‘The universe has a twisted sense of humour’, I think, as I read Toni Kan’s The Carnivorous City on a flight back to Lagos. It is my first visit to the city since I broke up with it last year—quite dramatically too, like a true Lagos person. I gave up my lease, gave out three-quarters of my possessions, and left a month after I decided our relationship was no longer working. When I started reading The Carnivorous City, all the memories of 26 years of Lagos living came rushing back as if to remind me of what to expect on ground.
The book starts fast-paced: “Soni is missing.” Soni is ostensibly swallowed by Lagos, as the city does ‘big boys’. As the reader reads on, what one comes to realise soon is that The Carnivorous City is not about Soni or Lagos Big Boys. Soni - also known as Sabato - is just an excuse for Lagos to devour her latest victim, and the book is a front row seat to watch the beast feed on Abel, Soni’s brother who has been called out of his quiet Asaba life as a lecturer, and into his brother’s extravagant life - to the (for)tune of 800 million Naira, cars and houses.
The Carnivorous City starts out promising to tell a layered story. Abel arrives Lagos to find out he has a room specially designed for him in Soni’s house, and that Soni bought his child books, because growing up, he had looked up to him. Here, one is reminded how often we are unaware of the depth of love and the spaces others have carved out for us in their lives. Abel’s conversations with Ada, Soni’s wife, which unveil stories of moments the two brothers shared and the fondness with which Soni spoke about his older brother shows this.
A Predator at Work
Abel is eased into his new life, uncomfortable as it may be at first, as Ada and Santos - his brother’s trusted staff - dish advice on how he is to dress and act. One watches as a man who seems secure in his identity; whose life has followed a plan laid out from teenage hood, slowly morphs into the very thing he has always derided, over three months of living in Lagos.
The Abel - who had once bailed his brother out seven years ago and furiously condemned him for his unethical activities, is very different by the end of the book; coveting his brother’s life and wife. His once active conscience is neglected in Asaba with his past life, as he spends his brother’s money acquired from “shady deals [and/]or white collar crime” - a thing, Kan avows, common among Lagos Big Boys. Through him, we see a perfect demonstration of how the city consumes a person regardless of their morals.
There seems to be a lot lot going on in the book, yet very little to nothing to do with the search for the missing Soni. In fact, the summary of the search can be distilled into the blasé responses from the police or the missing man’s cronies: “Soni was bound to die like this… Soni will never be found, not alive. This is Lagos. Some people have to die. Their blood is sacrifice to the hungry beast that is Lagos.”
The Carnivorous City is about Lagos, but Lagos is not a city sitting and waiting to be discovered; Lagos is a living beast, as the book cover depicts, determining the order of the lives of the people of the city. The city is a “beast with fangs and a voracious appetite for human flesh.” The book attempts to condense the spirit of Lagos, its history, people, and landmarks into 241 pages. It is designed to stir existing memories or, for the non-Lagosians, create vivid pictures that will live up to reality, if they ever visit.
It is a drive through Lagos: featuring real places, some real incidents, lores, and people. Lagos, sometimes, is indeed a living breathing beast, “a place with a soul that gravitated towards the chaotic, an anarchic impulse that could never fully be tamed.” Other times, it is inanimate: It is “battlefield” for a “true soldier” - one like Soni. Toni Kan’s work is just one of a number of books that turns the city of Lagos and its people into a major character in a book.
I remember when I was a young girl, I would scour my father’s shelves for books and often ended up reading tattered incomplete copies of books some of which had, by the 90s, long gone out of print. That was how I first read Cyprian Ekwensi’s ‘People of the City’ (1954), ‘Jagua Nana’ (1961), ‘Iska’ (1966), and ‘Restless City, Christmas Gold’ (1975). I loved the incomplete books so much that I have revisited a few of them as an adult, with the latest being ‘People of the City’, last December.
Women Of The City
In many ways, Kan’s stories (including his collection of short stories, ‘Nights of the Creaking Bed’) and Ekwensi’s city stories share a lot of similarities. They portray Lagos as a corrupting influence, a city filled with all kinds of people. I remember re-reading ‘People of the City’ as an adult and suddenly being struck by the lazy portrayal of women — I attributed some of the blame for that to the period in which it was set. Time, as I soon learnt, was merely conceptual, as the same feeling came rushing back, when I was reading an even lazier and embarrassing portrayal of women in The Carnivorous City - a book set sometime after 2012, and published in 2016.
