Martin Esslin in The Theatre of the Absurd said of the absurd
If a good play must have cleverly constructed story, these have no story or plot to speak of; if a good play is judged by subtlety of characterization and motivation, these are often without recognizable characters and present the audience with almost mechanical puppets; if a good play has to have a fully explained theme, which is neatly exposed and finally solved, these often have neither a beginning nor an end; if a good play is to hold the mirror up to nature and portray the manners and mannerisms of the age in finely observed sketches, these seem often to be reflections of dreams and nightmares; if a good play relies on witty repartee and pointed dialogue, these often consist of incoherent babblings.
In this regard many people would ask what these plays of the theatre of the absurd are and what they are about. My intention is not to examine the nature of the absurd in a systematic fashion but rather to point to the tendency in our age, a global age of ‘certitudes and unshakeable basic assumptions of former ages [..] swept away, that […] have been tested and found wanting, and that […] have been discredited as cheap and somewhat childish illusions’. So, the seemingly superior standing of democracy as a political mechanism to create and sustain liberal values is under serious threat and the advancements of science, of objectivity and truth, of justice and equality as the means to control the demonic undertows of human emotions are well, no longer self-evident and now have to be argued for and defended. This is our time. One of the paradoxes of the theatre of the absurd is that it radically devalues language, installing instead a concretization of poetic images, viz Beckett’s Waiting for Godot and Not I. The concrete serves to induce an awakening from deep slumber, from the sleepwalking through life to which we are all prone.
But it is the absurd in fiction, principally in the two Czech writers, Kafka and Capek that most readers are familiar with. The Trial, that unforgettable book, a treatise on the fundamental improbabilities of bureaucracy, of the interminable and inexplicable wonders if not agonies of confronting immovable and unyielding bureaucracy. On one level, it is so absurd that it is comical but on another it is razor sharp and dangerous- arbitrary arrest, absence of a formal charge, presumption of guilt, imponderable attendances at examinations, whimsical and idiosyncratic judges and incomprehensible lawyers. But, the outcome of such amazing and idiotic systems is still death.
The big events in Nigeria are absurd at this level- an example: following the abduction of the Chibok girls, the government instituted a committee of prayer warriors, not a national security committee with logical and informed problem-solving approach and attitude. A sure dereliction of duty. But a novel putting this proposition forward would be laughed out of court as being unrealistic and lacking in authenticity. But my concern is not with the big events but the minor, everyday trivia of surviving in the most extraordinary theatre of the absurd, today, outside of Trump’s America but his issues are with the big events!
I travelled recently from Abuja to Kaduna and back by train. We arrived at Kaduna, half an hour late. The journey from Idu station took us across a newly opened up terrain. It was savannah, with shrubs and the occasional tree. There was grass too but mostly it was farmland of maize, just about ready for harvesting. There were a few people, women walking with loads balanced on their heads and the odd child or man. There were very few homesteads. In the distance there were hills and huge boulders and rocks.
This was my first train journey in Nigeria in over 50 years. I had caught the first train out of Idu station in Abuja. The journey to Idu station was itself unusual, as the station, this station in the capital city of a major country was out of town, at the end of a road that was tarred but ruined by numerous “sleeping policemen”.
The station was obviously new. The train service had only been running since January and this was early September. The building was of modest size, like a truncated desire that roused from deep slumber had ended suddenly without consummation. The ticket office opened half hour before the train was due to depart and tickets could only be purchased face-to-face, from the single ticket window, a slit in the wall with a grill across, but I exaggerate. A window, that was arranged so that customers were outside, exposed to the elements. The ticket itself was a postage stamp sized piece of paper with handwritten scribbles of indecipherable codes- seat number and carriage number. There was hardly any concession to the customer, well we were not customers, but rather supplicants at the mercy of a bureaucracy designed to intimidate and to discourage. I was learning quickly my place.
