By Su’eddie Vershima Agema
Open your thought bank, and see this clearly as we think it from the dark like we are viewing it all through cat eyes: You grow up not knowing your father. You have heard so much about him and though you would naturally want to see him, to catch a glance of what your progenitor is like, you despise him. You wish him to be an old wrinkled evil thing. After all, a man who has been absent and not kept touch with his family for so long would have to be an ogre! You pray him to be a hag of a man with marks all over. He left your mother with you to go overseas for further studies and because of him at a certain stage, your mother puts a hold to your education so that you wouldn’t want to know too much book and leave her—thank God for libraries and hidden books. Well, eventually a message comes one day: your father, whom you are even named after, is coming back. He comes back and the shockers begin. Your father is the complete opposite of the dinginess you might have imagined. He is handsome, cool and lovely. Your mother betrays you and rushes into his arms like a Prince Charming that has always been there. But it doesn’t end there. Your father has come from abroad with a new wife and a daughter! Chai! Did I mention that the daughter and new wife are white—and have cat eyes? What worse betrayal can he try to bring about? Think, what would you do? Or maybe you should get Pever X’s Cat Eyes to get an understanding and see what unfolds…
Cat Eyes is a coming of age story centred around Pededoo, a headstrong chap who has lots of teen issues. He tries to have a manageable relationship with his father who has come home after a prolonged silence abroad. In his company are a white woman and a daughter, Melissa-Jane—who is a beautiful intelligent blonde. Pededoo takes an instant dislike to the trio cruelly naming Melissa-Jane Cat Eyes due to her greenish coloured eyes. She likes the name to his chagrin and repays every evil Pededoo pays her with sweetness. It is not long before the teenager is falling for his step-sister.
But this is only the beginning of the contradictions. More things unfold as Pededoo goes on many adventures that would teach him—and readers—life lessons on love, literature, beauty and so much more. The tale is set in the imaginative countryside of Boor by mountains, riversides, an orchard, barns and the like. The entire action of the novel takes place within two weeks in the summer month of August,1988.
The book is told in the first person narrative and readers see through the eyes of Pededoo. The use of this style is quite relevant and significant to the plot progression as most of the suspense and ironies seen in the book are as a result of the views of the narrator. While the author might have pulled his suspense and slow revelations in the book differently, using this style of narration makes readers to be as blind to many things as the person through whom the story is told. After all, if a blind man leads, stumbling, wouldn’t they who follow likewise do same?
Pever X writes with a great dose of Mark Twain behind his lines. If the writings were to be like one’s breath and Mark Twain like alcohol that could be smelt in that breath, there would be a roomful or more than metre long of that smell. From the particular characterisation of a teenager (Pededoo) on the countryside with his teenage companions and pranks, one can easily match the Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer footprints. The author seemingly admits to this inspiration and borrowing for his character and book in a scene in the book speaking through the book’s narrator thus:
I found books written by Mark Twain very interesting, especially The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn; Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Tom Sawyer Abroad and Tom Sawyer Detective. I admired Huckleberry Finn and felt we had a lot in common…[the comparisons between the both are shown] But there were times I wanted to be like Tom Sawyer… I was aware his knowledge came from reading books so I continued reading and resolved never to stop until I got as smart as Tom Sawyer… (47).
It is important to state here though, that despite the telling of a work in a Mark Twainian style, Pever X’s voice is original[ly African] in its own right, adding spices and a whole lot of local colouring to make his novel both entertaining, informing, absorbing and particularly, African.
Pever X brings to life a place that you might not find on any real landmass—Boor in setting, creation and all being far from what any town in Benue state is. This is easily forgivable noticing that his descriptions are apt and enough to make a native of Ushongo, the place where Boor is located as stated in the novel to think the place really exists. Thus, the author paints a picture that is easily viewable with the mind’s eyes.
In an age where most of our cultures seem to be swept away by an encroaching globalisation with bigger civilisations eating our own traditions, most writers make it a duty to try to salvage what they can through the introduction of native characters in their works, using diplomacy (use of native words), infusing local histories and the like. The scholar and poet, Hyginus Ekwuazi, states that this is our [African writers’] way of trying to clear the weed behind our backyard so that it remains attractive. Some might see this as being like the famous puppy trying to put out a fire with its fart. Whether or not, it works, is not in much contention. Pever X, in the tradition of the typical African writer, sprinkles a large dose of his tradition into his work. We notice in the first instance that the setting, despite its being in a countryside that would not be recognisable in the geographical reality of his locale, is in Tivland. This gives the author an excuse to put in a large cast of Tiv characters like Pededoo, Jimba, and Kaun.
