Jim Perrin finds a troubling tale in the memoir of Eric Ngalle, and asks if the narrator is as reliable as we are meant to believe.
In the early 1990s I came across a review in one of the London broadsheets by a columnist – herself brought up on a rough Glasgow housing estate – that to this day sticks in my mind as the paradigm of an insolently brutal and sneering superciliousness that was house-style for a good many of the metro-literati of the day. It was a no-holds-barred assault on John Healy’s J.R. Ackerley award- winning 1988 memoir, The Grass Arena, and as nasty a piece of journalism as I’d ever read. The review-author’s argument was that although Healy’s book was an interesting piece of social reportage, Healy was not a writer, and therefore should leave it to those such as herself who were blessed with that gift. I was appalled, but unsurprised – would never myself have put down a vulnerable fellow-writer so brutally, however strong the temptation.
John Healy was from an impoverished background, suffered violence at the hands of an alcoholic father, became a boxer, began to drink, and thus ended his prospects in the sporting arena. He spent years homeless, living hand-to-mouth on the proceeds of petty theft and begging. Inevitably there were spells in prison. During one of these he was introduced to chess, for which he discovered an exceptional aptitude. It turned his life around. He joined a chess club, won local and national tournaments, wrote his viscerally shocking, redemptive, palpably honest and reliable memoir, which was published to some acclaim, filmed, and then faded into obscurity.
Life writing is an odd genre. The perceived reliability of the narrator is crucial to it. Perhaps the best early example of the tradition in the English language is Samuel Johnson’s Life of Mr Richard Savage of 1744 – a morally complex work (crucial passages of which are set in Swansea, so perhaps we should reclaim it as a Welsh classic?) about a briefly-celebrated poet-companion of Johnson’s youth who was perhaps a fantasist, certainly a blackmailer and murderer, and whose most celebrated work was the long poem entitled The Bastard. Johnson’s account of his life includes the challenging passage generally known as “the whore’s half-guinea”. How would we have reacted under those circumstances, asks Johnson? Would the reader have shown the same generosity, compassion, and capacity to forgive under such duress?
The lesson to be drawn from that passage, as well as a mirroring effect from The Grass Arena, might perhaps be brought to the consideration of I, Eric Ngalle – a very different text from either Johnson’s or Healy’s. Ngalle was born in the sub-Saharan state of Cameroon, bordering Nigeria to the south. He intended to study Economics at a university in Brussels, but fell foul of a sequence of scams and mishaps, and found himself in Malta, a student entry visa for Russia in his possession as he boarded a plane for Moscow. Once in Russia, homeless and moneyless among illegal immigrant communities in a country where casual racism appears to have been the norm, his troubles really began.
At a time when American oil-wars and destabilisation programmes have escalated human migrancy and trafficking into a major geo-political catastrophe, and where worldwide the refugees, treated with scant courtesy by their host countries, outstay their begrudging welcomes in deliberately contrived “hostile climates”, I, Eric Ngalle gives a perspective on the sufferings of those migrants and the expedients to which they are reduced in order to come through. But the presentation of these introduces a difficult – unsavoury, even – note into a text every bit as morally complex as Johnson’s Life of Savage. Primo Levi taught us that, in extremis, the human spirit can seldom afford the luxury of morality, so unwavering is its concentration on survival. It’s not necessary, he implied, that we should like survivors of extreme experiences – only that we believe their testimony, and understand what they went through.
That lesson thrummed away in my brain as I endured reading of the couplings, the beatings, the naked bodyings-forth of authorial persona, the money-making scams that Ngalle describes. Descriptions of the scams in particular, and the rehearsed and plausible nature of his enticement-pitches, have a double-edged effect. If he managed to persuade time and again in a perilous environment vicious gangsters to part with large amounts of money (and afterwards generally managed to avoid their understandable desire for revenge), do we not need to take from that the necessity to be on our guard, to be wary of his testimony and its designs upon us? Can we trust him as a reliable narrator?
It’s a question that still throbs away in my mind days after finishing Ngalle’s book. But other aspects also hold my attention. The intercutting of anecdotes from his Cameroonian youth with Russian, and later British, migrant experience allows varieties of human consciousness, belief and experience strangely to interreact. His description from childhood of finding a horned viper in a rat-mole burrow is alien and terrifying. It’s integrated back into the world of the Cardiff housing estate in which he and his daughter eventually find themselves by the introduction of commentary from a David Attenborough documentary he watched on television in the latter place. Does that somehow shadow the veracity – if it is such – of the original account? It’s a question that could only arise when your belief in the author had been undermined.
These disjunctions abound. They add to our understanding of the terrible deracinations implicit in the migrant experience. Yes, it’s to the credit of Wales that this little country took Ngalle in, provided him with a Creative Wales Award to allow him to write his memoir, found him a publisher in the excellent little west Wales publishing house of Parthian and, through the good offices of kulturtragers like Sally Baker of PEN Cymru and Peter Florence at Hay Festival, showcased him at our nation’s leading English-language literary events. But have they, perhaps, been a little credulous, a little tokenist, here?
Ngalle may have more to offer in the way of explorations of the cultural disjunctions that so teasingly underpin this Sergio Leone eastern. Unfortunately, the boastful, sexually exploitative, palpably dishonest authorial persona that emerges from this egotistical narrative plays straight into the prejudiced hands of those seditious racists, the ardent brexiteers. They’ll find too much in it to confirm their terrible, wicked, dehumanizing prejudices. It’s certainly not a text for which many outside our literary establishment, which has been so swift to raise its dubious author to a position of influence, could feel much fondness or admiration.
I, Eric Ngalle is available now from Parthian Books.