Chris Abani belongs to the newer crop of Nigerian authors whose writing has been held against them by authoritarian regimes. Abani himself has been in exile for a while. He first sought refuge in England after being wanted by the government for writing supposedly incendiary material written. These days, Abani makes his home in America—a land with powerful cultural icons, many of which exert their influence over the slums of Lagos, Nigeria, where Abani’s debut novel is set.
Young Elvis Oke is a teenager coming of age in a harsh, urban, violent Lagos. He moves with his father into one of Lagos’ ghettos, a slum called Maroko, after his mother’s death. Sunday Oke, Elvis’ father, is steadily wasting his life at a local wine shop, and desperate Elvis needs to fend for himself if he is going to survive. He somehow makes do by staging Elvis impersonations for visiting tourists on the streets of Lagos. A young restless man without any anchors in life, Elvis only too readily latches on to a perceived role model that comes along: a self-proclaimed activist called King of the Beggars, who tries to steer Elvis clear from trouble. Despite the King’s best intentions, Elvis strays temporarily with a well-meaning friend, Redemption. Elvis is recruited to help out with the cocaine business, and he grudgingly goes along with Redemption’s half-baked schemes. When Redemption’s shady business dealings get even murkier, (Redemption and Elvis become inadvertently tangled in the illegal trade of human parts), Elvis finally backs out and tries to reorganize his life.
Graceland might be a coming-of-age novel, but it is also a novel saturated with political imagery and messages. All through its pages, the specter of an inhuman dictatorship looms large, personified by the cruel Colonel who routinely terrorizes every neighborhood and clamps down on every mode of free speech. The novel moves back and forth between Elvis’ earlier life in Afikpo, an Igbo village far away from Lagos, and his current one. Abani peppers the “village” chapters with local recipes and folklore based on ancient rituals. These crutches, probably meant to underscore the distinction between the gritty, urban Lagos and the rural Afikpo, seem forced. In fact, as the violence that is an essential part of Graceland runs its course through the book, one realizes sadly that Elvis’ fate in Lagos is not very different from the one in his hometown. Violence seems to be a part of his life—probably a product of a society that can seek no comfort from its corrupt government and can find no way out of endless poverty.
As in earlier work, Abani uses his novel as a platform to make a few strong political statements: a strong rant about the “thieves,” the World Bank People, and even a sharp criticism leveled at the Nigerian people:
“A country often becomes what its inhabitants dream for it. Much the same way that a novel shapes a writer, the people’s perspective shapes the nation, so the country becomes the thing people want to see. Every time we complain that we don’t want to be ruled by military dictatorship; but every time there is a coup, we come out in the streets to sing and dance and celebrate the replacement of one despot with another. How long can we continue to pretend we are not responsible for this?”
As Elvis matures and finds his place in the world, his life is marked by more upheaval. The final scenes in the book are marked by even more violence and are probably intended to shock. While the violence is certainly shocking -- “An unknown man ran toward the oncoming soldiers wielding an old Igbo sword called an akparaja. Short, wide, and double-edged, it cleaved heads off with ease, littering the floor like a pineapple harvest” -- its graphic nature sometimes comes across as excessive, an over-the-top device to underline the novel’s central premise.
Despite these minor episodes of stilted storytelling, Graceland is a wonderful beginning for the talented Abani. The sobering truth of Graceland is that Elvis is actually one of the lucky ones -- he gets to begin life anew, with hope. The rest get to stay behind, to grapple with lives that are no different from the murky waters that invade the worst of the Lagos slums.