One hundred years ago last October, one of the most influential novels in world literature was published: a book so twisted and nightmarish it inspired a new adjective, now ubiquitous, in the lexicon of literary terms. That book was The Metamorphosis, the adjective “Kafkaesque.”
Kafka’s surreal tale of sudden and shocking transformation has since become a staple framework of fiction. In his debut novel Blackass, Nigerian author A. Igoni Barrett puts a unique spin on Kafka’s idea: instead of a lowly clerk mutating into a giant insect, a young Nigerian man turns white overnight.
He stared at his hands, the pink life lines in his palms, the shellfish-coloured cuticles, the network of blue veins that ran from knuckle to wrist, more veins than he had ever noticed before. His hands were not black but white … same as his legs, his belly, all of him.
While Blackass examines white privilege, it’s more tongue-in-cheek than political. In contrast to fellow Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe, Barrett writes with dry, satiric humor.
Barrett’s picaresque hero, Furo Wariboko, has no time to recover from the shock of his transformation. The economy of modern-day Nigeria offers few opportunities, and after years of increasingly desperate searching, Furo has secured a rare and precious job interview on the morning of his transformation. His pride is at stake. He wants his mother to see him succeed where his unemployed father has failed.
Kicking into survival mode, Furo leaves his home silently, anxious to evade the notice of his parents. On the streets, neighbors he sees every day no longer recognize him. He’s become a stranger in his own country, a “lone white face in a sea of black.” Quickly, he learns “to ignore the fixed stares, the pointed whispers,” and “how it felt to be seen as a freak.”
Plucked from an impossibly long line of applicants, the newly-whitened Furo is given not just an executive position, but also a company car with a driver. Furo is appreciative, if a bit baffled. Humbled may be the best description, followed by the bittersweet knowledge his mother would be proud. Yet he can’t tell her about his success without showing her what’s behind it.
Flush with success, wandering dehydrated and weary, Furo meets an intelligent, university-educated woman named Syreeta, the concubine of a wealthy man. In Furo she sees the chance to trade in new currency, a handsome white man who could serve as a trophy for her, just as she’s been a trophy for her wealthy lover.
The ripple effects of Furo’s transformation spread to other characters as well, most notably a novelist he meets at the mall—a symbol of all things Western and material—the same day as Syreeta, a writer who shares the same name as the author of Blackass. Barrett’s namesake, emboldened by Furo’s fortuitous rebirth, is moved to allow his long-hidden female identity to emerge and pursue a destiny he likewise wasn’t granted at birth.
The exploration of what emboldens a man to seek happiness permeates Blackass. Whatever force has granted Furo’s wish confers upon him an almost Christ-like influence on others. Bemused, Furo remains too busy with his own affairs to give the supporting cast much thought.
Whether a god reached down and removed the color from Furo’s skin, or his own subconscious wishes brought it about, Barrett never says. Whatever the explanation, Furo’s ass remains black, as foreshadowed by the novel’s title. Despite furious attempts to lighten the skin, the color remains.
The bleaching action had opened a sore on his right buttock, the size of a large coin, raw-red in the centre and ringed by encrusted ooze. It looked even worse than it stung. There it was. It was easier to be than to become.
Lyrical and inventive, Blackass casts a wide net with a large cast of characters, a testament to Barrett’s imaginative power. Known for his deeply moving short stories, most recently Love is Power, Or Something Like That (2013), it’s no surprise Barrett has created such a fascinating, good-hearted character in his first, funny, poignant, clever novel.
Aside from the metamorphosis itself and an emphasis on family ties, Barrett diverges wildly from Kafka. Whereas Gregor Samsa degenerates into madness and death, Furo Wariboko becomes Frank Whyte, a successful (mostly-) white businessman. Bringing the story full circle, the novel ends as it began, with Furo’s ear cocked toward the sound of a beloved mother’s voice.
In Blackass, A. Igoni Barrett gives us Kafka with a wink.