Life in Lagos: Ignorance or Reality?
“A skeleton in the closet” is a phrase commonly used in reference to old secrets that, if revealed, may bring shame upon those involved. Often times, people will ignore the closet all together, by acknowledging its existence but never revealing the contents in its depths–though no matter how tightly you pack these skeletons, a point of exposure is imminent. In Chris Abani’s Graceland, society in Lagos, Africa becomes a perfect parallel to this idiom, with people disregarding the detrimental state of the city as a way of coping with their personal fears and worries. But as violence and illegal activity in the community grows, as well as government corruption becoming more brutal, Lagos’ closet door begins to tremble. The characters Elvis and his friend Redemption seek any way of thriving in the dilapidated city–with very different perspectives on how to go about it. A conversation (end of Chapter 13) between Elvis and Redemption discusses a shady job offered by drug dealers; a close reading of this scene reveals their society’s convoluted philosophy of having only two options available when making decisions: ignorance or a disappointing reality.
Elvis’ questioning of the deep-set ideology of accepted secrecy in Lagos only lessens his chances of ever uncovering the secrets Redemption and other Lagosians defend. Elvis’ contempt toward secrets differ from Redemption’s acceptance and promotion of them. Redemption has proposed to Elvis the opportunity to partake in a sketchy job offered by the Colonel and the army, who the boys have worked for before, but never directly dealt with for a job. With Elvis becoming more desperate to earn money for himself, he begins to consider the offer. In the midst of their conversation, Redemption says “It is better we are all blind, because in de land of de blind, de one eyed man is mad.” Redemption’s statement not only insinuates that unawareness is beneficial, but that knowledge and exposure to reality is dangerous. The truth will not set you free, but will limit you in what you can and can’t do; in this case, Redemption is proven correct when Elvis is dubious of taking the job because of the lack of information given to him. Redemption himself does not know the reality of what the “escort” job entails, and he prefers this, so that he can continue to believe that by maintaining the tradition of ignorance, the acceptance of reality will be easier. Elvis’ questioning of the job prevents him from learning the truth because of this mentality Redemption and other Lagosians have of viewing circumstances with a “blind eye”, rather than evaluating situations for what they truly are, giving them ability to fall back on phrases like “life is tough” and “it is what it is” when things go wrong. Earlier in the novel, Elvis again questions Redemption how the drug dealers know to trust them with such precious (expensive!) cargo, and Redemption responds with “Don’t even joke about dis. Dese people, they can kill you like dis…dey know I know what will happen if I cheat them” (102). Redemption has full awareness of the consequences that may result from the situations he is involved with; he ignores them regardless, perhaps because of the fear of admitting the possibility of a messy truth out loud, causing disruption to the bliss of ignorance.
The ideology that the submission to ignorance is the key to success in Lagos is easily accepted by Redemption and many of the characters in Graceland, leaving Elvis confused and forced to turn to The King of the Beggars as a beacon of exposing the truth. Elvis reveals to Redemption that he has been looking to the King, the old neighborhood beggar, as a mentor for advice. The King becomes a person in Elvis’ life who attempts to steer him away from the life of crime and “dishonesty” (109) that he is currently involved in with Redemption. Though the King’s advice “when a car hits a dog, its puppy is never far behind” (110) is seemingly helpful, and a clear warning to Elvis of the implications and reality of what dealing with Redemption may look like, it contradicts the King’s refusal to tell Elvis the truth about his past earlier in the conversation. He is willing to expose the truths of others but not of himself; this causes the King to become a conflicting image of Truth. He fails to practice what he preaches to Elvis, most likely because of his personal intentions to get revenge on the Colonel for the brutal murder of his family. It would seem logical to reveal this past to Elvis, because it would explain and support his cause against exposing the reality of violence in Lagos and the secrecy surrounding it, but this reveal would also be suspicious to Elvis, since the Colonel is who Elvis and Redemption are working for. Is the King trying to enlighten Elvis and distance him from the violence in their society, or is he merely trying to minimize the support Elvis is providing for the Colonel? The idea of insecurity in trusting the King is supported when Redemption responds to Elvis’ admittance to confiding in the King, accusing Elvis of being “a small blind boy” to the truths about “[Him]. De King. Lagos. Life.”
