Gertrude Stein back in time said her bit about “The Lost Generation” while Wole Soyinka added the dimension of “The Wasted Generation”, but in my book, as far as so-called generations go, what commands the most demanding attention is the age of Structural Adjustment across the African continent that I here name The Wounded Generation. It was a generation that laid bare the modern-day fall of man, the destruction of whole peoples and the unconscionable unraveling of societal and communal values. The birthing of wounded children would in time compromise all mores. This is the premise of the 379-page novel, Fine Boys by Eghosa Imasuen, a sending-up of campus life in the upside-down world of post-IMF Nigeria. The advent of the military presidency of General Ibrahim Babangida all but turned Nigeria on its head, and the concomitant rise to power of his sidekick General Sani Abacha after the ruinous annulment of the June 12 presidential elections literally unhinged the cosmos.
Eghosa Imasuen who lived through all the crises to qualify as a medical doctor can, like the great Russian playwright and short story master Anton Chekhov, vouch that medicine is his legally wedded wife while literature is his mistress such that when he gets tired of one he spends the night with the other! Imasuen’s protagonist Ewaen in Fine Boys incidentally studies to qualify as a doctor at the University of Benin, a campus beset by Nigeria’s utter bewilderment in the murderous years of General Abacha.
The novel which flows quite seamlessly is divided into three parts: “Year One: January 1993 – March 1994; Year Two: March 1994 – March 1995; Year Three: June 1995 – Eternity.” Early in Fine Boys Ewaen bonds quite roundly with his middle class family such that his daddy entrusts upon him the task of doing the school runs. He is the elder brother of the somewhat paradoxical twins, fair Osaze and dark Eniye who were at once “intense rivals and soul mates”. Ewaen matriculates into the cults-addled University of Benin from Federal Government College, Warri as the coming-of-age tropes up in tension.
Ewaen’s parents are an uncanny couple, as Imasuen limns: “Daddy and Mommy had their major quarrels every two years. It was like clockwork. Every even year I could remember, ’82, ’84, ’86, ’88, ’90, all had a month or two when we packed up and left with Mom to our granny’s, Nene. Most times this displacement was preceded by a night of terror from which Mom emerged with a black eye here or a bruise there. But she always came back.”
Violence at home of course pales in comparison to the mob wars on campus which eventually leads to the brutal death of Wilhelm whom Ewaen introduces from the beginning as “one-half of my crew of best friends.”
Riots are the staples of campus life with student union leaders linking the incidents “to the attacks on our democracy, to the annulment of June 12, the stepping down of the gap-toothed general we called Maradona, the inauguration of the interim national government and its overthrow by General Abacha.”
Like Kenya’s Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Imasuen has his finger on the pulse of lived history. The boys’ company of the novel, notably Ewaen, Tuoyo, Wilhelm, Odegua, KO and Ejiro, are in Imasuen’s remarkable softness of touch not submerged by the sordid history. There are human vistas of, for instance, the young hero discovering that Gulder but not Guinness is his preferred brand of beer, and failing to make the girl who has no time for a Jambite! The visit to the offices of “Dr. Spirit and Law, the White Wizards” in the search for Mesiri’s stolen money emotes the lower frequencies of run-of-the-mill Nigerian life writ large.
The depiction of actual Nigerian contemporary events lends subtle verisimilitude to Imasuen’s Fine Boys thusly: “While MKO was in jail, while the Italians were shaming Nigeria out of the World Cup, while the universities burned, while students sat idle at home, a paradigm was shifting in the delta… Just over a year ago, the arrest of Ken Saro Wiwa on allegations of incitement to murder had made him a cause célèbre for the aspirations of the people of the delta.” Further on in the novel we learn: “November was a very memorable month. It was also the month Saro Wiwa was executed, hanged and finally pronounced dead after five attempts. He and his men were then bathed in sulphuric acid to make identifying there remains impossible for their families. If that was not enough, the men were buried in secret unmarked graves to prevent the site from becoming a shrine. The international community was in an uproar.” This could read like special pleading.
Students’ confraternities in Nigerian universities remain controversial ever since the well-intentioned formation of The Pyrates Confraternity by Soyinka and his six pals at the then University College, Ibadan. In Fine Boys the deadly confra boys of Back Axe and Cosa Nostra are killers, leading up to the mauling of Wilhelm who gets “brought in dead” (BID) to the hospital. The tragedy speeds Ewaen’s dad to send Ewaen and his brother Osaze away from the University of Benin to resume their schooling in the UK, presciently foreshadowing the brain-drain that became the lot of The Wounded Generation.
Eghosa Imasuen is indeed a very engaging storyteller. He has definitely upped the ante from his first novel, To Saint Patrick, which deigned to tell the alternate history of Nigeria. Imasuen and his editor, Molara Wood, deserve plaudits. Fine Boys tells the Nigerian story in an unapologetically Nigerian style that does not bend over backwards to dubious universalism. If the matter deserves to be called wahala, Imasuen calls it wahala without italics or roundabout explanatory notes. But the publishers and their printers deserve knocks for not binding the book well. I treat a book I love and want to review like a sweetheart deserving of all styles of engagement, ranging from the good old missionary position to the “impossible Indian position” as identified by Ayi Kwei Armah in The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born. It detracts from having a great climax when the pages of Fine Boys almost always fall apart at every turn.
Well, the menace of a bad binder-cum-printer should not lead to a withdrawal from an author who has so much on offer. Eghosa Imasuen is an eloquent voice of The Wounded Generation.