At the centre of Elnathan John’s insightful debut novel about religious extremism in Nigeria is its eponymous protagonist, Dantala, whose name translates as Born on a Tuesday. Dantala is sent away by his father to attend Qur’anic school. He falls in with a group of street boys; when they are hired by a political party to burn the headquarters of an opposition party, the police get involved and Dantala must flee to save his life. He ends up in Sokoto State, where an imam called Sheikh Jamal takes him under his wing. Here he finds some stability and becomes friends with Jibril, who teaches him English, a language that “sounds soft and easy like one does not need to open one’s mouth a lot or use a lot of air or energy” – unlike Arabic, where “one uses everything, the neck, the jaws, the tongue”.
Dantala’s world is not soft and easy. Horrific things happen: prepubescent boys kill and commit atrocities for political ideologies they do not understand, and mothers depend on alms to feed their children. Hypocrisy abounds; corruption is rife; young men are drawn to religious extremism, there is tension between Shia and the Sunni Muslims, but also redemption in language and style. John writes with an understated elegance and we discover humour and wisdom in the most unexpected of places. When Dantala is involved in a car accident, for example, he goes to a chemist where the owner “is short and his eyeballs look like they are about to fall out … I can’t stop looking at his huge nose, which seems to be divided into three parts. He must be breathing in a lot of air.”
And when Umma, Dantala’s mother, complains of her chest hurting, his grandmother tells her, “You think too much. What is in this world?”
What’s in this world, as it happens, is loss upon massive loss. There is heartbreak and pulverising grief. But there is also beauty and love and friendship. Dantala observes on the way to Sokoto that “the rice farms of Fadama farmers stretch out like a shiny green cloth”. At the hospital where Sheikh Jamal is convalescing after being shot, he meets a girl whose eyes root him to the spot. “They are bright and look like a deep gully, the type that pulls you and makes you dizzy when you look down into it. Everything has slowed down – it is taking forever for her to walk past.” Later, Dantala writes in his notebook, “Aisha is in my heart like a spirit. When I close my eyes I see her. I open my eyes and any girl that is wearing a green hijab looks like her.” Dantala does not get a chance to pursue his love for Aisha. He is arrested in the wake of riots and put in prison, where he spends the next nine months. When he returns to his old home, he discovers a note from Jibril: that note is proof that in the end, friendship survives everything, even death. “I am lightheaded … My heart tells me he is OK. Jibril is OK … I think of all the things I must do: cut my hair, wash with hot water, start writing out my story. Then take a bus and go wherever it is headed.” We know that when Dantala gets where that bus is headed, he will do what he does best. Dantala will survive. He will reclaim the innocence lost.
In the west we mostly hear of life in northern Nigeria through news reports of Boko Haram atrocities, yet John steers away from making this a novel about Boko Haram. It is as if he wants to demonstrate that northern Nigeria is more than terrorist attacks, steeping the reader in the language and the culture of the Muslim north, where men and women rarely mix. He uses Hausa words without translation, but also shows us Dantala exploring the English language in handwritten sections intercut with the main narrative, in which he defines English words and then applies them to his own situation.
The Igbo people have a saying about the little piece of dry meat that fills the mouth. John’s book is that meat: a relatively short novel with an extraordinary density, and we, his readers, are grateful.