At least we were allowed into what claimed to be a waiting room, one that if all the passengers crammed in at the same, would have resembled a holding pen for the forgotten and condemned. Maybe even a cattle pen but upgraded. There was no sign of any kind to remind us of what platform the train was leaving from, where the conveniences were, or to assert any structure to reassure or even to conform to the general order of what counts as a railway station in a major important city. An austere and cheerless atmosphere was the architecture of the place.
When we were finally called forward, it was to be marshalled and barked at, then let loose without direction like a herd of donkeys blindly goaded into motion. Someone at the platform scrutinised the indecipherable scrap of paper that counted for ticket and struggled to tell me, first which coach and, then once I had found my couch I asked a fellow traveller to decode the secret of my seat number and between us we saw the rounded number 3. Voila all was revealed.
The train was due to leave at 6 am. At the exact hour an announcement “Dear esteemed ladies and gentlemen I am sorry to inform you that Train AK 47 will be delayed”. No reason was given and definitely nothing was said about how long for. By now, we all knew our place and patiently waited for further announcement. There is never anything to be gained by plaints in a system of rude and arbitrary justice. All power resides in the hands of faceless but terrifying authority.
We left 33 minutes late and were informed as the train started “Esteemed ladies and gentlemen, we are sorry that Train AK47 was delayed by 33 minutes this morning”. I suppose all’s forgiven then. At least we are moving, at least we’ve been given a train service otherwise us poor souls would still be trekking! God forbid bad thing!
The Nigerian savannah is a wonderful sight. It stretches as far as the eye can see. This is a wide-open space, a large sky and a far horizon. It is immense and green. The sky is not trapped between skyscrapers and decrepit rooftops. It is not a rumpled pocket handkerchief thrown up with the off yellow of dried snort and the grey worn out shades of fabric needing to be refreshed. But, it is not virgin territory either. It is cultivated without mechanisation. It is vast and spacious. Unlike the south of Nigeria, it is sparsely populated. There are not the same numbers walking out of the bush or loitering by the railway line. There are no significant conurbations.
When we arrived at Rigasa station Kaduna, it was raining. We were dislodged like cast offs, unto the platform and herded, and that is a justly chosen word, into the open with the rain doing what it does best, turning our clothing wet and into limp rags on our backs. How can it be that someone designed a railway station in a major city without a hall? It is inexplicable that a journey in a railway station ends in the open irrespective of the weather. But we are not customers or citizens in this system. We are merely denizens, if that, who are tolerated by a class that is apart and distant. And nobody is complaining either. No wonder the feudal system continues whilst cloaked under a garment of faux democracy.
My return journey from Rigasa was no less eventful. Actually, it was more eventful, more memorable. I arrived early to catch the 1930 to Idu station. I already had my ticket and joined a full house of people in the waiting room, a building outside and unconnected to the actual station. There was here a throng of mainly women travelling with children. There were young women, really girls barely in their teens suckling babies. What could these juveniles know of motherhood? And, aside from being mothers what else was going for them? I found all this dispiriting.
When it was time to board, we formed two queues, one for women and the other for men. What exactly mandates a separation of the sexes at the entrance way into a railway station? And families and couples were separated at the arbitrary and asinine belief that the sexes merely standing together is toxic, dangerous and unseemly and needed to be patrolled by the morality army. Astonishing.
The charade of postage stamp tickets with indecipherable squiggles was repeated. We were unleashed unto the platform with contradictory advice. I was supposed to be on coach SC 8 and was directed to the last coach. I took my supposed assigned seat No 49 only to have a hoard of people claiming a group booking descend on my section of the coach irrespective of assigned seats. I appealed to a supposed official only to be told I was in the wrong coach. This coach was SC 1!! I rushed down to the platform and asked another seeming official who directed me elsewhere. But alas the new coach was the real coach SC 1. I had to return to the previous coach which was SC8. A true comedy of errors if there ever was one! You can imagine my exasperation. I simply sat in any apparent vacant seat waiting to be ejected.
