Reading Eric Ngalle’s memoir, I, Eric Ngalle (Parthian, 2019) | Malta Today, 12.1.20
One of the more remarkable passages in Eric Ngalle’s account of his two years in Russia is the final act of leaving Sheremetyevo Moscow International Airport with a fake Zimbabwean passport. Ngalle tells this part of his story with verve and pace. It’s an emotional release, but also the thematic and stylistic culmination of his memoir. He has managed to make enough money to buy a ticket from Moscow to Harare via Johannesburg and he can’t believe his luck. So he glides through the airport as he prepares to leave an alien land where he was forced to live on the margins of society.
The narrator is acutely aware of his role as both protagonist and subjective interpreter of the events he narrates and he addresses his narratees (or readers): “All the rough, red-eyed and long throated black people I had first seen at Sheremetyevo airport in May 1997 were here in Pechatniki. I met Miranda (remember this name) who pestered me for money along the corridors of Pechatniki. I met Ndumbe (who went on to date Miranda) who told me old wives’ tales about knowing my friends back home . . .” (133). The references to the narrator’s home in Cameroon are an integral part of this story about his time in Russia. It was in Pechatniki that “I came closest to being killed,” writes Eric Ngalle. “not by Russian skinheads,” who feature regularly in this memoir, “but by fellow English Cameroonians. My own kind, my own people” (132).
Structurally speaking, I, Eric Ngalle is based on the author’s own story, told in chronological order, of his experiences as an illegal migrant in Russia. It’s a story of survival and love affairs, of drug dealing and money scams, of friendship and broken promises. Eric tells it as it is. No holds barred. We have no way of confirming his story, but we have little reason to doubt. “It has taken me the best part of nineteen years to be able to write down this very dark memory. I am still purging myself of it.” Incidentally, when he was writing it, not to forget, he used the real names of the many people he refers to. But to avoid litigation, the publishers decided to change them.
There are moments when the narrator is clearly enjoying his narration, when he sounds pleased with himself, with the way beautiful Russian women melt for him. There are also moments when he is uneasy with the story he is telling and possibly even thinking about the consequences certain episodes and details might have on his present. But ultimately this is given to us as an account of how a scammed illegal migrant who becomes a scammer comes to terms with his own skeletons. “I have had to organise myself in such a way that I know what can trigger what,” he writes towards the end of his account. In a way, he’s afraid of what lies within him. And within each and every one of us.
But the main plot of his escapades in Russia is spliced by his memories of life as a boy and a young man in Cameroon. I’m not sure we needed the italics to mark the main plot from the “sub-plot.” These are not passages that need to be marked out in order to stand out. Eric Ngalle is narrating from a point almost twenty years after his arrival in the UK, and he never moves away from that moment of narration. But his main plot, told in the past tense, is about his two years and two months in Russia. So his Cameroon experiences are told as flashbacks, and his occasional forays into his time in the UK are flashforwards. But so are his anticipations: “Barthelemy on the other hand never forgave me and, when the time came, he exercised his revenge on me” (135).
Eric’s reminiscences about his childhood and youth in Cameroon, like those in Russia, are often also about friendship and survival. His story about how his dog Meki survived a snake bite through the intervention of Tapotto, an expert of traditional medicine, is particularly beautiful. In Cameroon, he says, “We do not have enough hospitals to cater for humans, let alone dogs” (51). So Tapotto was his only hope of saving his dog.
Right after a two-page childhood experience narrated in italics, he notes: “There were no African gods in Russia and we were alone and left to the elements. On my British Airways flight from Sheremetyevo to Heathrow in July 1999 there was an English pamphlet on the aeroplane and this was its description of Russia. . . .” (153). And here he proceeds to quote from the pamphlet. The author tells his story from the point of view of a thirty nine year old who has settled in Wales and become an established writer, but this vantage point doesn’t make the experiences he narrates any less precarious.
When he is telling us how he bought his plane ticket out of Russia to Harare with his fake Zimbabwean passport, the narrator refers to the young lady who sold him the ticket, one Ella from Thornton Heath in England. After getting his ticket, “I asked Ella if she would like to have a drink with me later, she smiled but politely declined. When I was working in Croydon and living in Brixton, every time bus 250 or 109 went past to Thornton Heath, it reminded me of Ella” (168-69). The narrator then continues with his story about his preparations to leave Russia.
I couldn’t help thinking about the consequences of Eric Ngalle’s narrative strategies on me while I was reading his memoir. When I met him in person in Messina in July 2016, thanks to my longtime Sicilian poet friend Biagio Guerrera, three years before the publication of this book, he struck me as a person full of life and creative energy, always raring to go. Eric gave me a copy of his memoir in August 2019 when he came to Malta to read at the Malta Mediterranean Literature Festival hosted by Inizjamed. So while I was reading it, I was constantly negotiating the Eric I had met in Messina and had got to know better in Malta, with the Russian-speaking illegal migrant navigating his uneasy way in a metropolitan underworld. The Eric I saw writing this memoir was an Eric, as he himself describes him, grappling with his own darker side.
Unlike the young man whose adventures and misadventures he is narrating, we know how all this is going to end. What we don’t know as readers is how he is going to get there. So I won’t give you any more hints. In the meantime, I look forward to reading the second part of this memoir, about his 20 years in Wales.