Wednesday, September 17th, 2014
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Dickens in Lagos



Two years ago in Rangoon, I met a toothpick-thin, boisterous young Burmese man called Somerset. He had conferred this nickname on himself at age sixteen, after renting a collection of stories by W. Somerset Maugham from one of the bookstalls on Pansodan Road. By memorizing sentences from the collection, Somerset taught himself a somewhat formal and archaic English. Then he moved on to Charles Dickens. His identification with the works of these long-dead British writers was total. “All of those characters are me,” Somerset explained. “Neither a British nor American young man living in the twenty-first century can understand a Dickens as well as I can. I am living in a Dickens atmosphere. Our country is at least one or two centuries behind the Western world. My neighborhood—bleak, poor, with small domestic industries, children playing on the street, the parents are fighting with each other, some are with great debt, everyone is dirty. That is Dickens. In that Dickens atmosphere I grew up. I am more equipped to understand Dickens than modern novels. I don’t know what is air conditioning, what is subway, what is fingerprint exam.”

Somerset helped make sense of an impression that had been hovering in my mind, just beyond articulation, for many years during travels through countries in Africa and Asia that are a century or two behind the Western world. Talking with an itinerant used-clothing peddler in eastern Uganda, or a Nigerian girl newly arrived in Lagos who had to prostitute herself to work off a debt, or an educated Iraqi who made his living selling cigarettes and secondhand books, I would experience a sense of déjà vu that took me entirely out of my own life and time. It felt as if I were meeting a character from one of the great novels of the late-nineteenth century—Our Mutual Friend, Sister Carrie, or something by George Gissing or Thomas Hardy. Reading Jude the Obscure on a trip through Kenya, I began to see its hero’s frustrated aspirations in every young person with a worthless high-school diploma, a menial job, and a tattered paperback copy of a self-improvement guide. Jude is far more alive today in Mombasa than in Wessex.

The concerns of that literature—the individual caught in an encompassing social web, the sensitive young mind trapped inside an indifferent world, the beguiling journey from countryside to metropolis, the dismal inventiveness with which people survive, the permanent gap between imagination and opportunity, the big families whose problems are lived out in the street, the tragic pregnancies, the ubiquity of corruption, the earnest efforts at self-education, the preciousness of books, the squalid factories and debtor’s prisons, the valuable garbage, the complex rules of patronage and extortion, the sudden turns of fortune, the sidewalk con men and legless beggars, the slum as theater of the grotesque: long after these things dropped out of Western literature, they became the stuff of ordinary life elsewhere, in places where modernity is arriving but hasn’t begun to solve the problems of people thrown together in the urban cauldron.

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  • A beautiful piece. I would bring up the (counter-)example of the Wire as a contemporary American social realist masterpiece. Perhaps the sensibility of the Wire is so striking because it's out of phase--a modern city revealed as pre-modern tragedy. One can only hope that this article is right, and that the conditions for the bleak social determinism depicted in the Wire no longer exist.

    Posted by Will on Fri 24 Sep 2010

  • There is a Dickensian story in almost all major cities. While I cannot say for books, a few Nollywood movies tell this sort of story about Lagos.

    Posted by Myne Whitman on Mon 4 Oct 2010

  • Dickens might have been a self publicist, but he was also a social reformer. That his writings resonated with a readership seeking direction, and that a social movement of sorts collaborated to transform society (misguidedly?) reflects (I believe) more about the reader than the writer.

    We can't blame authors for the failure to find a readership willing to help transform social injustice from the writings, the blame lies elsewhere.

    Shame on us.

    Posted by George Michaelson on Sat 9 Oct 2010

  • Western NGOs have been working in these countries for decades, but what have the results been? They are staffed by white people working for western salaries too magnificent for them to spend in those countries without debauchery. I met one such man in Kolkata who had saved over a million dollars in ten years. I wonder how Maugham or Dickens would have portrayed them.

    Posted by Ashoke Dasgupta on Sat 9 Oct 2010

  • Various members of two generations of my famly have lived in Brazil for 40 years. The opening paragraphs of Dicken's Bleak House (and in fact, the whole novel) could have been writen about the Brazilian judicial system; slow, corrupt and biased to the elites.
    It should be compulsory reading for all 1st-year Brazilian law students.

    Posted by Nicola Clark Ayres on Sat 9 Oct 2010

  • This is a very fine article and I would certainly agree that a world similar to that of Dickens, Gissing, Balzac et al is more obviously discernable in the teeming cities of the developing world than in the West.

    Having said which, since Thatcher and Reagan began the process of reimposing nineteenth century economics on us, I find Victorian literature far more resonant of the world I live in than would have been the case when I was young, in the 1950s and 1960s, when Social Democratic welfare states guaranteed a degree of comfort, security and social equality.

