September 27–October 4, 2001
The World Writ Small
Little books mean a lot in Life Turns Man Up and Down.
English manners and phrases have encroached upon the local languages of western Africa since the onset of the slave trade. The eventual colonization by European powers created a unique infusion of dialects that remained in place well beyond Nigeria’s independence from Great Britain in 1960. Around that time of tremendous nationalistic pride, new technologies began to transform the culture even further. For the first time, small printing presses made it easy and affordable to mass produce pamphlets and booklets.
Life Turns Man Up and Down is an anthology of these chapbooks, written in what editor Kurt Thometz calls "Mad English" and sold in the local markets. Intended for the amusement and betterment of the workingman, they signified the emergence of a new literate class and the further growth of the written tradition. A contemporary equivalent might be the gossip-laden tabloids you scan, against your will, while checking out of the supermarket. Or maybe they’re like these free, weekly, "alternative" newspapers loved briefly by so many thousands of readers, then discarded on the bus seats of every major American city. More likely, though, these books are the Nigeria-circa-1960 version of all those picture-of-my-girlfriend websites that stared cropping up about several years ago.
What Thometz calls "African Market Literature" offered utilitarian advice — on how to live a happy life, how to make money — or incited social change or simply told moralistic romance fables. Don’t let it bother you that Thometz bought his from a used-book shop in Greenwich Village instead of, as the anthropologists put it, in the field.
"Beware and Be Wise" ranks among the most enjoyable in the lot. The author, Olusola, comes across like a poor man’s Immanuel Kant. He lays down his strict moral imperative with absolute authority, and his wisdom includes:
"Beware of the words you utter from your mouth. Beware of the taxi you are entering, there are thieves. Beware of those painted lips, your money will soon go. Beware of setting fire on a house intentionally, it is arson. Beware of the song you sing, it may be mistranslated."
"Man Has No Rest in His Life" by Okenwa Olisah, the self-described "strong man of the pen," is divided into several sections, including a long passage of 173 Nietzschean aphorisms called "Sayings of the Wise (To Widen Your Knowledge)." "Even a crazy dog recognizes fire" and "It is joy, not poverty, that kills people" could come right out of Ecce Homo. One of them, No. 44, simply states: "A man’s enemy." Somewhere right now, there’s a cabal of deconstructionists having a field day with this book, and who can blame them?
Other selections like "How to Avoid Corner Corner Love and Win Good Love from Girls" and "The Statements of Hitler Before the World War" and "Money Hard to Get but Easy to Spend" round out the collection nicely.
Thometz sticks to the proletarian side of the street and, fortunately, never feigns comprehensiveness. He provides a mere taste, like a forkload purloined from a dining partner’s plate.
It’s worth noting that the booklets are wonderfully reproduced in the original typefaces and with the occasional illustration intact. More than that, however, the paper has the appearance and color of vintage newsprint, making it the most aesthetically pleasing book to come out of a major publishing house in a long time. As a physical object, it is a joy to read.
With 18 entries, the collection is bit uneven. Many of selections in Life Turns Man Up and Down are excerpts from longer works. Some drag on much too long and a few would be okay if they went on for days. It would be worth tracking down "Why Harlots Hate Married Men and Love Bachelors," for instance, in its entirety.
Thometz’s book isn’t the first such collection of market literature to appear upon our shores, but it is a welcome insight into this underappreciated written tradition and it provides a wonderful insight into the commingling of culture and technology.