His brother’s keeper
Toni Kan’s ‘The Carnivorous City’ delves into the criminal underbelly of Lagos, but it is not a crime novel in the strict sense. When Abel gets a text message saying “Soni is missing”, he packs his bag and comes to Lagos; but ultimately, it is not so much a call to unravel the mystery of his brother’s disappearance as an invitation to step into his shoes.
Nor is this a morality tale as such. Abel, who has hitherto lived a simple life in Asaba, gets to Lagos and fits rather neatly into his brother’s opulent lifestyle. Abel’s self-awareness is the only concession to the possibility of a moral choice he never makes, as he sinks deeper into Soni’s world.
He is installed in his missing brother’s room, wears his expensive clothes, drives his luxury cars and drinks his fine cognac. What other frontier might there be? Thou shall not covet thy brother’s wife? A morality tale would require Abel to suffer some material consequence or wrenching inner conflict for any entanglement with Ada, his sister-in-law. But more about that later.
Meanwhile, the reader is immersed in the city that served as Soni’s playground: “Lagos is a beast with bared fangs and a voracious appetite for human flesh.” In one scene, a man is found dead in his car in the traffic, “swallowed whole by Lagos, like many before him.” Abel “marvelled at how easily things shifted in Lagos, how easy it was to cross the fault lines.”
Soni a.k.a Sabato Rabato has been swallowed up by the city, consumed by the murky dealings that made him a ‘Lagos Big Boy’. Abel discovers that the wheeling-dealing Soni hero-worshipped him. He is the official next of kin on Soni’s bank records, and without whom Ada cannot get at her husband’s millions. “All the money Soni has now belongs to you. Without you, we can’t even buy toothpicks,” she tells him. “Now he was in a mansion in Lagos, wondering what had shifted in the foundation of things.”
The story unfolds in an amoral landscape – pulsating, unforgiving, deadly and seductive. Everyone, it seems, is looking for the “hammer that would bring the Hummer.” The story gains an added urgency with the arrival of Mayowa, the low-rent magazine publisher, on the scene. As the novel nears its end, the thrills and spills of earlier chapters give way to a dread in the reader, a sense of foreboding about what revelations may come. Here is where the careful build-up of tension really pays off. Away from the unfinished book, the reader is conscious that there are characters to get back to, eager to read on.
“Soni was missing, yes, but the party was still in full swing.” The ride itself is the thing, in this very readable novel. The descriptions are filmic, allowing us to visualize Abel’s movement through ‘The Carnivorous City’. How the Oshodi area lost to Gbagada in the gentrification stakes, the author will show you. The narrative breezes past fascinating landmarks – taking in upscale locations as well as “the sadder precincts of Lagos.”
There are many points of recognition for those familiar with the city. Abel and Calista run into rogue police officers on Town Planning Way – as sometimes happens on that bend in real life. The novel is an ode to the remembered city, calling into memory what is lost. The chapter titled ‘The Lighthouse’ fictionalises a real-life, now closed down, Lagos art venue once presided over by a creative entrepreneur and her yoga teacher husband.
With many characters indulging in the horizontal foxtrot, ‘The Carnivorous City’ is dripping with sex. The erectile references are endless. The sex scenes are well realised, although Calista’s orgasmic giggles may divide opinion. It must be said, however, that some of the couplings are of an unnecessarily prurient nature. Not even older female family members are exempt from the nympho factor, their latter-day embrace of “piety as a means of escape” doing little to mitigate the gratuitousness.
Abel and Ada seem determined to join the sexual musical chairs, and the way the author navigates this, is one of the weaknesses of the novel. That Ada, whose husband is missing, will go on so many cozy outings – dates almost – with her brother-in-law, stretches believability. This is not so much a case of two people inexorably drawn together but rather, an unacknowledged disregard for boundaries. Their smutty banter from the outset, the sudden appearances in each other’s private spaces – both of them in various states of undress… Even Auntie Ekwi, told of the identity of the man speculated in the press to be Ada’s lover, does not make the connection between smoke and fire. Nothing, it seems, is allowed to get in the way of a man on his headlong fall into his sister-in-law’s bed – not even plausibility. Next to these two, the mercurial Santos could pass for a more noble character.
Calculating and deliberate, and with no compunction whatsoever about her husband’s high-rolling criminal life, Ada is the most enigmatic character in the novel. Her distress at Soni’s disappearance is more keenly associated with the denial of material comforts than any serious anxiety concerning his fate. “Soni has paid for a DSTV subscription for five years so we don’t have any problems with cable TV,” she says. It takes the generator breaking down, something Soni used to handle, for her to blurt out that the situation is finally getting to her.
Abel, a Literature lecturer, ought to know one or two things about character. During Ada’s ruthless confrontation with Santos, “She looked to Abel like a deranged Medusa with a full head of hissing snakes.” But he is too far gone to dwell on this. Narrative logic might point to Ada as a possible Lady Macbeth, capable of being more embroiled in Soni’s situation than Kan’s novel explores. And so it is that as a character, Ada never really fulfills her destiny – no doubt distracted by jokes shared with Abel about nether regions.
So, what are the chances of Abel confiding to his lover – in a coital interlude – his growing attraction to his brother’s wife? And the chances of discussing a questionable plan regarding Santos in the presence of some random girl braiding Ada’s hair? These are some of the loose screws in an otherwise pleasing novel in which the action moves at a crackling pace.
“This is Lagos, my brother, and good and bad things happen all at once,” someone says to Abel – as borne out by the novel itself. “Soni was the hero, and Abel was under no illusions who the coward was.” Come to think of it, neither are we.
• The Carnivorous City by Toni Kan; 241 pages; Cassava Republic Press (2016).