by Stanley Azuakola
Title: Fine Boys
Author: Eghosa Imasuen
Publisher: Kachifo Limited (2012)
Eghosa Imasuen had quite a few doubters after the release of his début novel, To Saint Patrick. For the most part, the doubts were not a criticism of his art, but an instinctive reluctance by many to accept the audacity of the book. The book demanded far too much from its readers, who were expected to accept its imagined Nigeria where power was constant, high-speed trains glided smoothly, and police officers were highly motivated and effective. In this our Nigeria? It is easier for Nigerians (with the exception of those in power) to relate with a far worse depiction of the country than one which paints it in over-flowery strokes.
Imasuen’s response to his critics is a second novel, Fine Boys—a finely crafted tour de force. It tells the story of the ’90’s in a brilliant, fun and piercing narrative. In many ways, that decade was the most significant in the annals of our nation, save for the decade of independence itself. It was the 90s of rival gangs in unending turf wars in our tertiary institutions, and the 90s of the bespectacled dictator in Aso Rock. Somehow, Imasuen was able to weave a tale, which merged those two realities and their fallouts in such a way that the reader is left feeling that it was only fitting that Nigeria was dealt with the two nightmarish scenarios at the same time. It couldn’t have been any other way.
Through the eyes and tongue of the young and smart Ewaen, the author takes us through the ordeal that was university life in those days, one that—unfortunately—current undergraduates can still relate with. Set mostly in the University of Benin, the beauty of this narration was how it was told with so much fun and so little didacticism. With the exception of Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani in ‘I do not Come to you by Chance’, no other contemporary author comes close to Imasuen for wit and humour.
We meet other well-developed characters as the story proceeds, like Wilhelm, Ewaen’s oyinbo friend who was at the centre of the book’s main conflict; Oliver Tambo; Yibril; and Brenda. In those short pages, we literally see the characters evolve and grow as they encounter friendship, love, sex, betrayal, strike actions, fear and brutality. We sympathize with/berate them as they make some crazy choices, we exhale as they manage narrow escapes and we agonise for them when tragedy comes calling.
Like any adventure which involves young people, the pages of ‘Fine Boys’ are fueled by verve and vibrancy as the characters, in their own way, wove through the maze placed by cult groups (Confras) in school as well as the uncertainty during those days of MKO Abiola, pro-democracy activists and soldiers occupying campus. What Imasuen did with this book was dispel the notion of university cult gangs as mystical, occult conclaves. The lads were foolish, misguided, insecure maybe, vicious and violent even, but cult gangs were not centres of ritualism, channelling or voodooism.
The greatest compliment for Fine Boys has to be that the book is bold and shorn of pretences. The author avoided the sin of excessive italicisation or translation of ‘Nigerianisms.’ You will find words like mumu, oyibo, yansh and ebelebo tree throughout the pages. They weren’t italicized, placed in inverted comas or translated in a bracket. Imasuen had no problems writing ‘we cheat sha,’ ‘that one pained me oh,’ ‘she liked play-play,’ or ‘they loved each other well-well.’ This was not a work crafted to meet the tastes of some foreign agent or publisher.
One issue some readers might not be able to shake off easily is the autobiographical feel of the novel. Ewaen sounds strikingly like the author himself, their life experiences are identical as well, and those who’ve met the author can identify some of the other characters in the book among those in his close circle of friends; not that it takes away anything from the work.
Fine Boys is a book which every book lover—every Nigerian—should read. It expertly conveys the irony of the Nigerian experience. Consider this excerpt as narrated by Ewaen on the day his younger brother wrote JAMB: “I looked across the street at the secondary school where my brother was supposed to be writing his entrance exams into university. Rundown, ramshackle. It was a symbol of everything wrong with the system.” Interestingly, Ewaen, by this time a 17-year-old University of Benin undergraduate, did not consider himself sitting in a market stall waiting for expo/illegal answers to smuggle in for his brother as a symbol of what is wrong with the system. He only saw the rundown structure, not his rundown ideals. How very Nigerian.