By Kemi Falodun
- Title: A Gecko’s Farewell
- Author: Maik Nwosu
- Publisher: Parrésia Publishers Ltd
- Number of pages: 256
- Year of publication: 2016
- Category: Fiction
There have been different narratives dealing with the themes of migration, displacement and home by many African writers. However, Maik Nwosu’s ability to weave different worlds into this novel makes A Gecko’s Farewell an unusual read. ‘A Gecko’s Farewell’ is also the title of an essay and the personal narrative of Mzilikazi, one of the three central characters of this novel and a core member of the Gecko X organisation. Etiaba and Nadia are the other two. These three young Africans, who are on different paths of struggle and discovery, meet on the internet via a platform created for Africans to tell their own stories. In Chimamanda Adichie’s Americanah, Ifemelu creates a community on the blogosphere for people with similar experiences. Etiaba does something similar, Gecko X. The reader will later learn, as the story progresses, how the lives of these three characters intersect.
The novel is divided into twelve sections of interwoven narrations from Etiaba, a Nigerian, Nadia, an Egyptian, and Mzilikazi, a South African. The novel begins with Etiaba’s story, in Sa’ra, his village, where he works as a schoolteacher. Dr Lookout is the school principal, a radical man who lives to fight and hopes against all hope. He is soon arrested, at the command of His Excellency, the president of the country. Dr Lookout eventually returns to the village with tales of the geckos in his prison cell.
Through Etiaba’s eyes, the Nigerian condition is magnified – the pitiful rate of unemployment, the difficulties of getting a visa, and how the rich and the poor find solace in the words of dubious men masquerading as religious leaders. Etiaba’s old friend, Malik, lectures him on one of the ways to become rich in Lagos, ‘I’m like a church for hire’. Malik is a prayer contractor.
The book is written against the backdrop of the political atmosphere in Nigeria, Egypt and South Africa in the years preceding the beginning of this millennium. In some of the characters, the author draws on the lives of notable persons in history. For instance, judging from the unease in the Nigeria of the book during his tenure, his activities, lifestyle, and the rumours surrounding the cause of his death, one realises that His Excellency is a portrait of Sani Abacha. The character Christopher, Etiaba’s father’s friend, was involved in the Nigerian Civil War and is a representation of the Nigerian poet, Christopher Okigbo, who died fighting on the side of Biafra.
Mzilikazi leaves South Africa for England to escape being used, just like other villagers, as a lab rat by a white supremacist. He encounters Father Lobito, a former Catholic Priest. The cleric’s last words to Mzilikazi before they part are, ‘When you have certitude, your future could happen to you like a memory’. After the priest dies, Mzilikazi begins to search for a manuscript he spoke of when he was alive, but all to no avail.
Nadia, an ambitious documentary photographer, completes her education in Cairo and gets a job in Al-Ahram, a notable news agency. While going about her duties, she innocently captures the photograph of a man who will later detonate a bomb in a hotel, but the picture ends up being associated with her in an incriminating way, and the only option is for her to flee to Paris.
It is worth mentioning, the skilful manner with which Nwosu weaves an important and controversial topic in the arts into the novel. During a meeting with other photographers, when Nadia is still a student, there is a discussion of the importance of photographs in archiving political, socio-economic events and even the mundane. The role of a photographer in documenting people’s pain and the ethics surrounding it comes up in that discussion. How much is too much? When does a photographer documenting the lives of the poor become a vulture?
By following the lives of these three characters, we also meet some other wonderful ones who show up at different points with their stories. The book is filled with stories of separation, of longing, of making attempts to search for alternatives even when there is no guarantee one will find them. The lives of all these characters bear witness to the power that storytelling wields, and the intricacies of separation.
One of the many conversations that will resonate with the reader is the one Mzilikazi has with Frank, a stranger who comes to interrupt his solitude one evening in London. Before the encounter, Mzilikazi wanders around this strange city, evoking moods of wanderings, longings and exchanges similar to those in Teju Cole’s Open City. Frank tells him about an unexpected encounter he had with another stranger who happens to be from a neighbouring village in Eastern Nigeria. He also tells Mzilikazi about his attendance at the meetings of the Nigerian Union, to help create a feeling of home after being away for twenty-one years, but nothing seems to suffice. It makes one wonder, how does it feel to be together and yet removed?
Mzilikazi replies him:
I think you know, and I know, that you’re not going anywhere this year, or the next, or the year [after]. The difference between the two of us is that I’ve not stayed here as long as you have and right now I don’t have a nonrefundable ticket. But we’re both living in-between.
Five years after this encounter, Mzilikazi will realise that he will not be returning to South Africa any time soon. This could be read as a testament to how people’s lives are interlinked and how a person’s experiences can echo the experiences of others. A Gecko’s Farewell is a reminder that as Africans, as humans, we are galvanised by our stories and shared experiences.
A Gecko’s Farewell is also a tale of lost loves and yearnings for the things that could have been. One character travels with the intention of spending a short time, and they meet someone that they want to spend the rest of their life with. Another character travels out of compulsion, expecting their lover to come join them, but they end up in another’s arms.
In a book such as this, one often finds a character who is a custodian of history. Before Etiaba leaves Nigeria for New York in search of a better life, his father narrates his experiences of the Nigerian Civil War. ‘The war seized us by the balls. We had to fight or keep running’. Etiaba listens as his father gradually unpeels layers of history and trauma. ‘Because we cannot forget, we invented a way of remembering’. For many of those who survived, it is not a memory they wish to revisit. Nwosu focuses more on the deep impact of the war on people’s lives and less on its politics. Etiaba’s father tells him about someone to whom the war was so personal that he sang ‘O my home’ as ‘O mine home’.
The use of figurative language in this novel is worthy of comment. For instance, one wonders if the sleeping sickness that is endemic in the village of Tamia after the president’s visit is a metaphor for the lethargy experienced in many Nigerian sectors today. There is also the recurring use of the word ‘oasis’ in the novel’s treatment of finding love, emigrating and surviving in a strange land.
A Gecko’s Farewell is a book within a book, a poignant reminder of Africa’s spirit of survival. Mzilikazi later finds The Revelations of Father Lobito the Outcast, the manuscript he searched for years before, which one character describes as a ‘script of manifold meanings’. These are the words that best capture A Gecko’s Farewell. However, if one hopes to read a ‘page-turner’, or a gripping tale, this novel is not the best option. Just as Winifred, Mzilikazi’s girlfriend, is unable to read Father Lobito’s manuscript to the end, some readers might find A Gecko’s Farewell heavy going. However, in reading the manuscript, Winifred realises that home could also be in a forum of ideas. Gecko X soon becomes a family, a place of love, acceptance and communion for its members. Perhaps home is not just a place, it could be an idea, one so potent people become an embodiment of it.
Photograph: ‘Mauritanian Oasis’ by John Spooner
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