The Eyes of Lira Kazan

The Eyes of Lira Kazan


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781908524003
Publisher: Bitter Lemon Press, Ltd
Publication date: 09/18/2012
Pages: 367
Product dimensions: 5.00(w) x 7.70(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Eva Joly: Eva Joly is a Norwegian-born French magistrate and politician. She lives in Paris and became famous as an anti-corruption prosecuting judge taking on, among others, former minister Bernard Tapie and the bank Crédit Lyonnais. Her most famous case was that of France’s leading oil company – Elf Aquitaine. In the face of death threats, she carried on the case to uncover several cases of fraud. She is now running in the French presidential elections. This is her first novel.
Judith Perrignon: Ex-journalist at the newspaper Liberation, prize-winning essayist and the author of a number of historical and other literary works, including ‘La nuit du Fouquet’s avec Ariane Chemin’. This is her second novel after the much lauded ‘Les Chagrins’ also published this year.
Emily Read: Emily Read lives in London and is a much acclaimed translator from the French. Most recently she has translated Tonino Benacquista’s ‘Badfellas’ for Bitter Lemon Press.

Read an Excerpt


By Eva Joly Judith Perrignon


Copyright © 2011 Éditions des Arènes, Paris
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-908524-00-3

Chapter One


Abuja, Nigeria

Once upon a time there lived a man called King Okanagba. One day ...

"Did they say what time?" his wife asked.

Nwankwo didn't answer. He carried on reading, his daughter on his knee, the book in his hands.

One day the Tortoise went and asked him to sell him two loads of yams. The king replied that he did not want to be paid in money but with nine human heads — the Tortoise should bring him the nine heads by the end of one year! The Tortoise went away, taking the yams, which she ate one by one until there were almost none left. She roasted the last one on the fire and then placed it right at the top of a palm tree ...

"Did they say what time?"

"No, the message was to be ready to leave before dawn. That's all. The sun will be up in two hours, they'll be here soon."

"Go on, Daddy!"

A striped rat was passing by and ate it up. So then the Tortoise said: "Since you ate the yam I bought from King Okanagba, you will have to pay King Okanagba with nine heads."

"There's a car coming."

"Stay away from the window, madam," one of the bodyguards said.

"I'm still in my own house!"

"Do what they say Ezima," Nwankwo said wearily.

"They're slowing down ... How can you just sit there reading stories to your daughter at a time like this?"

"Go and wake the other children. Baïna, don't move. We're leaving. I'll go and see what's happening."

Nwankwo got up, unfolding his large frame, and made a sign to the bodyguard: everything must happen calmly. Any more tension would make the whole operation even more difficult than it already was. His wife was nervous, and the children were afraid.

The car had stopped in front of the house, its lights switched off. Nobody got out. The two other bodyguards standing on the porch had their hands in their jackets, ready to draw. The first one went over to the car and tapped at the window. The driver lowered it and mumbled: "Egbe bere, ugo bere." That was the password, an old proverb from childhood days. Nwankwo had often used it: "Let the falcon perch, let the eagle perch." The second guard could alert the family: the evacuation could begin.

The houses all seemed asleep in this residential street in Abuja. Out they came, their luggage carried by servants, first a woman with a child in her arms, then a teenager and finally a little girl holding her father's hand. They looked forwards and backwards and then piled into the big car: they were leaving, not knowing whether they would ever come back, leaving for a long time. The car set off. It had taken hardly ten minutes to abandon everything — their whole life and, soon, their country. Back in the house the sitting-room lights were still on and the book of Igbo fairy tales lay on the sofa.

Nwankwo sat beside the driver and was told the programme. The next stop would be Lagos, where they would discreetly board a speedboat which would take them out to sea to a Norwegian tanker. Three days later they would be on a plane to London.

"But they said we would cross the border and take a plane from Yaoundé," Nwankwo protested.

"Last minute change of plan — this'll be safer," the man replied.

Nwankwo was silent. It would be a long and exhausting journey for the children. His original plan had been to go alone, so as not to condemn his whole family to exile — he wouldn't have been the first African to live so far away from his family. But Ezima had refused.

He turned towards her, murmured that they were going by sea, not the most comfortable of escapes, but the safest. A ship flying a Norwegian flag was less risky than an African road. Then he was silent again, they all were, each one assessing the situation. Abuja was disappearing behind them, with all its glittering modernity. Its cranes, its soulless concrete churches, mosques, office blocks and bypasses bore witness to its youth and new status as capital. It had no history, it was just the artificial shop window for a powerful, oil-rich state. It had replaced noisy, teeming, stinking Lagos. Which was where they were going.

