Last week, Stefania of Books of Gold drew my attention to a particular article by George Packer of Lapham's Quarterly, a magazine of history and ideas. Perhaps it was in the spirit of sharing ideas that Packer wrote his beautiful literary article aptly titled Dickens in Lagos. According to Packer, and you could read his article first, the present day reader in Bombay, Rangoon, Mombasa or Lagos is more likely understand the contextual works of Dickens, and Hardy, and Dreiser and Gissing and Balzac than the Western reader in New York or Los Angeles because in these Western countries,
The conditions for Gissing’s version of unhappiness, and Hardy’s, and Dreiser’s (and, earlier, Balzac’s), no longer exist in the civilizations that produced their work. In the great cities of the West, the standard of living is too high, public life too rationalized, social taxonomy too fluid, and aesthetic taste too jaundiced, for a novel to turn on the main character’s frayed overcoat and muddy boots. Modernity and the welfare state did away with the naked sympathies and tragic destinies of the late-nineteenth-century novel.
However, in these megacity slums,
All is true. In vast, impoverished cities like Bombay, Cairo, Jakarta, Rio, or Lagos, the plot lines of the nineteenth century proliferate. Not ignorant mass suffering, but the ordeal of sentient individuals who are daily exposed to a world of possibilities through a sheet of glass—satellite TV, the Internet—that keeps them out. The extreme conditions of megacity slums contain the extravagant material that animated Dickens. In the gap between what their inhabitants know and feel and what they can have lies all the poignancy of Hardy.
For this reason,
in a country like Burma, which has experienced neither modernity nor the welfare state, an intense young reader is better equipped to enter the world of Dickens than anyone in Los Angeles or New York, and knows it. Also for this reason, Dickens' real heirs are less likely to have grown up in London than Bombay.
As Packer puts it, these dystopian novels no longer fit the description and current of conditions of the 'great cities of the West' and such writing template is almost absent in 'modern fiction'. It is fascinating to know that the perception of non-Western countries has skewed peoples' vision too.
If one looks at the broad picture, at the Hollywood part of things without looking at the individual scenes or characters; if one looks at the forest and forgets that in the forest there are individual trees as tall as one's eyes could see, fresh and green in addition to the epiphytes and lianas, shrubs and diseased and decaying trees, stumps and logs; if one takes the televisionised versions of Africa and the West (Europe and America); if one submits one's mind to such rape and skewness of sight; and if one takes Packer one of those whose affinity for the morbid blinds them to the other side, then Packer's article and version of Africa painted in there with his broad brush strokes and abstractions is no farther from the truth than mine is. In fact his would be the truth. For instance, in the heart of Lagos, Packer finds and describes
...the sensitive young mind trapped inside an indifferent world, the beguiling journey from countryside to metropolis, the dismal inventiveness with which people survive, the permanent gap between imagination and opportunity, the big families whose problems are lived out in the street, the tragic pregnancies, the ubiquity of corruption, the earnest efforts at self-education, the preciousness of books, the squalid factories and debtor’s prisons, the valuable garbage, the complex rules of patronage and extortion, the sudden turns of fortune, the sidewalk con men and legless beggars, the slum as theater of the grotesque: long after these things dropped out of Western literature, they became the stuff of ordinary life elsewhere, in places where modernity is arriving but hasn’t begun to solve the problems of people thrown together in the urban cauldron.
Descriptions like these abounds in Western media and Packer needs not have travelled all the way to Lagos only to look
at its slums, which turned out to coincide with the city itself.
This article could have been written by an average Western human being whose sense of the world goes no farther than the borders of his home. I mean those who consider Africa as one tiny country and are quick to ask you if you knew their friend in Kenya, whenever you tell them you are from Ghana but would look at you twice and sneer as if you are raving mad when you ask them of your friend who lives within the same city as they live. These folks could have written these without batting an eye or having to use google. Or it could have been written by a computer programmed to string together most commonly used words within a certain radius when such countries are mentioned or cities are mentioned. But it should not have been Packer, after all hasn't he travelled to Bombay, Rangoon, Mombasa and Lagos?
