Duck Duck Book

46 – life turns man up and down
06.11.2007, 8:01 am
Filed under: literature

Life turns man up and down : high life, useful advice, and mad English : African market literature / selected and introduced by Kurt Thometz.
New York : Pantheon Books, c2001.
[MCL call number: 820.8 L722 2001; two copies, no holds]

If you had access to a time machine and were able to visit the great market town of Onitsha, Nigeria sometime between the Second World War and the late 1960s, you would have seen for sale a wide array of locally written and produced pamphlets and short books: instructional texts and self-help guides, romances, historical accounts of important events, and cautionary tales.  These pamphlets were written and published locally, and the entertainment and information they provide is tailored to a community of readers in a society where widespread literacy was a new phenomenon. Kurt Thometz has collected 18 pamphlets (three are complete; the remainder are excerpts) together for readers who do not have access either to a time machine or the rare library of African market literature. 

The collection is readable for many reasons — as a document of history, for instruction in morals and good conduct, as an exercise in understanding Nigerian culture, or simply as entertainment.  The pamphlets are perhaps most notable for the rich and striking descriptive language they employ — some of this beauty of language has no doubt to do with the fact that Nigerian English is its own creature, with vocabulary, syntax, rhythms, and literary conventions distinct from those of other forms of English.  But it also seems likely that the newness of the enterprise of publishing popular literature in Onitsha had its effect on pamphlet language.  This awkwardly elegant English is evident in titles:

  • Money Hard to Get but Easy to Spend (page 105)
  • How to Avoid Corner Corner Love and Win Good Love From Girls (page 131)
  • Drunkards Believe Bar as Heaven (page 125)
  • Mabel the Sweet Honey That Poured Away (page 151)

in front matter:

  • “The Adventures of The Four Stars dedicated to Samuel A. Okponku And International guy whom I chance to meet during the brief writing.  He says: ‘A quittes never wins, a winner never quiter’. That is to say, ‘Once a Radical Star, always a Star.'” (page 245)
  • “This very short but highly amusing drama called ‘The Statements of Hitler Before The World War’ is intended to entertain you much anywhere you may be: whether in office, or market, or workshop or house or in journey.” (page 295)

and of course in text:

  • “The breakneck speed, was terrific.  It was a bottle neck type of a run, rearing the fatal full-stop of the speedometre.” (in Rosemary and the Taxi Driver, page 21)
  • “Since the world has broken into pieces, truth is not said again.  If you ask a little boy a question, he will not tell you the truth, instead he tells you lies.  The same thing with little girls.  When little boys and girls could give up the truth, then imagine the degree of lies with grown ups.” (in Man Has No Rest in His Life, page 51)
  • “You could see a parcel on the street and call it a bundle of money, when you open it, it becomes a box of sickness and bad luck.” (in No Condition is Permanent, page 82)

But beyond the special qualities of Onitsha market literature English, the pamphlets collected here are just good, and varied, reading: a play about Hitler on the eve of World War II, a highly erotic novella about a woman gone wrong, a polemic against drinking in bars, a spiritual tract advising caution in all aspects of life (for “things are not what they seem, and life you see, is nothing but an empty dream”), and a Wild West-style adventure story are among the contents.  Life Turns Man Up and Down is the kind of book you should have handy to read on your bus commute, at the beach on a summer weekend, or in bed before you go to sleep.  Its contents are doom-saying and optimistic, sober and ridiculous, humorous and thoughtful.

A prefatory chapter provides context for the collection with a description of the Onitsha market, a terse introduction to 20th century Nigerian political history, an account of the legacy of traditional and international slavery, a brief discussion of Nigerian English, and finally an account of the beginnings of Ontisha’s popular publishing industry.  Thometz’s afterword explains the provenance of the particular pamphlets reproduced in the book, and his own interest in the study of this body of literature.  There is no index, but the text is followed by a reader’s guide to the study of Nigerian market literature, and a bibliography of the works in the anthology.


1 Comment so far
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Dear Emily Jane,
Many thanks for your kind read. If you are ever in Harlem you must come by my bookshop, and I’ll show you the pamphlets.
Kurt Thometz
Jumel Terrace Books
426 West 160th St.
New York, NY 10032
(212) 928-9525

Comment by Kurt Thometz

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