We also come across the naming of certain objects such as adudu (a small basket made from reeds), akacha (musical instrument) and Kwaghir (Tiv puppet theatre). It would be easy to say that the use of these are because of the absence of a more appropriate way to address them such that they wouldn’t lose their proper representation to a person who is familiar with the Tiv background against which Pever X writes. However, we notice the deliberateness of his nativisation in the presence of such words as Bagu (Gorilla), Alôm (Hare), and the like. Note that in many places these names are pronounced aside their English meanings, in addition to a glossary being supported at the end of the whole work. We also find folktales in the novel with an example of ‘how Alôm the hare – the trickster and hero of Tiv folklore – came about with long ears’ (44).
The author tries to present a tale that is both locally and internationally relevant. Through the characterisation and dialogue, we notice a blend of Tiv, Igbo and Ghanaian names. The novel also takes us on a journey through Nigeria, Ghana, America, and Europe at different points through reminiscences of the narrator on his grandfather’s musical career, his father (Pededoo Senior)’s experiences, that of Melissa-Jane on her life in Boston and a few other cases.
Certain readers might have a few issues with Cat Eyes. The first is the confusing voice of Pededoo. This teenager is meant to be a countryside—rural if you want—African boy who stopped going to school in his JSS 3. The reader is thus shocked to hear his rich vocabulary and his seeming adult voice. The voice of the narrator—and by extension, the narrative—is somewhat American. The author tries to explain most of this away by noting in different parts of the book that the narrator is a book aficionado. At this point, a certain scene comes to mind. It is one of Pededoo and Melissa-Jane (Cat Eyes) playing King and Queen or more appropriately, lovers. Pededoo recites a line from Shakespeare and she challenges him to go on first by saying he knows only that one line. When he quotes a few more lines, she challenges him saying that he knows only short lines. He continues and soon they are exchanging lines before they are interrupted by their gnarling stomachs (129). Earlier in the book the narrator had noted: ‘I later read fourteen original and unabridged plays by William Shakespeare… I could recite many of his one hundred and fifty four sonnets in my sleep, I’d read them all. Several times over’ (48). We read elsewhere too that reading became like food to him: ‘I never stopped reading. Each free minute found me with a book’ (50).
Most of the books Pededoo reads are American and some of his favourite characters and models are picked from there (47-50). Is it any wonder then that he loves Mark Twain and his characters—Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer—with a passion? The books devoured by this character mould his persona and fashions his voice, it broadens his view and mindscape beyond his environment. Thus, we realise the power of books and reading. In addition to this are certain movies that he watches like The Good, the Bad and the Ugly and Eddie Murphy’s Coming to America (18).
The 164 book is divided into twenty-five chapters and a glossary. Each chapter starts with a quotation that acts as a precursor and/or a summary of what to expect in the chapter. Chapter XIX, for instance, starts with ‘Let me not to the marriage of true minds’ from Shakespeare’s Sonnet CXVI. It is therefore not surprising to see later on in the chapter that the minds of the people involved become somewhat married. To take it a step further, this is the chapter where Pededoo and Melissa-Jane play the Shakespearian line exchange game (as shown above). Thus, each chapter comes with that quotation from diverse sources such as Owl City, Mark Twain (not surprisingly), Leo Tolstoy, Richard Barnfield, Haruki Murakami, Euripides, Helen Keller and The Bible. Each chapter ends with the words ‘from the land beyond the seas’.
From adventures with fireflies, horse rides, mountain climbs, music, book renditions, romance, history recreated, history kept, the book deepens like the onion, layer after layer, going on various winding paths to keep you reading till the very last page. Note though that if you want a fast paced thriller, full of overt inanities and the like, if you are looking for head-over-heels sick humour, something shallow…then Cat Eyes is not for you. Like Twain’s style mentioned, it is a slow flowing endearing book that grows at a leisure pace. It is an irresistible coming of age tale that will capture the hearts of those whose spirits can still be found.