The patriarchal leaning of the characters is first evident when Soni picks Abel, his brother, as Next of Kin instead of his wife Ada, so that she has to ask Abel for money for everything. She has the cheque books and account numbers, the know-how and the common sense, but is essentially powerless. It is a metaphor for her life and the lives of the other women in the novel — perfectly capable women forced to wait for, and on men.
We get a good picture of Soni from one of his lovers - an older widow. She describes him as smart, funny, good looking, fun to have around and very ambitious. Abel is also a well-rounded character. The men, across class, are people, with thoughts and interests and autonomy, who do things for themselves. This courtesy, when it comes to women, however, is not accorded to the women of The Carnivorous City.
As a woman who has lived most of her life in Lagos, reading a book that attempts to thoroughly portray the city as Kan’s The Carnivorous City does, I am surprised to find that, in this century, women are still not regarded as people. In The Carnivorous City, they only exist for the men. I want to escape it, but it is impossible to do so. It is on every next page.
The women are waiting for you after 10 years (Calista), they are jumping at you at first meet (Ada). They are grinding against you in strip clubs, waiting to hide you in Mushin (Celina), in bed with the neighbour’s son (Mrs Dike and Aunty Ekwi). Doing nothing for or by themselves. Only useful in relation to a man. Almost every scene featuring a woman is tinged with sexualisation in some way. It gets tiring as even mothers and aunts are not spared. The women are often only objects of desire to be passed around, hit on, their sex lives gossiped about, and their competition with each other over men thinly veiled.
Of the women in Abel’s life, including the random ones he encounters, only his grandmother and sister Oby are spared being sexualised, and all that is written about them can barely fill a page. The other women are reduced to sex or stupid and, often, both. Most of Ada’s moments with her brother-in-law Abel are tinged by sexual innuendos, him thinking about her body, her masking jealousy by teasing him about other women. Helen, her well read friend who provides hope of a respite, is promptly dismissed as looking like a man.
Sexism, Feminism And Literature
There is no question about whether the women of The Carnivorous City exist - they do. What is problematic is that they are all one woman, one stereotyped Lagos woman. It has been decided how the women in this book will be, and each one contorts to fit that mould. Even Calista, a Senior Special Assistant to the Governor who is headed to Harvard for a two-year program, begins her sentences with small letters, types predominantly using short-hand writing, and has her BBM name littered with emojis and symbols.
The female characters lack complexity - there is no attempt to develop any of them. Reading The Carnivorous City highlights the need for continuous discussions about sexism and feminism. I mean, how can we even talk about equality if literature, that is supposed to reflect the society, portrays all women as people incapable of existing when a man is not on the scene, and the men as incapable of engaging with—or even looking at—a woman, including female relatives, without sexualising her?
At some point, when confronted by Santos’ betrayal and blackmail, Ada erupts in anger and declares “I can be respectful but I am never foolish” and I ask myself, is ‘respectful’ equivalent to reducing oneself? Given everything else we know about her, even this flash sounds hollow and is undermined. She says this, but the rest of the text betrays her. If anything, that moment and Santos to whom her anger is directed, show her as classist.
Midway through reading, I lost my taste for The Carnivorous City, both the book and city. It has become predictable: every outing stressful — they cannot step out without plunging into drama. Even in the bank, a woman bathes another in poo (yes, poo) for sleeping with her husband — every woman sexual; every encounter doing next to nothing to tell us more about Soni or create intrigue or resolution. It crawls along for almost a hundred pages, till Santos loses his manners and I hear myself whistle, then promptly roll my eyes at Ada’s response.
At the end, we see what we have known all along: Soni will not return. However, instead of providing closure, The Carnivorous City only makes one wonder: how long before it is the turn of Abel? As Abel sees himself in the criminal Walata as the latter makes threats, I see the book in one of Walata’s statement: “This is Lagos, my brother, and good and bad things happen at once.”