An official turned up after the train left the station to inform me that I was in first class and hadn’t paid to sit where I was. I simply said, “yes”, I knew that already and demanded that he walk me through the crowded train with several people standing to show me precisely where my seat was and to use his authority to eject whoever was sitting there. And that was precisely what we did. A trivial triumph in a country that is instinctively unruly. It was tiredness and irritation that emboldened my complaining streak. Otherwise like everyone else I would merely have contained and concealed my exasperation in politeness and patience.
My destination was Idu station. However, in error I alighted at Kubwa, the last but one station. You have to imagine an arrival in a foreign city in the dark, without any streetlight. The passengers of our erstwhile trains expelled like cargo into the warm night. The station shut up behind us. A melee quickly forming in the territory beyond the concrete terrace of the forecourt with touts and shadowy figures dashing about shouting the words “drop off”’ or “you want taxi”. And vehicles reversing and driving with full lights flaring and yours truly standing alone without the expected meeting party.
Very quickly the crowd thinned to a handful, families patiently sitting on suitcases waiting for a car or young natives without any trace of anxiety, patiently waiting. Now, yours truly is panicking about the possibility of a disastrous outcome, about abduction, about ransom, about the imponderables of the terror that lurks in the unpredictability of a Nigerian night. Phone calls, exasperated questions and reassurances that did not assure since the voices themselves carried anxiety.
I was lost once as a boy in Mushin which even in my youth had the cadences of danger- the swagger, the lurching of intoxication, the shouts and counter shouts, the truly indescribable standoff’s of threat and then of knives flashing and what can only be described as the odour of fear that once experienced stays with one forever. But as a child I had no real conception of the possibilities of danger. Risk was a concept that like death needs empirical reality to become a festering sore that both immobilises and immolates.
A more credible feeling of panic was being in a car for a few minutes whilst my father went to do something or other and feeling the fear rise to a crescendo, because time when you’re alone in a car, extends and contracts, slows to a standstill and starts again. The child feels only the sudden possibility of abandonment, of the brisk and impossible rapidity of the heart pounding and becomes aware, for the first time, of the supreme aloneness of our state in the world. And, of the real possibility of annihilation.
It took quite a while to work out that my hosts were at a different station and that the misstatements about where I was and where they were was a parody of errors that in a play would be comical but at night, in the gross enveloping darkness of a premonitory danger, was ghastly and terrifying.
I decided to catch a taxi, an unregulated taxi at that. My taxi driver was lean, rugged with a square jaw, an angularity that spoke to frugality or perhaps nervous energy. This was not comforting. I had been advised that it would cost no more than 3000 Naira to my destination but he asked for 4500 Naira and we compromised at 3500 Naira. We started on our way. Within ten minutes he apologised that he was running out of petrol and needed to fill his tank. When we arrived at the petrol station, he asked, no, he demanded 2500 Naira to pay for petrol. Here I lost my temper. I said, it’s your car and why should I pay for your petrol. I started to get out of his vehicle, to his astonishment as well as to my own. Where could I possibly go given I had no idea where I was heading for. We compromised on 1500 Naira.
I called J in Birmingham to alert her to the possibility of a bad outcome and told her that I expected to be at a hotel in half an hour and that if she did not hear from me to suspect that something awful had happened. Now that was an unfair burden. What could she possibly have done from 3000 miles away? I called G’s driver to tell him, since he was in Abuja, of my predicament and that he should come to find me and we somehow arranged for the taxi to drop me off at a particular roundabout where B was waiting for me. There was still the threatening and unpleasant business of the taxi driver wanting the full amount of the fare even though he had only taken me so far. Well, so far so good.
It was an excruciating end to my visit. But the fear and agony were terminated by relief. It wasn’t so bad after all. It was all theatre, of the absurd.
Photos by Jan Oyebode