The Nigerian fantasist, D.O. Fagunwa, didn’t think much of realist fiction. How difficult can it be to mirror life, he asks in a little known 1960 essay published in a teacher’s magazine. Realist fiction, he concludes, involves little more than shopping around for stories that already exist in life and reformatting them into a novel.
If you’re squirming at Fagunwa’s idea that life presents itself in readymade stories, it’s most likely because you’re thinking of what everyone from Aristotle to Virginia Woolf has told us—that life appears in the form of scattered, incoherent bits of incidents, which the uber-imaginative novelist rearranges into narrative.
You clearly did not grow up in a Nigerian city where everyday life serves as the stage for spectacular dramas and miraculous events, where every neighborhood has its fair share of characters and crazies—the white-garment church pastor, the dodgy police man, the mad man with his thing hanging out, the prostitute, the political thug, the old soldier, the witchdoctor, the quack pharmacist, the old lady who everyone thinks is a witch, the Phd holder without a job, and so on. Life with these archetypes existed in a continuum of the hilarious, the surreal, and the bat-shit crazy.
This fantastical texture of the everyday—including the strange catalogue of characters it produces—is what E. C. Osondu captures brilliantly in his debut novel, This House is Not for Sale (2015), an urban tale about a house and its aging patriarch. The house, which is in some sense the principal character in the novel, is set up as the stage on which a series of isolated scenes carved out of a classic Nigerian working class neighborhood are played out.
The narrator doesn’t quite say, but we know the house is in an Oceanside city—the Atlantic to be precise, which would make it Lagos. Given that the military is still in power, we could place the novel somewhere around late the ‘80s or early ‘90s. People on the outside say the house is evil. But that doesn’t quite capture what is strange about it. It’s not haunted either, like a gothic mansion. And even though it is located in a city, the story of its origins is buried in legend and folklore.
Osondu’s work is not entirely a novel in the conventional sense of a single story idea or narrative problem unfolding through time. We are not following the life and times a set of characters from beginning to end. This House is Not for Sale is, instead, a collage of stories centered on strange characters loosely related by their having stayed at the house at some point and having had some dealings with the enigmatic old man called Grandpa.
Each of the fourteen or so stories captures only a fragment of one character’s life told in a short chapter of sometimes as little as 2000 words. If you’re a character in Osondu’s novel, you get one quick shot at basking in the spotlight, after which you disappear from the story, never to be mentioned again.
Because the novel captures only a small bit of each person’s life, the stories often leave you hanging. They are incomplete and piecemeal. You want more. You want more because you realize that each story is a teaser and could easily be a novel on its own, but Osondu—possibly relishing the daemonic pleasure of living you hanging—has chosen to give you only a glimpse of what could have been.
This fragmentary structure of the novel works. It gives one the perverse pleasure of reading a novel that refuses to be a novel. Like Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler, each of the stories in Osondu’s work are somewhat linked together, but they hold on jealously to their uniqueness, their incompleteness, and their refusal to coalesce into one continuous “whole story.”
This House is Not for Sale is artistically aware and experimental without trying too hard. The novel is also unapologetically literary. It’s not trying to make some grand point about politics and society. If you’re hankering for an issues-driven novel, feel free to move on to the “poverty porn” section. This House is not for Sale is all about masterful storytelling and a delightful reading experience.
And because the novel is so petite—182 pages—and made up of short dramatic vignettes, it is quite impossible to get bored reading it.