Kayang Gagiano - 2011-08-03 Untitled Document
Title: Eddie Signwriter
Author: Adam Schwartzman
Publisher: Penguin Books
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In early 2010, Johannesburg-born poet and writer Adam Schwartzman published his first novel, Eddie Signwriter, with Pantheon Books, a division of Random House based in the US. It was a savvy move from the aspirant author. Schwartzman must have surmised that publishing with an international publishing house would give his novel the opportunity to reach a far wider audience than if he published it in Africa (where it is predominantly set). And indeed, the distribution network and marketing might of Pantheon achieved broad-spectrum exposure for the first-time novelist which most local writers can only dream of.
As a result of his foresight (and undeniable writing talent), Schwartzman’s debut garnered substantial positive press in North America. Eddie Signwriter was reviewed in respected publications such as the New York Times and Los Angeles Times. Unlike many young African writers, Schwartzman was read, and his book generally well received by audiences who, for the most part, have scant idea of the rich and varied body of literature produced on the African continent. The majority of South African novelists writing in English today will no doubt attest to how hard it often is even to get books bought (or read) by local audiences. If their publishers feel books merit it, they may attempt to sell international (distribution) rights at the annual Frankfurt Book Fair (or other book fairs) but the success rate in this regard is minimal.
Schwartzman’s novel was only released in South Africa year after its initial publication and is distributed locally by Penguin Books. Ironically, it has attracted less critical attention than it did overseas. However, it is most worthy of attention. A complex and finely executed Bildungsroman, it examines existentialist themes such as the search for self and the nature of love. Much of the novel is also focused on the insidiousness of complicity: Schwartzman illustrates with great subtlety how being involved in morally dubious actions, or alternatively, sanctioning the bad behaviour of others, can ultimately have dire and far-reaching consequences.
The novelplots the coming of age of Kwasi Edward Michael Dankwa, an introverted young Ghanaian man plagued by a tragic scandal. The story opens with a death and then systematically backtracks, plotting the course of events which led up to it. The novel is divided into three basic thematic sections: Kwasi’s life before, and leading up to, the tragedy, his life in Accra in the aftermath, and finally, his attempt at a fresh start to life in Paris.
Kwasi, our protagonist, is a lonely and impressionable teenager. At one point his uncle observes that Kwasi finds it “hard enough [to] even cast his own shadow”. The son of a conservative Christian mother and an emotionally reticent father, he has spent his formative childhood years in Botswana. When he returns home to attend boarding school in Ghana (his father tells him he wishes him to “become a Ghanaian”) he immediately feels displaced, and members of the local community refer to him as a “half-foreigner” because he is not fluent in the local language, Twi. However, a kindly teacher, John Bediako, decides to take the aloof young adolescent under his wing, and they develop a close friendship. Bediako also introduces Kwasi to Nana Oforiwaa, a notable woman in the local community, and to her niece, Celeste. In time, Kwasi and Celeste begin a relationship, which soon turns passionate. Their elders simultaneously sanction and disapprove of the union. Schwartzman drops enigmatic, veiled hints about Oforiwaa’s own feelings towards the boy, and of a strange intimacy which develops between them. When Nana drowns one night while out searching for the children (who have run away to be alone together) they are blamed for her untimely death. Kwasi is immediately sent home to his mother’s house in Accra, without completing his education. A sense of mystery prevails, and as readers we are left curious about what precisely has transpired.
In Accra, Kwasi reincarnates himself as Eddie Signwriter, revealing a remarkable talent for painting. He remains haunted by his past, and lives a disaffected half-life. The boy cannot shake off his feelings of guilt and regret, or his ingrained mistrust of other people. After a fraught and ultimately unsatisfying reunion with Celeste, he flees to Paris via Dakar in Senegal. Here he attempts to begin a new life sans papiers (without residency, or work permit). He is now part of the “the flesh machine” – the clandestine system which enables illegal immigrants to find work in wealthy Western European nations. It is here in Paris that the quiet, introverted Edward finally cultivates a sense of belonging. His past is, however, never far behind.
While I was initially sceptical of a young, white South African’s ability to create authentic settings for this ambitious story, Schwartzman is rather adept at recreating sensual, lively backdrops to his compelling tale. Whether evoking the shanty towns of Accra, or the posh precincts of Paris, his descriptions are convincing and sensual, and his characters fascinating and well realised. His prose sparkles with fresh, lively and original metaphors: fat on grilling meat “pops like bubble wrap”; Pidgin phrases in a Nigerian man’s speech “stick out from his English like sharp rocks in shallow water”; a gate “turns on its hinge like bone grating in its socket”.
Schwartzman is an impressive new voice and Eddie Signwriter an auspicious debut.