Soon there were no street lights or road markings. Aso Rock melted into the night. Aso means victory. The words, the landscape, the doubts — it all churned around in Nwankwo's head. He had believed in victory, he had made powerful men tremble with fear in his office, and he had remained stony-faced against their airs and their threats; he had smiled when they tried to buy him, accepting their fifteen million dollars in hundred-dollar bills, but depositing them in the central bank with instructions to make good use of them, and then pursuing his enquiries with renewed vigour. And then they had started killing his men one by one. Then they killed Uche, his friend and right-hand man. Then they had sacked him and now he was being forced to flee ...

"My book!" Baïna suddenly cried. "We've forgotten my book!"

"We'll buy another one," her mother said.

"They won't have it where we're going!"

"They have everything there, you'll see. It's a country with big shops."

"But I want my book! We must turn round."

"That's enough, Baïna!" Nwankwo stopped her. "I've read that story to your brother for years, and so often to you that I know it by heart. And Mummy, too. We'd got to the stripy rat."

He looked at his wife in the mirror. She understood that he needed silence. Ezima shut her eyes and continued.

The rat went off to plant some aubergines. Then the Antelope came along and ate all the leaves. So the stripy rat said: "Since you ate all the leaves on my aubergines and I ate the Tortoise's yam you will have to go and pay the king with nine heads!"

The Antelope galloped away. As she galloped she hit the root of a tree and said: "Root, since you hurt my foot ..."

At this stage in the story, when his eldest son was little, Nwankwo had made the sound of the galloping antelope by slapping his hand on his thigh. In those days he had been a young lawyer, a graduate of the University of Zaria. He had handed his diplomas to his father, who had proudly displayed them in his house. "It's good, you've the taste for battle," the old man had sighed, implying that he himself had now lost it. Deep down he had never recovered from seeing those rebels who had fought against colonial power turning into tyrants — it went against all that he wanted to believe about the world and mankind, everything that he thought he had learnt from his beloved books. And then had come the civil war, several military coups and, with the arrival of a whole new breed of predators, he had finally lost his bearings. He was now approaching the end of his life in silence, but it was a silence in which there echoed the sadness of ancient words that had lost their meaning. Nwankwo would visit his father regularly after work, and, sitting on the steps that led up to the bamboo-trellised house, he would tell him about the battles that had become more and more frequent: a newspaper office sacked for having written the truth, small-property owners whose houses had been burnt down to make way for a huge shopping centre. All these cases told the same story: rich country, poor people. Corruption at every level. When a judge condemned a rich man it was only because he would get a larger bribe for the appeal.

Born at the time of independence and the discovery of oil, Nwankwo had been an arrogant and energetic twenty-year-old, but already, behind the rectangular glasses he had worn since childhood, there lurked a serious young man lacking in frivolity, always on the alert — already his life's mission was to do the right thing. The old man always had the last word, with his precise schoolteacher's grammar: "Our country would be better off without this damned oil, I wish that we might never have breathed its odour."

But soon words were no longer enough for Nwankwo. He wanted to act, rather than simply argue in court. He sailed through his prosecutor's exams with brilliant marks. Once again he handed the diploma to his father who this time forgot to frame it and hang it up. Nobody at the time saw any ill omen in this. There at the Nigerian Law School he met Uche, who was his exact opposite, a man who laughed all the time, especially at tragic events. It was an orphan's habit, he would explain. Together they climbed several rungs of the ladder and when, thanks to an unforeseeable political upheaval, Nwankwo became head of the fraud squad, he asked to have Uche at his side. This was five years ago. Now Uche was dead. He had been found with his hands tied, shot through the head, in the boot of his car, two weeks ago. Nwankwo had got the message. The noose was tightening. It was time to leave, and fast.

The road was becoming bumpier as they plunged deeper and deeper into the bush. Nwankwo could sense the silent thickets around them, permanently dripping in this rainy season. Fireflies glittered in the night, like the eyes of a thousand cats watching the fleeing car. Or spirits — the ones that only come out at night. Nwankwo had been told every day, when he was very small: never go outside after sunset, even if someone calls your name; start being cautious in the afternoon, because the land only belongs to men in the morning, and after that they have to share it. The spirits begin to prowl; they take control of the paths, the lanes and the roads. "The toad never goes out in the afternoon — for good reason," his grandfather would say with the affectionate pat that always accompanied his wise sayings. As a little boy, Nwankwo had believed these stories, less so of course as he grew up, but he had never completely freed himself from them. Those who say they don't believe in spirits are lying. On this particular evening he understood those words: the more you try to escape the more they cling to you; leaving forces you to remember and finally to decipher the voices of ancestors and their spells. Man is not king on earth.

In the back Ezima's voice was becoming fainter at the end of the story. The root had hit the antelope's foot, the hawk had touched the root, the child had touched the hawk, then cried and gone to his mother.

"I touched the hawk which touched the root which hit the foot of the Antelope which ate the leaves of the aubergine which belonged to the stripy rat which ate the Tortoise's yam, and now you have to go and pay King Okanagba with nine heads!"

