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Arts & Travel

Living in the shadows

Cassava Republic Press is set to release A Small Silence, the debut novel by Jumoke Verissimo, better known in literary circles as a poet. The story revolves around a professor who has just returned from spending 10 years in prison and takes the curious decision to live the rest of his life in darkness.

Ahead of the 30 July release date, the publishers have been sharing excerpts from the novel. The first instalment, sent out on July 1, introduces readers into the prof’s lonely, darkened world.  

Prof turned off all the lights in the house when he returned from prison. He bathed, cleaned, ate, and slept in the darkness which devoured the whole flat. When he did not have any cleaning or cooking to do, he would sit in his chair reciting passages from books he had memorised. His house was not always dark as soot because the wan light of an electric bulb drifted in at night through the only window in the sitting room and sat on the arm of the chair opposite his. It irritated him. In the daytime, the heavy curtains his mother had hung covered the room in a thick shade but could not prevent the sun’s intrusion. The slight parting in the curtain allowed a thin stroke of light to fall on the floor of the sitting room. Prof tried though, to keep in the darkness. 

As of the latest extract (SneakPeek #8), there is no detail as yet what the prof’s academic specialty is and why he had to go to prison in the first place (clue from the blurb: activism), or whether he is guilty as charged or not — but he ponders the cruelty that would befall ‘enemies’ who connived to send him there. 

This much is clear, though: the story is set in 2005 Lagos with the prof’s flat located in the Jakande Estate in Abesan area. Though he is mostly indoors, Prof still has to venture outdoors occasionally to stock up on household items, heavily veiled and usually at dusk, prepared for the reactions his appearance in public generates.

People stared at him but turned away before their eyes met. It was often this way; people hurried ahead or crossed to the other side of the road once he turned to look at them. He was more interested in those who walked ahead of him in a pair or in threesomes, sharing neighbourhood gossip or intimate stories. It was through them that he discovered his neighbourhood was the black cauldron that cooked rumours for several other blocks of flats, lit with bright fluorescent lamps, to savour.

And on one of those rare outings, he gets a whiff of the stories about him making the rounds in the neighbourhood, from two teenage street vendors

‘That is the home of the man I was telling you about, the bastard one that came back mad.’

‘Is it that professor that Uncle was talking about yesterday?’

‘Yes! His father was a landlord here, before he died.’ 

‘Does the man even come out?

Out? That is trouble for us in this neighbourhood. If you go to his doorstep you are as good as dead!’

‘Until his dead body begins to smell, and council comes here, we can’t even go near that place.’

And we get his perspective on the politics of the time, which had two years earlier returned the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) candidate to Aso Rock for a second term. 

After ten years of absence, this was what he had returned to; two former military heads of state contesting for president,” he thought after seeing a defaced campaign poster in the neighbourhood. “Obasanjo of the 70s contesting against Buhari of the 80s, and this is 2005!’ he blurted out. ‘How can this country move forward when it seeks the dead to bring revival?” 

Verissimo says the idea for the novel came to her one evening some years ago while visiting a friend who had just lost his mother. “We sat in silence and talked about grief,” she recalls in a video recording accompanying the first extract. ”At that point, darkness seemed to have meaning to me and I wanted to explore it outside of myself, through the experiences of an imagined character. I returned home that night and wrote a short story. After the short story was published,  I was still haunted by the character of the professor who was fascinated by the dark…”

As it happened, Verissimo herself was dealing with bouts of trauma. “And then there was a power outage. Sitting there in darkness, I started reflecting on some of our losses and pain, and I considered what would it mean to live the rest of one’s life in the dark?”

A Small Silence, she says, examines the regenerative power of darkness and silence and our discomfort with them. 

You can preorder the novel here

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