Saturday, April 20, 2024

Resolve and Dissolution


By Tade Ipadeola

  • Title: Like a Mule Bringing Ice Cream to the Sun
  • Author: Sarah Ladipo Manyika
  • Publisher: Cassava Republic Press
  • Number of pages: 118
  • Year of publication: 2016
  • Category: Fiction

The newest novel by Sarah Ladipo Manyika tackles the human phenomenon of ageing and loss. It begins in an old house far away in San Francisco. It is a house that has survived significant stretches of time and even earthquakes. The novel ends in the same city, in a fast, low car fondly named Buttercup by its owner, the heroine of the tale. In between the opening movements of the novel and the denouement, the reader is taken on a wide-ranging journey through literal time zones and through varying geographies. The tale touches India and Nigeria, it touches French and Yorùbá, it slaloms through passages of love and perfumed mists rising from the wake of obdurate passion, it pants as a determined, quixotic, mule dripping with voluptuous confectionery meant for a sizzling, enigmatic sun.

As we meet the heroine, Dr Moráyọ̀ Da Silva, for the first time on the eve of her birthday, one of the well defined days of mild ostentation that she allows herself, we come to accept that at 75, we might as well pay attention to her choices. She likes flowers (which wither after a while) and cakes. She likes books. She pleases herself in her own way, conscious that her time is running out of its hourglass most palpably. She has lived, loved, been mistaken, recovered, touched lives and been touched. She has lived through words from many languages and been both receiver and giver of life’s bounties, wisdom and desire. Her life is a map a man might consult in keeping track of what matters to a woman in possession of beauty and mind. It takes tenacious thoughtfulness.

By showing, not simply by telling, the author, through numerous instances, forces the reader to recognise the default setting in the majority of the human population regarding the other, older, members of our communities. The West has, in a little over a generation, enthroned the worship of youth as a supreme ideal, an error that has spread all over the globe. The young are taken seriously, the old tolerated. Our humanity is challenged even further when we allow, in addition to already held prejudices common to human nature, a prejudice against the old and frail.

Sarah Ladipo Manyika confronts us, for example, with the now common habit of assumptions when it comes to old people particularly. In an early episode in the book, in which the protagonist gaily goes to a flower shop in town to indulge in a birthday treat or two, we recognise the malady:

‘You know it’s my birthday soon,’ he overhears her saying to his sister, to which he rolls his eyes because he could swear this woman had a birthday every six months.

And just before leaving the same shop:

The woman leans in as if to smell, but he knows her well enough to guess what she’s really doing. She’s inspecting, trying to decide the best value for her money. But then she surprises him by picking two bunches instead of one – one purple, one pink. She shakes off the excess water, takes them to Amirah, and pays.

The author takes us inside the mind of a woman gracefully aged and seasoned on the eve of her birthday. We are let into her house, into her rooms, as if blindfolded and yet as if the silk with which we are blindfolded were slightly see-through. Other senses, other portals of perception slowly assert themselves as the narrative grows, apart from sight. We can feel Da Silva’s domicile and even the basic building unit of it, the book. It can be unsettling to read the work close. The smell of old age, the creak of old bones, the valiant but ultimately futile gestures and rituals against letting go. These are some of the tactile responses to the text of this deceptively simple book.

A slim novel heavy on symbols and metaphors, this reader completed it in one sweep but pondered long on what its gifted author was able to show her reader regarding what we think we know about old age. Brief narratives, such as this book, sometimes say things to us that far lengthier ones do not because less is more, sometimes. Think of the poetry of miniskirts.

We know that the house, Da Silva’s home, is a symbol of her life. We feel, from the acoustics of the house, that what it represents has deep roots, friendly with the earth, and that this status was not achieved by pile-driving rods into the soil. It is as if the character in question is annealed to rocks deep inside the subsoil. The story of lives built on fault lines, however, is that their integrity must endure unexpected testing, which is why Da Silva’s life throughout the book exudes resolve. Yet the reader confronts the reality, sometimes not so clearly defined to the heroine herself, that mortality has so many ways in which it comes against human lives that the inexorable outcome is always in its favour. What the mortal can do is bring measures of life and beauty to the contest so that when an account is given, some dignity accrues to mortal account. Dignity, we discover in the book, most of the time is a result of what we do, how we reinvent our lives. Sometimes it consists in what we refrain from doing. Da Silva has achieved a fair amount of dignity for herself by maintaining balance between what she does and what she does not deign to do. Even when she rails against fate, her substance touches other lives, as when her books reassign themselves to a new owner.

Cameo appearances from various otherwise accomplished characters occur in the duration covered by the novel. Dawud, Sunil, Antonio. A lot of the characters appear to be quite interesting in their own right. A homeless woman who comes into possession of Da Silva’s books, her house cleaner, her younger friend, her prospective confectioner, a health facility worker who might have become a great cook or a victim of American police violence against persons of colour. In this book, black lives always matter.

The heroine rages against the dying of the light, risking alienating her closest and most trusted allies. What initially appears as a tidy and well kept house is slowly revealed to be a ruin-in-progress, a Volubilis, a sad look in the mirror at dusk. We notice a mouse in Da Silva’s house and the voice of the Scottish poet, Robert Burns, echoes when the house cleaner reports the rodent taken care of…the best laid plans of mice and men…the best laid bricks of minds and masons….

The author steers the reader through corridors of a magnificently sculpted mind in its twilight hour. There is a janitor in the building and her job is intriguing even as it is sometimes unpleasant for the guest because she, the author/janitor, is going from room to room, taking the reader with her, and switching off some light bulbs even as she switches on some other preternatural bulbs, which reveal crepuscular secrets. Sarah Ladipo Manyika succeeds in making the reader confront and even get interested in old age, and the ageing of an intelligent woman. In little ways and in direct ways, such as through naming the books in Da Silva’s house, the novel achieves a form of density through intertextuality that may escape unnoticed if one is not alert to the devices of the author.

One gets the feeling that the protagonist has survived by refusing, since coming of age, to allow any year stamp Annus Horribilis upon her mind or memory. A close reading of Like a Mule Bringing Ice Cream to the Sun brings home the demands of love beyond the effervescence of newness. Days matter, desire matters, friendship matters. Disasters happen, no matter how carefully we situate our dwelling, charm fails, no matter how charmed our lives have been. Our refuge is resolve. We may build to the highest seismic standards but must always keep in mind the possible landing of the black swan. Da Silva falls but is not thereby a fallen woman, she gets her groove back each time events threaten to rob her of her vim. Her eyes are on the stopwatch but her eyes are on the game as well. This is the main achievement of the author in this narrative.

By the time the author takes the reader on a ride with the heroine one last time, she is high on something that makes her almost reckless. It is something that old age imparts, an I-dare-you to Death that is a completely different thing from any dare of youth. Youth’s dare is powered largely by ignorance. Age dares in an informed manner, except when it does not. When the janitor has switched off an important bulb in the laboratory of life, anything can happen. Accident or alchemy, anything can happen. This is the blazing thought on the mule’s mind as it breaks the sound barrier in a supersonic tram, with dollops of vanilla and chocolate ice for a soon-to-be-staggered sun. Like a Mule Bringing Ice Cream to the Sun is delectable reading in parts, and a fitting tribute to many remarkable lives of the sort we would otherwise forget.

Photograph: ‘1933 Chevy’ by Chad Horwedel

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