    My youthful mid-century imagination fed itself on brutal dystopias such as '1984', flawed utopias such as 'Brave New World' and angst-filled commentaries on the essential baseness of human nature, such as 'Lord of the Flies'. Kafka or Camus certainly seemed more pertinent than John Galsworthy

    The threats to human promise tended, in the mid twentieth century to be imagined as coming from social and political conformity rather than economic insecurity.

    I might have enjoyed reading Victorian or turn-of-the-century authors but they didn't seem to have much to do with my world.

    Nowadays, however, novels of economically blighted or challenged lives seem much more pertinent than those haunted by the fear of a malevolent state. Have we come full circle or is this just the latest swing of the pendulum?

    Posted by Victor on Sun 10 Oct 2010

  • It's the same for Jane Austen, actually, in the parts of the developing world that have a growing middle class. The college kids in Asia have remarkably similiar opinions about love and marriage.

    Posted by PaulShandy on Sun 10 Oct 2010

  • Very well written piece, and no doubt true, but a single visit to Los Angeles's Skid Row would disabuse Packer of the notion that such hopelessness long since fled Western nations, most especially the United States. Speaking of which, what is this "welfare" to which he refers? It scarcely exists here at all, and would have to be at Scandinavian levels to eliminate the many skid rows containing the lost and damaged of the U.S.

    Posted by Robert Anderson on Mon 11 Oct 2010

  • I believe we fell in love with Slumdog Millionaire because of its reference to Dicken's Oliver Twist. Yet, what happens when the Western viewer essentializes the country and believes all 1 billion in India live like Oliver Twist? There is great diversity in places like Bombay which no film has been to capture as of yet.

    Posted by Samina on Mon 11 Oct 2010

  • Thoughtful, if sobering piece of writing. Thanks. The U.S. and the rest of the West have absorbed and now export the power of positive thinking and a religious get-ahead-ism as an answer to the inequity that people experience in the world for years. (See A Carnegie/Napoleon Hill, Norman Vincent Peal and now R. Byrne's 'The Secret'.) When people at home and abroad slavishly absorb the modes of thinking/meme's rather than confronting the issues and required action clearly (both possibilities and limits), they perhaps become heir to Dickens' Micawber ('Something will turn up.') There is an unsavory legacy and a cost to this behavior. Read Barbara Ehrenreich's 'Brightsided' and esp. Scott Sandage's 'Born Losers'.

    Is the West that much more advanced, or do we have more bright and shiny ways (from IPads to Facebook ) to distract and insulate ourselves from the realities of supposedly free-market capitalism? The abyss (illness, financial ruin, death) looms as a possibility for all of us, rich or poor, celebrity or prole. Social services agencies at home and NGOs abroad often provide just enough support to "empower" (and medicate) their less fortunate clients. This perpetuates much of the dysfunction that creates problems and limits the ability of the disenfranchised to find solutions -- while (as Mr. Packer notes) not incidentally ensuring employees of those agencies a paycheck and funding.

    Posted by Chuck Lanigan on Wed 13 Oct 2010

  • Nowadays, however, novels of economically blighted or challenged lives seem much more pertinent than those haunted by the fear of a malevolent state. Have we come full circle or is this just the latest swing of the pendulum?

    Posted by winter boots on Wed 20 Oct 2010

  • Occasionally it would be nice if writers would give sources for their information. 6,000 people a day arrive in Lagos? Says who? As usual, here is someone from the West trying to impose a narrative on Africa. It would be interesting and useful if Mr. Packer wrote about the experiences in Africa and about Africans on their terms and quit trying to find narratives from the West to tell us about Africa. West Africa is an amazing and fascinating mix of cultures and experience reflecting modern and traditional life. You can't separate Dickens' novels etc. from their contexts. "Oh this is how Africa is today." What drivel. If only it were so simple!

    Posted by joe on Sat 23 Oct 2010

  • I am quite intrigued by George Packer's essay, being that Lagos and its paradoxes had always been a subject of significant importance in all my writing; and particulary because a large segment of my current work (which is well in progress) is set in a prominent Lagos slum. I am interested in interacting further with Mr. Packer on this subject if he is so inclined. While not claiming to have acquired expertise on this topic in any way, I might be able to provide unique insights and perspectives.

    Posted by El-Nukoya on Sat 16 Apr 2011

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George Packer is a staff writer for The New Yorker. His most recent books include Interesting Times: Writings from a Turbulent Decade and The Assassins’ Gate: America in Iraq.

Every city has a sex and an age which have nothing to do with demography. Rome is feminine. So is Odessa. London is a teenager, an urchin, and in this hasn’t changed since the time of Dickens. Paris, I believe, is a man in his twenties in love with an older woman.
John Berger, 1987
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