A Small Silence is the debut novel by Nigerian poet Jumoke Verissimo. The story is sad, funny, and inspiring all at once and introduces two of the most intriguing characters I have encountered in Nigerian fiction in a long while. Most importantly, the novel showed me how sound could heighten the emotional intensity of fictional narratives.
The story shuttles between the dark years of General Sani Abacha’s regime and the cautious optimism of President Obasanjo’s second term. Prof is an ex-prisoner living in a dusty Lagos apartment where the lights are always turned off. Most days, he sits in the dark and talks to himself. One day, a young woman named Desire knocks on his door. Desire is a political science student and a bookworm who thinks that the world is an open book waiting to be read. Captivated by the mystique of Prof’s past life as an activist, she keeps up the nightly visits to his apartment. For a while the darkness they share is comforting for the silences it allows them to build around the traumas in their past lives. Before long, though, the darkness becomes too fragile to hold what separates the two.
It’s always a delight to encounter fictional worlds built around a character’s quirky behavior. Prof reminds me of Ludo in Jose Agualusa’s A General Theory of Oblivion. After a traumatic experience, Ludo refuses to go outside and literally walls herself in. For three decades, she never sees the light of day. Prof’s quirk is a little less dramatic but no less intriguing. He likes his apartment pitch black and has these chats at 9pm every night with this female visitor he can’t see and who can’t see him. What a fabulous idea for a story! First of all, it sets up a dramatic arc that keeps the reader hooked. Aren’t you dying to know whether the lights ever gets switched on?
Prof’s obsession with darkness has other interesting implications. For one thing, it makes hearing a crucial means of navigating the novel. There is something deeply visual about novels. Novelists are trained to make worlds, no matter how vast or private, visible. Readers are trained to lust over the vivid representation of experience. And that’s all well and good. But A Small Silence is banking on a different logic of storytelling. Dambudzo Marechera once said that in reading stories, “the evidence of our own eyes is always provisional,” meaning that we can’t rely solely on visual cues for an authentic experience of a story. For us to fully take in a fictional world, we need something extra. He offered fantasy. But Verissimo invites us to augment our visual reflexes with a heightened auditory perception. The moment we get into Prof’s apartment, she hands us blindfolds so that we can become more acutely attuned to the acoustic nuances of the space.
The reason we have to beef up our hearing abilities is that Prof’s apartment is an enclave of silence within the deafening uproar of Lagos. Outside the apartment, Lagos is its usual noisy self. This external world is also the place were epic dramas of daily life take place — street fights, romantic escapades, university hustle, political speeches, and so on. This world is loud, colorful, drenched in daylight, and vividly portrayed. Prof’s apartment is a different story. Pitch black and dusty, time moves much slowly and speech, expressed in low tones, is often interrupted by silence.
But Prof’s apartment is also the place where you can talk about things that have no place in the hustle and bustle of the outside world, things having to do mental health, traumas that are not always visible or easy to put to words. The darkness complements the silences to create a magical space where pain having to do with mental health can be explored. In a sense, the novel critiques the glorification of places like Lagos for their loud, colorful, booming persona because what gets lost in all the visual spectacle and exhilarating velocity of Lagos life are stories about silent and invisible suffering. A Small Silence is an invitation to listen for the sounds within silences so that we can be perceptive even in places where our eyes fail us.
By playing visual against auditory perception, Verissimo takes the reader through a unique reading experience. There are times when Prof and Desire just sit there in the dark saying nothing to each other. When the scene goes dark and silent like that, I find myself sensing every little gesture, sound, and shift in emotional intensity. My hearing become so acute that I enjoy waiting to hear characters breathe, listening for the clang of shut doors, the scraping of skin against fabric, the “heaving and puffing,” the “small sobs,” sniffles, etc. In the novel’s beautifully crafted sonic architecture, everything boils down to the sound it makes. A room is not just the objects in them. A room is the sound of shuffling feet pacing the floors, the voices in the character’s head, the conversations between strangers, the noise and laugher wafting in from the street.
African fiction has had more than its fair share of characters who love the sound of their voice a little too much. Soyinka’s characters are always talking. It’s impossible to shut them up. Achebe’s elders are always spewing proverbs. Ngugi’s characters are bursting with ideas of world historical importance. Teju Cole’s Julius has to comment on every social and philosophical issue known to man. I find these characters slightly annoying for their blustering and imposing presence. Often male, they colonize space with the sound of their voice and imagine that truth is somehow tied to word count. With Prof and Desire, it is different. They are not trying to outsmart, out-talk, or out-woke the reader. They are quietly living their truth, trying to be honest about the complications of finding the words to express their hurt in a world where mental issues are not always perceived as legitimate suffering.
One of the major achievements of the novel is breaking a different kind of silence. Nigeria has these pockets of silenced histories. Slavery is one. Biafra is another. The Abacha years were really dark times when the country was plunged into dystopia and despair. Especially for my generation who came of age in that decade, it’s still a little difficult to talk about. But Verissimo evokes that history through the portraits of characters in search a safe and intimate space where they can trace their own experience of this collective trauma. She opens up those places where the “fugitive silence” of our grand national histories tend to be hidden away. This places her in very fine company alongside Chimamanda Adichie with Half of a Yellow Sun and Novuyo Tshuma with House of Stone.
A mixture of beautiful writing and off-the-wall characters, A Small Silence is a thrilling and ingenious story about the search for human connection in the most unlikely, awkward, and imprudent places.
Publisher: Cassava Republic