REVIEW: EHIKHAMENOR’S EXCUSE ME
The marginalization of non-fictional narratives in the Nigerian literary circle was almost single-handedly corrected upon the publication of Chinua Achebe’s There Was A Country in 2012.
That book became the most abrasively discussed book in recent times because of the author’s reputation and the civil war. While Victor Ehikhamenor’s Excuse Me does not have the benefit of a war as its focus, its release balances, to some degree, the injustice meted to nonfiction. With the rise and rise of Nigerian novelists in the country and outside of it, nonfiction has become the ugly step-sister, never really dressed up and always with no place to go. Even in name the genre is defined by its more desirable sibling.
Chinua Achebe boosted the genre with his last book. And it is hoped that Victor Ehikhamenor can do same with his first.
Excuse Me is a collection of mostly lighthearted essays from Ehikhamenor’s days as columnist for the now defunct much praised Next newspaper. Unlike columnists like say Paladium’s Idowu Akinlotan of The Nation, Ehikhamenor at Next affected an easy jocularity. The collected columns are written in the man’s cool style- there are no prosaic acrobatics here and the pages mostly fly.
They do, however, come with the problem of ending too abruptly like the writer had a deadline and a specific, limited word count- which he did and thus the collection could have benefited from an editor looking to add or taper, rather than abide by the status quo.
Tricky as it is to be harshly critical of a collection of newspaper columns, Excuse Me does have a major failing in its lack of an Introduction by the author. This absence suggests editorial laxity, rendering the pieces discordant both thematically and tonally.
What passes for organization in Excuse Me is embedded, disappointingly, straightforwardly in the ‘Contents’.
There is also the curious choice of Okey Ndibe to write what must be the introduction although the book does not affix a label. For a book containing often hilarious, laugh-out-loud pieces, this ‘introduction’ lacks is out of touch, its seriousness jarring with the book’s content and a misplaced attention on the author than his work.
It is a loss. An introduction to humorous pieces albeit on politics should be warm and welcoming. Because while politics may be grave, it has always attracted ludicrous personages and inspired amusing incidents. Mr Ndibe’s sombre seriousness contradicts Ehikhamenor’s adeptness at extracting these incongruities. And it is a shame Excuse Me opens with such an avoidable handicap.
Fortunately, the book redeems itself and quickly too, managing to overcome its datedness with an abiding relevance, proving that what the troubles besetting Nigeria are recurrent. It is the tragedy of the political humorist in Nigeria; it is also his reward: the jokes, being auto-renewable, are never quite stale but there is rarely new material, untouched by the nation’s army of satirists.
Besides the pleasure of novelty for new readers of Ehikhamenor’s old column at Next (he writes a new one for Premium Times,) the real success of the book derives from outside of its white cover and gracefully edited pages: it is one of the first books from new publisher Parresia.
Someone once said writing is like childbirth. In Nigeria publishing may be even more arduous. Thus every delivery must be celebrated. It won’t do to dwell on the alternative: the book may have been stillborn.
In the meantime, the industry’s stakeholders pray fervently, earnestly for good sales. That may be the only antidote to an obligatory bout of literary postpartum depression.
It will get better: Nigeria is a country of optimists and the quality of Victor Ehikhamenor’s Excuse Me may be reason to hope.