Scenes from the dregs of life

From Caves of Rotten Teeth

By A. Igoni Barrett

155pp; Daylight Media

Igoni Barrett’s collection of short stories has nine stories from the first edition. Five new stories are included, so that there is something to discover for old and new readers alike. Barrett’s characters are drawn from a wide spectrum of types available around the city of Lagos. The Shua-Arab begging in motor parks around Nigeria, the housewife who has national TV to thank for catching her philandering husband, to the greedy youth who spends his school hours committing cyber-fraud, and the two oil thieves who try to make profit from the perennial fuel scarcity in Nigeria.

Like many artists reproducing the city in their work, the ubiquitous madman makes his special appearance in stories in this collection.

While some of Igoni Barrett’s stories are inspiring, some I felt were quite unnecessary. Stories like ‘In the Heat’ portray domestic helps as no more than sex addicts and the female ones ready to do anything after receiving gifts. The greedy trio in ‘They Would Be Swine’, who turn to pigs as part of a money-making ritual, show that greed, as always, does not pay. Philandering husbands are also advised to watch their backs as a cookery show on national TV could very well be their undoing.

There are a lot of greedy characters in this collection, though unsurprisingly, the greediest are the police.

The guy who loses his wallet and is faced with the threat of a menacing conductor under the influence of drugs and alcohol is someone many people can relate to, especially on those days when we suspect we’ve lost our wallets or purses.

In ‘The Phoenix’, Tartius Abrachius evokes the most pity as his will to perform a heroic deed pushes him to the very limit. It’s no wonder the story won the author the BBC World Short Story Prize in 2005. It is a story of will despite disability and Igoni Barrett tells it well.

We pity the guy who drops out of school to support his family, but also conclude he’s made the worst move of his life, as he and his wife struggle to find employment in Nigeria’s hostile economic environment.

The theme of unemployment recurs in ‘Early Retirement’, where a fresh graduate is retired after 35 years of meritorious service in the civil service.

Barrett portrays madness in a comical manner. It is hard to conclude in ‘Even As An Angry Wind Leaves Nothing in Its Path’ if the protagonist, Barinada Kpee, is actually mad.

The father, the son, the pastor and the Holy Spirit play on the histrionics of contemporary Pentecostal miracle-seekers. Supplicants at the altar of ‘The Blind Moloch of Faith’ end up deceived during their own show of spiritual superiority.

The author issues a disclaimer on some of the stories in the first edition of From Caves of Rotten Teeth, but even this second edition appears to be a work in progress. Although Barrett applies the shocking and surprising endings common to short stories, the writer has yet to fully grasp the art of storytelling, it seems. Not all stories have happy endings, but most of his appear to be hinged on the scales that if the story starts happy it ends on a sad note or vice versa.

The author obviously draws from a pool of literary traditions. He uses Dickensian register in some of his stories and allows an insane old gentleman to speak excessively colonial English that would sound archaic or definitely present the speaker as mad. He definitely is.

A trained agriculturist, Igoni Barrett can’t help but fall back on technical jargon. He describes a certain character as being ‘stubborn as a rhizome’.

That’s just part of the wit and humour the author employs in presenting the drama in the city of Lagos. As suits his purpose, he uses first and third person narratives to represent a motley crew of characters that evoke both pity and laughter. Igoni Barrett writes like he’s seen it all in his narratives, of the paradox of life in a city like Lagos.

For someone who decided to become a writer as an adult, Igoni needs only to keep writing to prove he’s got what it takes. The entire collection is worthy of commendation, but for some publishing slips that denied me a whole seventeen pages of suspense: one whole story and two halves of other stories. If such a copy is in the market, I wonder what the buyer might have to say, especially as this detracts from the book’s high quality and good editing.

In a probable third edition of this work, we’d expect more improved stories. Am I being greedy? No. Igoni Barrett has what it takes to unbalance even the most stable emotional pH in an extensive reader.

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