The Carnivorous City by Toni Kan; Cassava Republic Press, Abuja – London; 2016; 241pp
The mystique of Lagos goes on forever, gathering decibels for years on end. The twice-told story of Nigeria’s leading metropolis is indeed resounding when the author has a carriage that matches Lagos for all its panache, largeness and surprise. Toni Kan, the irrepressible author of the provocative short story collection Nights of the Creaking Bed, is acclaimed in some quarters as “The Mayor of Lagos” who holds court in Freedom Park on Broad Street while the state governor presides over the nearby government house in Onikan! Toni Kan’s latest novel, The Carnivorous City, lends enthralling animation to the attractions and pitfalls of Lagos, the city by the lagoon.
In an opening as arresting as any, a larger than life and death character goes missing on the very first page of The Carnivorous City. Three words capture the charged message: Soni is missing. Sunderland Onyema Dike, aka Soni, is the archetypal Lagos boy who made good. He is a happy-go-lucky charmer who in his university days in Jos adopted the alias of “9 Inches”, in celebration of the hyped-up length of his member that always left its mark on the ladies. When Soni hits Lagos to “chase his fortune” he earns further aliases such as Alhaji Tanko, Sabato Jnr and Sabato Rabato. It’s Sabato Rabato that sticks with Soni until he gets missing in very mysterious circumstances. Soni’s fate is not unlike that of any other Lagos Big Boy who “made it” and perforce ends thusly: “Missing. Shot. Found dead. On the run. Declared wanted. Arrested. Detained.” In the particular case of Soni, he gets missing, leaving his car in the ditch blaring music, and he is never found at novel’s end.
The linchpin of the story is the brotherly love between Soni and his studious, if sickly, elder brother Abel who forfeits his job as a lecturer in Asaba to undertake the perilous search of his missing brother in Lagos. It’s Abel’s forte to stand by Soni’s wife Ada and their three-year-old son Zeal. Incidentally Abel happens not to be in the good books of Ada because he had given this advice to Soni when he wanted to marry the lady: “9 inches, do not marry a woman you met in the nightclub.”
Toni Kan lays bare the Lagos scene thus: “Lagos is a beast with bared fangs and a voracious appetite for human flesh. Walk through its neighbourhoods, from the gated communities in Ikoyi and Victoria Island to Lekki and beyond, to the riotous warrens of streets and alleyways on the mainland, and you can tell that this is a carnivorous city. Life is not just brutish – it is short.” The state of nature of Thomas Hobbes is Lagos writ large.
It is indeed remarkable that Soni denoted Abel as his next-of-kin in his business documents instead of his wife Ada. It thus falls on Abel, with the help of their streetwise cousin Santos who had been serving Soni, to entangle the web of knots surrounding the wealth of the missing one. Abel’s treacherous visit to the dingy suburb of Mushin with Santos accounts for a near-death experience for Abel: “Losing the Toyota Camry, his Echolac briefcase, the documents inside, the cash – all six hundred thousand of it – and escaping death by the whiskers left him petrified.”
Abel settles into the comfy world of the Lagos upper crust with all the contradictions such as visiting “a lovely mansion in Parkview Estate, Ikoyi where, Santos told Abel, a plot of land sold for about $2 million, even though the roads were potholed and filled with water.” The lady of the Parkview House was one of Soni’s many love interests, a widow with this interesting history: “In 1992, a military C-130H aircraft conveying an elite class of military officers had gone down in the swamps of Ejigbo. Many suspected that the plane had been rigged by the then military president, who was afraid of being overthrown. The crash decimated an entire corps of future military leaders.”
In The Carnivorous City Toni Kan brings to bear on the plot subtle significant hints like Auntie Ekwi who does not forget to call Abel by his Igbo name – Chiedu – while surrendering like the rest of the world to calling Soni by his nom de guerre Sabato Rabato. Auntie Ekwi leads the search for Soni to a prophet’s prayer-house in the Yaba surbubia. She hires prayers warriors and leads the charge in midnight-to-dawn prayer sessions.
There is no going back from Lagos for Abel, armed with the knowledge: “If he decided to quit his job, there was no fear of going broke, at least not in the foreseeable future. His brother had over eight hundred million naira in cash in six different banks. He had five houses in Lagos aside from the one he lived in and Ada told him there was an apartment in Essex and two in Florida.” There is forever the hint that Abel and Ada will hit it off romantically, as can be gleaned from Ada’s barely hidden jealousy at Abel’s tryst with the old flame Calista.
Abel sees enough of callous Lagos as in the greedy medical doctor working as banker, Doctor Nicole, insisting on Abel buying him the car Soni promised her for her birthday. Dr Nicole does get busted. Santos brews his own broth too. Some policemen who handcuff Abel whilst in the company of Calista end up being arrested. An outraged housewife slaps a lady banker in the banking hall and pours shit on her for “for fucking my husband, you prostitute.” The killing and tying of the double-dealing Mayowa, editor of Excel Magazine, makes the skin crawl.
Toni Kan has the Lagos panoply in fine fettle in The Carnivorous City. In the build-up of the Abel-and-Ada tango they go to see the movie Tango With Me by the ace filmmaker Mahmood Ali-Balogun in which the virgin bride, played by Genevieve Nnaji, is raped on her wedding night and eventually gives birth to the baby. The distraught husband, played in the film by Joseph Benjamin, ends up accepting the baby at the end of the film, leading to an unending argument between Abel and Ada.
Between the police command as exemplified by DSP Umannah and the vile underworld represented by Walata, the only closure on the missing of Soni is that “somebody removed the ladder.”
It is hard to hide my affection for The Carnivorous City, but there are problematic issues like stating that it was the parapsychologist Pa Okunzuwa who made the prediction that the name of the winner of the 2nd Republic presidential election was in the Bible. It was the other futurologist Godspower Oyewole who made the prediction and went further to point out that Shamgar was Shagari’s name in the Bible! Also, the editors should not have had “9 inches” in some places and “9 Inches” in other places. The upper case matters.
The Carnivorous City by Toni Kan is a fast-paced and funny tour de force. It stands on solid ground to lead the charge of new age novels in Nigeria and Africa in the manner of the Brat-Pack revolution in American fiction initiated by Jay McInerney’s 1984 novel Bright Lights, Big City.