Wednesday, 2 December 2009

Reviewing Elnathan John: The Etcetera of Dreams

Book: Daydreams Etcetera
Published: November 2008
Genre: Prose
Author: Elnathan John
Number of Pages: 76
Reviewer: Richard Ugbede Ali

"I promised, my dear, to write you a story. A story of things I do not
well know. Presumptuous. A story of the numbness of my heart; of
things I built and which I destroyed, of the union of light and
darkness, of the seeing and the blind, of dolphins and piranhas . . .
I lack, I think, the imaginative force, the creative strength or even
the will to write. However, I will keep my promise. It may be
annoyingly short, a pain to the ear, but I will tell my story."

This first paragraph, excerpted from Elnathan John's2008 short
stories, "Daydreams Etcetera" is a good enough proem to the entire
collection. And Mr. John, for the most part in this collection has
succeeded in his purpose of telling his stories and telling his
dreams. The qualities, and the shortcomings of this qualified success,
form the interest of this critical reader.

"Daydreams Etcetera", privately published November 2008 in seventy six
pages, contains eleven short stories of varying lengths and the
diversity of its themes are equally matched by the perceptiveness of
nuance and diction used to probe the nature of the two sorts of dreams
to which we are beholden – the ones we dream at night and those acted
out with causal eyes open. In all these dreams, there is an underlying
tension, a felt unreality cluing the presence of forces indifferent to
the lives and stories of dreamers with whom yet, fatally and fatedly,
they interact in shared moments.

"Mazes", which starts the collection, takes on the theme of the
psychological incidence of inter-religious relationships, x-raying the
stalemated love between Akala and Yesmin. Perhaps the most effective
device used is the repetition of the two religions formulae "Allahu
Akbar" and "Hallelujah" – creating very effectively the pulse of
something being pounded into. It is as effective as the Lorcan
refrain. It is the natural story told by a man from the North Central
where all the cultures and religions of Nigeria mix with sometimes
tragic, sometimes beautiful, consequences. Two senses of unreality are
drawn skilfully in the stories "God's Eyes" and "Visions" – in the
first story, there is the unlikely cast of a policeman who can't wait
to finish his postgraduate degree, a bored blueblood who acquires a
social conscience and an anti-Semitic Maltan-Nigerian drug dealer with
a killed Lebanese girlfriend. These contrary lives intersect in a drug
bust where the policeman dies, the blueblood dies and the drug dealer
lives. A skilful handling of plot, reminiscent of the movies "Crash"
and "Slow Burn", distincts Elnathan John's prose. "Visions" is a
haunting story of an obviously schizoid mind drowning within the mire
of Nigerian society and culture.

"The Immaculate" takes a cursory look at religious corruption and how
its underlying hypocrisies corrupt love and ideals; the words "Lagos
is not for me", spoken by Brother Jo have a chilling effect. The most
powerful stories in this slim collection are however "Kaduna", "Keeper
of the Peace" and the earlier excerpted "I Promised to Write You a
Story" – all of which probe the nature of remorseless grief; a poet
who gives his finest performance as his heart breaks in the first, a
boy who kills his friend in a religious riot in the second and in the
third, a writer writing to the now mentally unstable lover who has
killed her sister whom he had loved equally and at the same time. In
all these themes, Mr Elnathan John is able to explore to sometimes
astounding effect his obvious skill for diction and plot manipulation.
The collection is however burdened by a minor, though revealing, flaw
– Mr John's penchant for adjectives where the use of none would do
nicely and his partiality for elliptical repetition, sometimes to such
a point as to lose the underlying aesthetic of phrases, obscuring
sense. Examples of the first – "guttural sound of blood in the throat"
{God's Eyes} and - "it was to him like the familiar hands of a
sensuous lover delicately probing the curves of an exquisite body"
{Kaduna}; in the opinion of this critic, the last example copied would
have been better without at least the describers "sensuous" and
"exquisite". A sampler of unnecessary elliptic is the entire second
paragraph of "Daydreams Etcetera" – sentence-short clones of this have
also been noted.

Discounting these flaws, however, must be mentioned delightful turns
of phrase which are interspersed throughout "Daydreams Etcetera". In
the very first story, "Mazes", this one stands out – "Finally, a
partial heavenly arbiter dropped, suppressing the dust and chasing
everyone away except the wind, which it allowed to revel in victory
with the haughtiness of a successful rebel" and "At last, they will
live their lives without crouching under the shadow of his heavy hand.
I will watch it all, feeling vicariously, the new lightness in their
crushed hearts and numbness in the cicatrized souls. Gracious death.
Bad ending. Good start." {Mother's Daddy.}

In the opinion of this reader-critic, Elnathan John's 2008 "Daydreams
Etcetera" is a well written and well put together first prose offering
by a perceptive and potentially important new writer from Central
Nigeria. As opposed to mere storytelling, something salutary must be
said for the dreamer who yet tells his stories well. The existent
flaws are there merely for the purpose of finessing his craft. We
would do well to seek out whatever new offerings Elnathan John will
next bring to the temple of Nigerian letters.

Richard Ali is Editor-in-Chief, Sentinel Nigeria Magazine.


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