A Novel
Adam Schwartzman
"He is very quiet. Sometimes I didn't even notice him." But he attracts "the strong. The vain. Especially the vain."

    Such people --- he drew them to him.

Maybe Kwasi is naïve, perhaps "native" is a better word: he may even be the other face of The Stranger --- the African who invokes his own death. One who knows him well observes, "He never says no ... he never resists, and such willingness --- it liberates people's inhibitions."

They're all talking about Kwasi Edward Michael Dankoh --- Signwriter Eddie --- who grew up in the Ghanan countryside and lives in Accra and paints signs for a living. You run a dress shop, sell flowers, fix cars: he'll make up a sign for you (and will probably somehow get you into it).

But Eddie has a past. In school, he and his love, Celeste, were dogging out on her aunt Nana Aforiwaa at the time that they were supposed to be waiting for her outside the park. She went to look for them. There was a rainstorm (they come fast in that part of Ghana), she went down to the river to hunt for them and the waters pulled her in and she drowned. That's the story that went around.

Eddie got sent away after the death of Nana; Celeste was shipped off to a Catholic school; the family was scandalized.

After a brief reunion with Celeste, Eddie runs away again, takes his painting talents to Paris. The book is about him finding the world and finding himself as an artist. It is also about running away, train rides and bus rides and getting smuggled across borders.

Indeed, I thought it was going to be just another indocumento let-me-tell-you-the-trouble-I-seen growing up in a poor country story. But it's more, far more, than that.

§     §     §

For one thing, there is a Jamesian soul-riddle here. Eddie's teacher says that people believe too easily in chance. "They believe that chance has a power over them. That chance explains why thing turn out or don't," he says.

    But what if we choose not to believe in chance? What if we banish the idea of it?

This, he said, is what great people in history have done, perhaps even without knowing it.

    "What?" Eddie asked. "They haven't been lucky?"

    "No," the teacher said, "they have been lucky, but not by accident. Their wills are so strong that their own luck is a choice."

Well, OK ... this is part of the philosophy lecture that shows up here and there in Eddie Signpainter and I am not so sure I get it ... but I am also not so sure if it makes any difference.

Because the story is a hot one, and it is told in a way that can be gripping: being involved in a death (that may have been a murder); going to Accra and learning art (from Big Henry --- artfully drawn); then leaving on the train to Dakar (a fine painting of a 3rd world train trip, the babies and the people sleeping and the light and the dark and the rhythm of the wheels, etc.); and then Paris, this big inarticulate twenty-year-old "without papers" ("Papers, what are papers? Paf!" says one of his employers, the one that runs the flower shop, lets him paint the walls underground.)

Eddie hides out in the "Refuge Clandestin" with the other Africans and finally gets found by his uncle, Festus Edjura. Who tells him (and us) that

    Having total freedom is not the opposite of having no freedom and everyone is dependent and in the end, in the very very end, everything is connected.

OK, but as I say, that's the operative philosophy and it isn't not as much fun as the chase and the who-dunnit to this not-very talkative Kwasi Edward in Ghana and through the borders and people wanting to "let him go free" even though, perhaps, as he says, "Free? Look how free I am. None of you exist."

And with this, this peculiarly affecting Ghanaian becomes Everyman: we are there with him as he tries to make his own way to his own freedom despite, not because of, all these people around him trying to help him to be free ... drawn in by the boy who has trouble "casting his own shadow."

--- Lolita Lark
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