31 July 2009

Stadion: The Devil's Playground, by Ify Nwamana

So, I actually read this in Polish (the translated title is Stadion, Diabelskie Igrzyska) because I didn't realize it was a translation, but then when I looked online, it turned out that it's difficult if not impossible to get it in the original, or so it seemed. Which is ok though, because honestly, it's not a very good book.

Stadion is, basically, about African immigrants in Poland. It is written by a guy from Nigeria, so, you know, presumably someone who knows what he's talking about. It's particularly about people who start working - selling stuff - at the Stadion in Warsaw. Or rather, those who used to, because the Eurocup 2012 has pretty much ended sales there, which is a tragedy because in its day, the Stadion was an extremely impressive bazaar. I was a big fan of the place, and regularly bought pirated cds and random trinkets there. So I was excited to read this book, because it seemed right up my alley.

So, definitely, at moments, it's very interesting. I enjoyed seeing Poland through the eyes of a Nigerian immigrant. He made some really interesting points about Polish politics and life that I simply wouldn't think of. For instance, there's a scene where the main protagonist and his friends are talking, and they wonder why Poland doesn't ally itself - economically speaking - with Russia and Germany. At which point most Poles are inclined to think "Are you out your goddamn mind?!?" but he goes on to point out that the US and Britain, who Poland has been faithful to for CENTURIES, have pretty much done nothing but shit on us that whole time (which is true). So, hmmm. Good point. This is obviously a somewhat simplistic example, but there are plenty of moments like this that sort of make you see things in a new way.

What was most strange about the book, I have to say, was all the sex. So, on the one hand, the narrator talks about how there are all these stereotypes (in Poland, but really all over) of African men as having huge cocks and massive sex drives. But then, pretty much all of his characters have... you guessed it. And ain't nothin' subtle about it either. The sex scenes are actually gratingly obnoxious in this regard. In fact, there's a weird sort of auto-exoticization going on in a lot of the sex scenes, with lines like "She ran her hands over his rippling black muscles" that are just weird and kind of gross.

Ultimately, the thing is though, the book is boring. The plot is clumsy, the writing is flat, and the characters, though initially sympathetic, become less and less likeable as the text continues. In a sense, the plot arc chronicles how hard immigrants in Poland have it - how many of them end up in refugee centers, where they're given a mere pittance in spending money, but also not allowed to work. So many of them turn to illegal work - at the Stadion, for instance. Fair enough, makes perfect sense. But as the text progresses, you get more and more stories of people who are playing the system, shredding their passports on the plane so they can claim they're from whatever country they want, then making up a sob story of political oppression just to get a visa. Meanwhile people who have been genuinely oppressed are getting screwed. I mean, I have fairly radical views on immigration, but it bugs me how this guy is basically disseminating stories that confirm the worst fears of xenophobes. What's worse, is as the text progresses, the characters move from illegal work that really doesn't hurt anyone (well, except maybe major corporations like Nike) to cheating people out of their money. Usually people who have somehow helped them or befriended them. At this point, it's pretty hard to feel any sort of sympathy for them whatsoever. Throw on a side plot of how the main character is constantly cheating on his wife, and well, yeah, there's not much to like anymore.

Also, one of the characters, Charlie, is an obvious stand in for Simon Mol. It's not a particularly flattering portrayal - although the text doesn't come down either way on whether or not he knowingly infected women with AIDS (which is what he was accused of doing, though it was never proved), but it does depict all his human rights work as being purely for money and attention. It's a really, really negative depiction. It really makes you wonder - I mean, it's the kind of book where if someone Polish had written it, I imagine there would be an apoplectic response, at least in some quarters, of people infuriated by these negative portrayals. In fact, in some of the more clever moments of the text, this type of thing is actually depicted. And then the book blithely continues on with its own approach.

Now, there's something to be said for realism, and I don't think you have to paint all foreigners as angels. The problem is though, the characters in the novel are thinly veiled cliches, and the writing is terribly formulaic. The perspective may be "authentic", but the voice comes across as extremely canned. It reads like somebody took a Creative Writing 101 course and the product was published because the topic is interesting. And it is - I just hope that more gifted writers will take it on in the near future.

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