From the first sentence, Kafka’s The Metamorphosis confronts you with the inherent strangeness of the pact you make when you read fiction. Gregor Samsa has become an insect, Kafka says. Suspend your disbelief. Take it or leave it. A Igoni Barrett’s first novel — his third book — demands a similar response. Deeply indebted to Kafka, Blackass tells the story of Furo Wariboko, a 33-year-old unemployed man from Lagos, who awakes one day and finds himself transformed into an “oyibo”, or white man.
As in Kafka, the facts of the case are presented in straightforward, deadpan terms. Furo wakes up and discovers that all his skin — save that on his backside — has turned white. The immediate effects of his metamorphosis are alienating. He avoids his family and leaves home for a job interview. On the way, old friends refuse to speak to him. Taxi drivers try to rip him off. He suffers — for the first time in his life — from sunburn. “He learnt how it felt to be seen as a freak,” writes Barrett, “exposed to wonder, invisible to comprehension.”
But pretty soon he comes to realise the advantages that his new skin affords him. He gets the job — selling self-help books to Lagos start-ups — and decides to abandon his family and reinvent himself. In a postmodernist flourish that didn’t feel entirely necessary to me, he encounters a writer — also named Igoni — in a mall, who undergoes his own transformation.
After a night wandering the streets of Lagos, before sleeping in an abandoned building where he is set upon by mosquitoes, Furo befriends Syreeta, a “woman who knew how to handle men. Who knew how to live off them. Who knew the going value of a white man in Lagos.” Then he moves in with her.
As well as being a fable about race and identity, Blackass is in large part a love letter to Lagos, which emerges as a maddening but ultimately beguiling city, filled equally with conmen and Samaritans. Barrett is wonderful on the sensory overload, on “the familiar smell of Lagos motor parks, marijuana and tobacco smoke mingled with the stench of petrochemicals and moonshine alcohol and human effluence”.
Against a backdrop of governmental corruption, Lagos emerges as a city of individuals. “Private provision of public services had turned everyone into judge and executioner and turned everyone’s backyards into industrial wastelands. Every man the king of his house, every house a sovereign nation, and every nation its own provider of security, electricity, water. Lagos was a city of millions of warring nations.”
Blackass is narrated in a variety of registers and vernaculars — though he looks white, Furo speaks pidgin, “the shortest distance between two thoughts”. Language is as much of a cultural or racial marker as skin colour, Barrett implies, especially within a novel, in which everything is made of language. “Who I was as a person was more than what I looked like,” Furo thinks, “but then again, how people saw me was a part of who I was.”
Furo wakes up and discovers that all his skin — save that on his backside — has turned white
For Barrett, race is inevitably one part of a person’s identity, but it is one that asserts itself principally through the eyes of others, through how they “read” those they encounter. “We only see ourselves through external sources,” Barrett said in a 2014 interview with Granta magazine, “whether as reflections in mirrors, pixels on the screen, or words of love from a wife, words of hate from an ex-wife. That’s perhaps why we find comedy in others’ mistaken views of themselves. Because we recognise ourselves in the person we’re laughing at.”
Barrett is a celebrated author, having won the 2005 BBC World Service short story award, as well as Chinua Achebe, Norman Mailer and Rockefeller fellowships. In June, Blackass was longlisted for an FT/OppenheimerFunds Emerging Voices Award and people will inevitably discuss this book, and Barrett’s work in general, in the context of a resurgent Nigerian literary scene that includes writers such as Teju Cole, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Helon Habila. But, to read him only as a Nigerian writer would be to do him a disservice. For Blackass is a strange, compelling novel, and Barrett has something to tell us all.