But Packer wrote this and more. This piece does not attempt to declare Packer blind for his eyes saw the garbage and the scavengers and pickers, the social sufferings, the slums, the blinking electricity, the flies, the frustrations, the burnt aspirations and perhaps the sun, which he did not mention. Packer saw all these and more because, as in ALL societies, these landmarks exist, albeit in different forms at varying degrees. But to declare social suffering extinct in Western countries while blossoming in non-Western countries is an outright lie and an imposition of a prose so trite that anyone who reads about this part of the world expects to meet it. Perhaps Packer's travel sponsors wanted him to confirm what they have always read or heard; this we cannot be sure but we are sure that in his article he pandered to Western descriptions of non-Western countries, borrowing words and phrases almost to the borders of plagiarism.
Is Packer saying that in 'the great cities of the West' all forms of suffering have been eradicated? that there are no beggars in the West? no homeless people? no individuals aspiring to be in college but could not because of cost? no jobless people? none with bottled up dreams? None which could make it into 'modern fiction'? However, Packer and We would not see these individuals, would we? when their individual sufferings have been painted over by the broad strokes of Hollywood; when we have linked our aspirations to the scenes on TV and almost every African woman wants to be the next Beyonce (forgetting Beyonce has not the average American woman look) and every man wants to be the next Jay-Z (that he too is not the average American man).
Whereas these descriptions, not the emotive associations, are mostly true, they reflect the other side of the argument, the side that could make Westerners and Westernised folks tour such countries to observe and write and film about. The side that is most famous and representative of our 'condition'. And seeing with Packer's eyes, we accede to these representation so that most African authors have entered the fray and have imbibed these stories into their writings, either to sell or to tell the Westerners that "this is how far we have come, haven't we done well? Please pat us on our back." Some make it direr so that the comparison with where he or she is with where he or she began would be stark... such leaps of destiny. And funny enough Packer does not consider the works of these authors as modern fiction.
This situation affords an emotional register of yearning and pathos that is almost absent from modern fiction, and has never been dominant among American novelists, who, with exceptions like Theodore Dreiser and later Richard Wright, have been drawn to the free individual more than the social victim.
What about the other side? Wouldn't the average reader in these mega-slums associate themselves with the works of Asimov and other futuristic writers based on what they have seen in their countries? Is there no ray of hope? Is there no other story to this doomed pictures? According to Packer,
Even in the few wealthy enclaves, children hawked cell phones and cigarettes in traffic, unlicensed motorcycle taxis filled the streets, and illegal hovels sprouted like mushrooms between the walled houses.
This is how bleak the picture is. How much worse could this be. Yet, in another breath there is a garbage collector who browses the internet. So there must be the 'other side' - the side that is hardly ever heard, written or filmed about by both Westerners and indigenes. Just as there is Dickens in Lagos, so too is there Asimov. For in addition to the fly-infested markets, there are the supermarkets and malls; in addition to the slums there are the estates and gated communities, something I detest most; there are those who have remained in their countries, educated in their country and have risen in social status, in addition to the struggling stragglers. There are the materialistic items such as Range Rovers, Jaguars, Hummers, which honest and hard-working citizens of these countries have acquired, in addition to the Matatus, Danfo, and Trotros. There are those who find themselves in Asimov's novels in addition to those whose world exist entirely in Dickensian novels. And though this duality is a symptom of every country, state or nation, though this is not a foible of a few poor countries, do we hear of them in stories or on screens? Where mentioned, as in most Nollywood and Ghanaian movies, they are either linked to corruption or occult practices; there are never genuine hard-working wealthy folks, according to these movies. Thus, the African himself have come to believe that his story should elicit a high level of pathos. And the more sympathy, tears and emotions the reader sheds the better the story is.
There is Dickens in Lagos, and Asimov too.
Caveat: the writer has never travelled outside his home country and therefore might be entirely wrong in associating any form of social suffering to these Western countries.