in that collection, ‘You Live to Die Once’ had earlier been adjudged winner of the Liberty Bank Short Story prize in 2001.
His new collection of short stories emerged from the crucible of his participation in the Crossing Borders writing programme of the British Council in which an aspiring Nigerian writer is provided a prominent British writer as literary mentor to help hone the former’s craft. In Ayo’s case, his mentor was Liz Jensen author of The Paper Eater, a sci-fi novel, which makes a cameo appearance in ‘My Super Hero Story’.
The cover of A Fistful of Tales informs us that the book is a collection of short stories and vignettes, which, even if the cover does not make explicit, are about Lagos and its benighted denizens.
It is the story of Lagos in all its squalid glory as we read in ‘Misery’: “Lagos stinks. The trucks, the buses, the cars, the gutters, the roads, the houses, the people and their lives…everything stinks.”
Earlier in ‘Warp’, the first story of the collection, we had read, “Obalende stank. Even Ben Okri had to call it a cesspit.”
The collection is made up of 10 stories and a poem and they evince a very literate and learned mind, one at home with almost every subject from the arcana of physics and mathematics, to the sci-fi jargons of graphic novels and spy thrillers. Ayo Arigbabu’s sophomore effort is a highly literary, arty and learned collection of short stories that ripple with a graphic novel like intensity, one that is underlined by the well realized illustrations of the stories.
There is a nerdish and noirish feel to the stories and a schizophrenic element to the characters who are never just what they seem. In “Warp”, the kabu kabu driver with his retro chic is not just a driver but a scientist.
“I Peter Nwokedi? A hemp smoking school drop out? You are quite off the mark sir, even if I have to say that myself. ….with my Bachelors in Mechanical Engineering from the University of Nigeria and a Masters in System Engineering from the University of Lagos and a PhD in view from Oklahoma University. You do not know what Good fortune you have met in boarding my taxi. I assure you before your eyes is Nigeria’s next Nobel laureate.”
In ‘My Super Hero Story’, the young man assigned to the Cartoon unit at Daily Star is actually an operative of the shadowy Military Intelligence Special Task Force (MIST) while the Cardiologist in ‘Lots of Muscle and Lots of Blood’ is also a virtuoso guitarist.
The stories in this collection sometimes come across as a personal project, a whimsical and often times quirky attempt to have fun at the expense of the reader as is evident in stories like ‘Return of the Okinawa Prince’ which is in many ways a martial arts treatise (Ayo Arigbabu is a Black Belt holder) and ‘The X12 Moonshade.’ Ayo Arigbabu seems to have written the kind of book he, with his “nerdish glasses and nervous ways” would like to read, an escapist volume in which one encounters the most diverse range of characters in contemporary Nigerian fiction since, say, Mike Nwosu’s Invisible Chapters and Alpha Song and maybe Chris Abani’s Graceland and The Virgin of Flames.
Ayo Arigbabu’s canvas is a large one but it is also circumscribed. In A fistful of Tales; the stories are starkly socially realistic, casting a harsh light on the contemporary urban malaise of maximum cities like Lagos where we are told that “a molue is not a very decent place to hold a phone conversation in, and the mood was all wrong for civil discourse any way.”
Mr Arigbabu is adept at exposing the murky underbelly of Lagos in particular and the Nigerian condition in general. The stories, whether grounded in reality as in Misery or laced with copious doses of fantasy, science fiction or fictional thriller as in ‘Warp’, ‘My Super Hero Story’, ‘Lacerations’ and ‘The X12 Moonshade’, still manage to present the contemporary urban situation in bold relief.
In ‘Warp’, Before Peter Nwokedi proceeds to prove his Miniature Plasma Drive, the story is anchored clearly in the present and is an excoriating dissection of the anomie that stymies the system as we bear witness to a generational blame game playing out in the theatre of a Datsun car that has seen better days.
‘Misery’ is the most starkly realistic with the story of a loving couple torn apart by lack and deprivation. The story, in its evocation of extreme angst and loss of hope in the face of daunting odds, recalls the very best of Ben Okri in his early short story collections like Stars of the New Curfew and Incidents at the Shrine as well as novels like Violence by Festus Iyayi as well as Victims by Isidore Okpewho. By making these connections to writers of a wholly different generation, the fact should be emphasized that the urban malaise is a long standing problem.
‘Lots of Muscle and Lots of Blood’ is the most realised story in the collection. The narrative is smooth, the story well told and gripping and the characters are realistically portrayed in a domestic situation that is all too real and all too Nigerian even if the premise is entirely imaginative.
And it is in this story that Ayo seems to have matured into writing stories that reflect his adult sensibilities. The story telling here, as well as in ‘My Super Hero Story’, is more sexually suggestive and graphic making for verisimilitude unlike in ‘Misery’ and ‘Special Secretary’, where there is a certain constricting display of prudery. The trend seems to have begun in ‘It Happened In Benin’, the lone poem nestling in the collection and which makes one ask what a poem is doing in a collection of short stories?
Stories like the very short but power-packed ‘Set Theory’ reflect Ayo’s engagement with the larger issues of our times. The powerful story couched in a fantastic and apocalyptic ambience is a morality tale worthy of consideration especially the old man’s parting shot: “Son, (he said slowly) now might be a good time to start” to begin to remedy the mistakes of the past.
The stories in the collection appear in some particular to be half told stories with partly revealed characters with encores in their life cycle. You almost certainly want to read another story with Leke Sylva, or Peter Nwokedi or Ngozi Njoku. There is also the issue of Ayo Arigbabu taking liberties with real characters, situations and institutions. There is the reference to NAFDAC where Dora Akunyili becomes Doris Anwuli, Fred Akanni of Festac News makes a cameo as a staff of the Guardian, there are also references to pop fiction icons like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, James Bond, Batman and even the author himself makes a cameo appearance as organizer of a Cartoon Convention thus bringing to mind the question not just of inter-textuality and self-referentiality but also of literary fidelity
There are also inconsistencies, misplaced tenses and typos that grate as we read on page 15: “No one gets out of Moby Dick, not even when dead” and then two lines later we read “For the few who get out…”
There is “I gave her a moment to catch her breathe” on page 53 instead of “breath” and then on the same page we read: “And you will be discrete?” instead of discreet.
All told, Ayo Arigbabu’s A Fistful of Tales is a worthy addition to the corpus of contemporary Nigerian fiction. It also extends, in many ways, what is a return of the short story form. But some of the stories appear over-told, too verbose and would have read better and been more compelling narratives if they had been better edited and left as taut as a well primed guitar string.
By Toni Kan