You realise, almost immediately, that a book which opens with the lighthearted “Chei, I hate rain” will not take itself too seriously. To Saint Patrick, Eghosa Imasuen’s debut novel, is a straightforward, humorous, and lighthearted yarn, which attempts to portray an alternate version of Nigeria’s chequered contemporary history from 1976 to 2003.
But to paraphrase Joseph Conrad, there is also darkness here, some noirish elements that imbue the story with unusual specific gravity, especially for a novel cast in the crime/detective mould.
To Saint Patrick opens with a gruesome murder–that of a politician who has as many enemies as a tick-infested dog. This makes it difficult to really pinpoint who could have ‘offed’ him. Into the fray steps Police Superintendent Ayo Nwanze and FIIB detective Hadiza Jinadu. The two have a shared past with unresolved issues, and those issues provide the tension at the beginning of the novel.
The book is premised on a series of ‘what ifs?’ What if Murtala had survived the February 13, 1976 Dimka coup? What if Awolowo, and not Shagari, had won the 1979 election? What if the 1983 coup failed and democracy thrived? What if there were no Buhari and IBB? And what if Sani Abacha had planned a failed coup and ended up at the stakes?
There are three important points to note. The first is the fact that To Saint Patrick is an important historical document, which seeks to extend what is becoming an interesting conversation with the past, with emphasis on the Civil War. While writers like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie have focused on the effect of the war on individual, albeit fictional characters, Imasuen’s novel takes a different approach, interrogating the war by focusing on the actions of historical figures who played active roles in the war.
The second point is that, with time, as the buzz begins to spread about this book, charges of hagiography and revisionism will be labelled against the text and its author. But this book is no hagiography or anti-hagiography for that matter. Rather, it attempts to cast a harsh light on things we have refused to speak about because of Gowon’s “No Victor, No Vanquished” declaration at the end of the war. It is not a work of fictional or critical revisionism either because the premise from which its plot takes off is a historical one with living witnesses who still speak of the atrocities in whispers.
For someone who attended secondary school at the eponymous St Patrick’s college Asaba, the atrocities detailed in the book are real and immediate because I still remember how, while digging mounds or ridges during Agric. practicals or clearing the grass, we would dig up bones and skulls of those shot by marauding federal troops.
The third issue is that Imasuen’s choice of literary genre may have done his book a disservice. Readers may well be put off by the breezy, crime/detective thriller style, and may then end up not encountering the main thrust of the novel. This point is important, because if you take out the historical facts, this book could be no more than a gratuitous paperback thriller chronicling a romantic journey of re-discovery for two estranged lovers. But it is the weight of history that gives it gravitas; and which makes it, in the same breath, a novel chronicling a journey of discovery for what, I suppose, is a whole generation of ignorant Nigerians.
Now, to return to the take off point is this gripping and interesting novel. The year is 2003 and Alex Ekwueme is president of Nigeria. The presidential elections are a few days away, and Ekwueme, the incumbent who is gunning for a second term, is contending with Civil War hero and coup survivor, General Murtala Mohammed. A political stalwart is murdered in Benin City on the day Murtala makes a campaign stop in the ancient city, and his death threatens to derail the whole process.
If this brief summary has got your mouth gaping, wait until you discover that Obafemi Awolowo took over from Murtala Mohammed in 1979 and that Bola Ige and Bala Usman also had their turns as presidents of Nigeria.
In Imasuen’s alternate version of historical events, Babangida and Vatsa never fell apart. Babangida never planned a coup and was never president, and instead he is content as Army Chief while the never-smiling Tunde Idiagbon is Minister of Defense. MKO Abiola, on the other hand, is the minister of information and telecommunications.
While Imasuen takes copious liberties with historical fidelity, he also presents what is an almost utopian or rather idealistic vision of Nigeria where police officers drive cars with names like Wazobia 306 and standard issue police guns are made in Nigeria.
The talent of a gifted writer shines through. Imasuen has an eye for detail with a deeply evocative power of description. His writing rings with authenticity and sincerity and he has a thing for irony; and a pleasant way of saying things we already know, in new ways.
This is crucial to the way Imasuen successfully introduces and tackles the issue of Murtala’s alleged unsavoury actions during the war. By presenting an Igbo officer with a Yoruba name and a sidekick who is Hausa, and whose father was a loyal officer to the Civil War hero being demystified, Imasuen limits authorial intrusion and invites the reader to arrive at his or her own conclusions.
When he writes about Vatsa and IBB, the sentence drips with dramatic irony. “A boyhood friend of Babangida’s from the town of Minna, it would be really difficult to corrupt the friendship between these two.” As the book ends, one is left wondering whether Imasuen’s literary gifts would not have been better served telling a story that does not open like a Pacesetter novel, because the author exhibits the makings of a literary virtuoso.
This much is clearly discernible from the novel, despite constant reminders of editorial laxity. For instance we are told that Abacha and his co-conspirators are hanged (p.84) then pages later, we are told they were shot at Bar beach (p.195).
But the incontrovertible fact is that Eghosa Imasuen, this doctor turned author, has written an important book with serious historical relevance that everyone invested in Nigeria and interested in fully understanding one of the most difficult and traumatic episodes of the Biafran misadventure, must read.