Toni Kan’s third published work of fiction, a novel called The Carnivorous City, begins with a text message announcing its unlikely hero: “Soni is missing”. This message rudely interrupts and disrupts the sleep (and life) of Soni’s older brother. An erstwhile lecturer of English Literature at a College of Education in Asaba, Abel Chiedu Dike must respond to the distress call sent from his brother’s wife’s phone.
The novel swings into action with Abel arriving in Lagos on a Sunday afternoon, lugging a tired old briefcase. He is picked up by Ada, his sister-in-law, with whom he is not quite on good terms. Their tenuous relationship notwithstanding, Soni must be found.
Abel’s brother, full name Sunderland Onyeama Dike, better known as Soni Dike and best known as Sabato Rabato, resides in a grand seaside mansion in the upscale part of Lagos with a beautiful wife, a son and lots of money in the bank – which he made illegally.
Soni’s sudden disappearance and the puzzling discovery of his Jaguar in a ditch is the most sinister conflict of this novel. A more conceptual reading of this novel is to pay attention to its title and the character of the city of Lagos, best embodied by her waters. The recurring appearance of the lagoon throughout the novel’s procession and the authorial commentary on the nature of the city offers an interesting subplot that runs concurrently and seems to merge with Soni’s disappearance.
Not a Police Procedural, Not a typical Crime Novel
The disappearance of any person for longer than 48 hours must be reported to the Police, but this novel hardly dwells in police stations long enough to become a police procedural. Neither does it find lasting solace in church premises where Ada, Abel and his Aunt Ekwi, who used to be a nymphomaniac, must visit to keep night vigils, praying for the return of their loved one.
Instead, The Carnivorous City is interested in the aftermath of a disappearance and how allegiances fall and form. Soni’s disappearance brings Abel to Lagos, away from his uneventful and Spartan life in Asaba, punctuated by reading novels and drinking one or two bottles of stout.
A Tour of Lagos in Disguise?
The Carnivorous City is a Lagos expedition for Abel in the guise of finding his missing brother. He combs the entire city in the company of their kinsman, Santos, through the violence-prone underbellies of Mushin to the refined ghettos of Ajegunle to the swanky side of Lagos Island, where he wines and dines with his more ambitious contemporaries, who, unlike him, had more lofty dreams than becoming a vice-principal. He even visits the seat of Lagos Government at Alausa, Ikeja, after chance brings his girlfriend from his university days, Calista Adeyemi, into the picture.
With sensual prose reminiscent of Cyprian Ekwensi’s novels set in Lagos, Toni Kan depicts the brimming city of Lagos and how Abel loses what is left of his innocence.
The prose assumes a conversational tone, chronicling mythical-sized stories about Lagos and her characters. We meet the slim, cigarette-smoking widow of an army officer, a corrupt female medical-doctor-turned-banker, efficient but venal police officers and extortionist prophets. There is a pervasive and ominous sense of death as people die anywhere: in traffic and in churches. But the city, expectedly, has a short attention span. To quote from the book: “In a city with over fifteen million people seemingly always in a mad rush to get [sic]some place fast, nothing held your attention for too long.” [Page 68]
Sex & Oedipal Rex
A recurring motif in his earlier works of fiction, sex, especially of the heterosexual kind, drives this narrative.
One may find similarities in Abel’s recounting of his father’s cuckold situation and the story “The Passion of Pololo” in Kan’s collection of short stories, Night of a Creaking Bed. Rather than Abel finding his mother with her younger lover alone, as in Pololo’s case, Abel’s father is also a witness. This event drove him to alcohol, which inadvertently led to his premature death.
Soni’s sexual experiences, both licit and illicit, also hold sway in the narrative. Soni christened himself “Nine Inches” and, in his university days at Jos, generously endorsed the wall at the head of his lovers’ beds with a signature: “Nine Inches Was Here”.
In Lagos, he persisted as a prurient philanderer, bedding widows and wives alike. The mystery of his disappearance hangs from an anchor of illicit acts, both sexual and otherwise.
Abel, too sickly to be rascally in childhood, becomes hapless flotsam, striving to make sense of his brother’s disappearance in the coastal city of Lagos. He is faced with his own distractions and temptations, through which he must negotiate an unusual type of mid-life crisis.
It is unusual that a younger brother’s disappearance and a temporary relocation to Lagos could alter an individual’s life so significantly in only four months. Perhaps if this novel had dwelt considerably more on the immediate past and pace of Abel’s erstwhile life, it would have been more believable. However, it is clear that Abel is the good, conscientious brother while Soni is that biblical opposite, Cain, whose actions are governed by both his death instinct and libido.
The Carnivorous City is fast-paced at times; slow-winding and contemplative at others. Divided into chapters with occasionally apt titles, it is not a typical crime or mystery novel.
It ticks all boxes in the checklist of a typical Lagos novel: violence, crime, music, traffic, churches, affluence, bribery and lots of raunchy sex. This novel, like Igoni Barrett’s debut novel, Blackass, embraces the possibilities of metamorphosis. In the beginning, Abel arrives in Lagos a greenhorn. At the end of the novel, he has become Cain.
Cyprian Ekwensi will be immensely pleased.