On Friday, I finished Jagua Nana, a novel by Cyprian Ekwensi. While first published in 1961, I read the 2018 edition. Cyprian who died in 2007 was a Nigerian author of international repute who wrote hundreds of short stories, children’s books, television and radio scripts, and novels.
Jagua Nana is an open invitation into the life of the experienced, beautiful but controversial aging prostitute called Jagua Nana.
Jagua Nana’s personal projection takes you away. She, vibrantly aware of her beauty, remains relevant even in her 50s as she was in her younger years with her mind still sharp and still having the ability to do whatever she finds it in her heart to do.
“She had not finished admiring herself in the mirror. JAGWA. She gave herself the title now, whispering it and summoning up in her mind all the fantastic elegance it was supposed to conjure. JAGWA. It was like an invocation.”
Set in Lagos, Jagua in her quest for happiness takes on a much younger lover whom she offers to have sent to England for his law education from her savings on the condition that upon their return they would become husband and wife. That was not to be as the lawyer meeting younger blood than himself let himself loose, even if not completely, from Jagua.
This is partly a story of 1950 Nigeria, before independence. A story of the nightlife in those years. Of the jazz and highlife in the nightclub, Tropicana. Of the sisterhood that may be between women of the night (as epitomized in the Jagua-Rosa relationship). Of the brazen corruption and disregard for human dignity that envelopes the former Nigerian capital. Of politics and how it is a given that politics necessarily leads to needless deaths.
Of the extent to which love can make us travel. Jagua travels seeking to meet the family of her younger lover and in the process, as shown in Chapter 14, the best chapter for me helps to broker peace between a warring family who have been split into two lands. She brought them together in such an intelligent way that she was etched in their hearts.
The above is one of the unusual and not very believable parts of the books. Another is the part where Nigerian policemen were being interrogated when they showed up in a house seeking a criminal. A stretch! But then perhaps the police were not as notorious in the 1950s.
Apparently as described in the book, Lagos was pretty crazy in the 1950s with its politics, crime, and indifference to the rule of law. Of course, not much has changed in this land which has been traumatizing for many. A society that has no respect for the woman selling her body.
“She knew that if a girl went to Tropicana every day, that girl was a pawn; a pawn in the hands of criminals, Senior Service men, contractors, thieves, detectives, liars, cheats, the rabble, the scum of the country’s grasping hands…”
The book is written, in large parts, in pidgin spoken by all in that society; readable but I say different from our contemporary pidgin. In that way, some sentences in the books got me reading them two to three times to understand.
There are a lot of events and characters in the book and while the author always found a way to link them together I often feel they were unnecessary. It’s a pity that the book never managed to catch my attention till the last few chapters when Jagua always on a self-destructive path had tragedy befall her. Her father died, and she had to go tend to her aged mother. Along the way, she had a baby but lost the baby. But by some stroke of luck, she happened on a large stash and Jagua being Jagua could not help helping herself to it.
What’s she going to do with her huge fortune? The author wants us to think along the lines of her setting herself up as a cloth merchant, but we know enough about Jagua that nothing is ever certain about her.
Jagua Nana is a novel that shows the sometimes tragic consequences of money being one’s moral compass. A novel of people wasting years of their life, & sometimes losing their lives, chasing faulty dreams, because they never slowed down to learn who they really were. A novel that showcases the magnetic attraction of toxicity. A novel that showcases how the value of the home should never be lost on its residents.
A bit surprised that this book was banned for its supposed prurient content as while the main character is somewhat scandalous, I cannot see the many lecherous contents that invited the ban. And therein lies my theory on why the book is Cyprian’s most successful novel. Censorship brings attention.
This is the first Cyprian Ekwensi I have laid my hands on and judging by this, it is perhaps appropriate that he is not as well-known as his other two larger-than-life contemporaries.