Some weeks ago when I wrote about Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy, I expressed my admiration for Larsson’s elaborate plotting, his ability to create such suspense that his novels become addictive, almost impossible to put down. I attributed much of his success to the careful construction of each volume. To my surprise, Adam Schwartzman’s Eddie Signwriter is virtually plotless, rambling in its structure, with few genuine surprises, and yet the story is full of suspense—especially in the last hundred pages—difficult to stop reading. While Larsson’s novel is big and flashy, Schwartzman’s is modest, almost self-effacing. The moral here? No single way to lure the reader into the writer’s imaginary world.
The “Eddie Signwriter” of the title is actually Kwasi Edward Michael Dankwa, a Ghanaian, who spends much of his early life with his father in Botswana, before his father sends the boy back to Ghana so he will not forget his heritage. Later, at age sixteen, he meets and falls in love with Celeste, who is introduced to him by one of his teachers. Both the teacher and Celeste’s aunt, Nana Oforiwaa, who owns a popular restaurant, encourage a relationship between the two teenagers. That is the adults’ mistake, because Kwasi and Celeste quickly get lost in their own world, increasingly ignoring the concerns of their elders.
Then a tragic accident occurs. After the youngsters have been gone for a couple of days, Nana Oforiwaa searches for them and drowns in a river. The community blames the two teenagers, but most of the brunt of Nana’s death is placed on Kwasi, who is ostracized. Thus, their passionate relationship suddenly ends, and Kwasi moves in with an uncle, in Accra, and becomes the apprentice to a sign painter. All of these events occur rather quickly in the first third of the novel; then the pace becomes much more leisurely.
In time, Kwasi—now known as “Eddie”—sets up his own business; and because he is so talented, he is hugely successful. He’s a gifted artist and his signs become works of beauty because of their images, not the words he prints on them for whatever business orders them. Within a matter of years, Eddie is famous—so famous that Celeste returns to him. The two of them pick up the relationship where it ended three years earlier but then the past begins haunting them again (especially Eddie) who burns down the building that houses his business and strikes off to a totally different world: Paris. Paris attracts Eddie not because of its artists but because of its distance, far from the site of the supposed accident that led to Nana’s death.
Eddie believes that he can become anonymous in Paris, like thousands of other Africans who have entered the country illegally. “Some will be stopped at the border, at the passport desk, on the quayside. Some will be caught, then return, and be caught, then return, as many times as it takes. Some will reach refugee camps, prisons. But many will make it through to the coasts of Spain, of Italy, France, Britain, through seaports and airports and on, to cook fast food, sell handbags, sweep streets, stack boxes, pick fruit, hawk watches, hats, perfume, in a thousand towns and cities—wherever a living can be made, whatever existence can be justified.
But only so much can be said, before the journey takes them back again, and he loses himself, becomes part of the passage, his energy dissolving into it.”
Eddie actually gets to Paris legally, on a tourist visa, but what he intends to do is extent his stay—illegally. Then—and we are now in the last hundred pages of the novel—the past creeps up upon him again. Until that moment, he’s happy; it looks as if he’s in love with a young woman and all will go well. Moreover, he’s begun painting again. And the language, which has always been lush, lyrical, takes on a life almost of itself. Here for example are two transitional sentences from the beginning of the final chapter: “It has just gone summer.” “Then the bell above the door is disturbed into music.” And—as the suspense builds—we recognize Adam Schwartzman’s multiple gifts as a poet (he published several volumes of poetry before this novel). And perhaps even a symbiotic relationship between the writer of this amazing book and his main character. Both might be identified as wanderers. Schwartzman, born in South Africa, studied in England, and currently resides in Istanbul.
Eddie Signwriter is Adam Schwartzman writ large, Siamese twins, connected at the hip.
By Adam Schwartzman
Pantheon, 293 pp., $25.95
CHARLES R. LARSON is Professor of Literature at American University in Washington, D.C.