His mother cried: "What! Just because I asked my child a question I have to pay King Okanagba with nine heads, for some yams that were eaten God knows when?"

Usually Ezima would pretend to be angry and the children would laugh. But now, tired, she just whispered automatically with no expression. She was bitter, sad to be leaving her family and her house. She was angry with Nwankwo for putting them all in danger — they had lived with armed guards for three years now. Six bodyguards standing two at a time outside the house, and even following them to school. The frequent arguments between Ezima and Nwankwo usually ended with Nwankwo pointing at the children and saying: "What I'm doing is for them!" As if he could change their future.

It was he who had changed. He had become as hard as stone. He was impatient and forgot important dates: the children's birthdays, the day they met. When, two years previously, the government had annulled the examination that had made him a prosecutor, simultaneously demoting a whole year's graduates, Ezima had begged him to go back to being a lawyer but he wouldn't hear of it. The government had stripped him of his rank in order to remove him from certain cases and put somebody more compliant in his place. But he would not bow down — he returned to school, with Uche at his side, and successfully passed the examination again. Time, he said, was on his side.

On the day the diplomas were handed out in front of families and children, the police came to arrest him on unspecified suspicion of drug trafficking. They brought out handcuffs; those in power seemed prepared to do anything to eliminate him. And then the other pupils came forward, led by Uche, and formed a circle around him, creating a human shield, driving the policemen back. Nwankwo had tears in his eyes. There seemed to be a sign of hope and revolt in this crowd action, a proof that there was some sort of community. But when he saw his eldest son among his protectors looking so young and frail, not yet a man, in his Sunday best, his happiness faded, leaving him empty and afraid. He could not expose this child. He was the leader of a war that was lost.

Where was Uche now? His grandfather had maintained that the world of the spirits did not welcome those who died a violent death. He would be wandering somewhere between the two worlds, in the cold bush, down the red laterite roads, along with the sick and the suicides and those who threaten travellers. Was Uche out there in the night, a lost and wandering friend? Could he see him running away? Did he blame him? Or would he protect them?

Uche's car had been parked outside Nwankwo's house so that it would be he who discovered the bloodstained body, shot in the head, the face frozen in terror, with open eyes. The body had been arranged in a macabre fashion with the trousers pulled down, as had those of the bodyguard which they had found in a hedge a bit farther away. This was a reference to the rumour that he liked men.

Other investigators had died before him. Each time, Nwankwo, their chief, had gone to the funeral and spoken of their courage to the families. Then he had gone away, leaving the children to fulfil their ritual duties. There were no children at Uche's funeral.

"Uche, you will be my Chi, my double, my guardian angel, my shadow," Nwankwo had sworn, sobbing before the body of his friend.

And now this evening, in full flight, listening to the interminable Igbo story and Ezima's low murmur, he added to himself that he would have the skin of the bastard who had ordered his death. Uche would be allowed to rest in the land of the spirits.

The road was now close to the river, it followed the same path, both heading for the sea. On the back seat Baïna was now retelling the story. Her mother was now silent and exhausted, but the little girl doggedly clung on to every word, the load of yams, the nine heads owed to King Okanagba, as though they were the last remnants of a childhood that she instinctively knew was coming to an end that night.

The little girl had reached the part that usually made her shriek with laughter: the king's workers had taken off all their clothes, and the king's wife cried: "Hey! Are you all going to work stark naked now?" But Baïna couldn't laugh this time because she was telling the story to herself. Her mother was at the end of her strength and her father seemed too preoccupied to think of her. She recognized that absorbed expression, that way he had of not being present - there was nothing new about that. In her eight years' experience, she felt that that was how she had always seen him. The day he had announced "We're leaving!" her younger sister Ima hadn't understood, Tadjou had complained that he didn't want to leave his friends, but she, Baïna, had not been surprised. It was as though she had always known it would happen. Her little black eyes had gazed into her father's in agreement. Tonight she felt that he was afraid. He seemed to start every time headlights came towards them.

Nwankwo was tormented by questions. Wasn't this exactly what they wanted, for him to leave like this? To murder him in cold blood as they had done with Uche might have caused trouble, questions from the opposition, stories in the papers. Let him go off and join the exiles! Over there in Europe or the United States he could tell them that half his people lived on less than a dollar a day, nobody would care. Would it have been braver to stay? What would life in exile be like? How long would it last? With a dictatorship, you just had to wait, they always collapse in the end. But with oil a collapse couldn't be counted on for as long as the chain of corruption remained well lubricated. Nwankwo could no longer bear to brood over these unanswerable questions. He listened to Baïna reciting and then joined in. He put on the deep voice of the naked soldiers, as he would have done on an ordinary night, and then carried on to the end of the story.


Excerpted from THE EYES OF LIRA KAZAN by Eva Joly Judith Perrignon Copyright © 2011 by Éditions des Arènes, Paris . Excerpted by permission of BITTER LEMON PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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