Elvis’ relationship with the King arouses anger and criticism from Redemption, painting Elvis to be immature. Aside from calling him a physically insignificant (“small”), naive (“blind”), child (“boy”), Redemption tells Elvis that he will one day grow up and learn to see the world as it truly is. Redemption’s application of a negative connotation to being “blind” is a complete contradiction to the earlier half of him and Elvis’ conversation: when he is insisting that it is best to not have full disclosure of the purpose/ intentions of the escort job. Redemption follows up this insult to Elvis by, ironically, refusing to aid him in learning about the details of himself, the King, Lagos or life. Redemption has proven himself to be someone who does not know everything about different situations in life, and he does this at his own discretion. This characteristic he has implies that he does not think awareness of context, as Elvis requests, makes you a man, but it is the awareness of how to properly handle being dealt life’s cards with no context, that makes you a man. Because so much of Lagos is kept in secret, or is said in unspoken words, Redemption expects Elvis to conform to this social norm, as everyone does when faced with approaching adulthood.
Though Adani portrays him to be of a mysterious nature–a possibility for his riskiness and acceptance of the unknown–Redemption’s confusing rejection of reality stems from the majority of society in Lagos and their sense of lacking the ability to control their own lives. It is shown in the scene where Elvis is crossing a busy highway, (37-9) only to remember that dozens of people every day are murdered on the highway, and it could be avoided by crossing the multiple bridges built above. When he inquires to the man next to him about why everyone chooses to risk their lives rather than “even the odds a little” by crossing the bridges, he is given the response “Life in Lagos is a gamble. We all have to die sometimes you know, if it is your time, it is your time.” The undermining of the worthiness of a person’s life is evident in Lagos’ society, and they yet again have found a way to blame “life” (in this case “time”) rather than initiate change themselves. Their submission to these situations sparks an interesting inference that concludes the state of Lagos (one that is corrupt, poor, deteriorating, and the site where many, like Elvis’ father, Sunday, have been forced to move to from their original rural towns) to be one of many roots that caused this idea among people, allowing them to believe that they lack control over their own lives. Even when crossing the street they are greeted by soldiers who are intended to protect them from the busy highway. However, these soldiers can not be trusted either. A violent encounter Elvis has with a soldier in a nightclub (113-17), over an accidental stumble, nearly gets him killed. The soldier’s clear motive, to gain respect through violence and fear, allows one to pose the question: If a soldier can not be trusted with a person’s life during a clear misunderstanding, how can he be trusted with a person’s life when crossing a dangerous highway? This can be connected back to Lagos’ lack of control of their paths in life. Their society is built on a mistrusting and forceful government/army, who controls them physically, and systematically–thus leading to the deeply ingrained notion that regardless of the trials and tribulations, their fate, their choices, and their lives are out of their control. For that reason, they live their lives making choices by disregarding the difference between their ignorance of a situation and reality.
There are two kinds of people in Lagos: those who are ignorant of the violence and corruption in the city, thus following the ‘out-of-sight-out-of-mind’ theory, and those who are so aware of the realities of the goings-on in society that they are fully immersed in the violence and corruption. Lagos’ society has been split into these two groups because of humanity’s conflicting innate responses to be curious, yet to shield oneself from danger. The temptation to know the truth, as Elvis does throughout the novel, stems from the ongoing secrecy that occurs in the city–which ironically, everyone knows about! There is an unspoken code of secrecy among people as a way of coping with the harsh realities of people dying, killing, abusing innocents, or other violent truths that would distract one from being able to live on in peace. Life in Lagos is already held at a low level of value, and exposure to more reasons to not live would create more chaos than what already exists in Lagos. Thus, a coping mechanism is created, and for Lagosians it is called ignorance–purposely ignoring and not gaining new knowledge about the state of Lagos and the actions of people that live there. The larger theme of Graceland is Elvis’ maturation and his struggle to identify himself as a man. The concept of having to choose between only two cut-throat perspectives in life is the root of Elvis’ difficulty to find out who he is as a person, and the role he wants (needs?) to play in society.