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By Odia Ofeimun

Dateline, Lagos, 1987, The Guardian Literary Series-If you take Wole Soyinka, Chinua Achebe, Elechi Amadi, Cyprian Ekwensi, T. M. Aluko and Chukuemeka Ike as constituting the regular army in Nigeria’s art of novelistic tabulation, you are bound to come to Kole Omotoso’s works with some disquiet, if not bewilderment. The reason is that Kole Omotoso’s art does not fall within any pre-cast or proverbial strain; it is as distant from pre¬existing fictional norms as a guerilla foco is from a standing army. Whether in the language he deploys, the images he selects from our vast social milieux or the ideological disposition which freights and is freighted by his material, his output cannot be pressed easily into the same analytical mould as that of the older generation, born mainly in the nineteen thirties and before. With this writer, we are no longer conversing with the patriarchal teacher to be encountered in Chinua Achebe or the philosopher-king that must be accosted in Wole Soyinka; we are face to face with a fellow traveller on the streets of life, a fellow traveller who also plays the tortoise and demands unsettling answers to old questions. His particular forte in this respect is that he does not fight positional battles. In fact, although he has written seven novels, a collection of short stories, a travelogue, five plays and several works of literary appreciation and criticism, he is difficult to pin down to a determine stylistic terrain. His novels, The Edifice (1971); Combat (1972); Sacrifice (1974);  Fella’s Choice (1975)- The Scales (1976); To Borrow a Wandering  Leaf (1978) and Memories of our Recent Boom (1982), evince a uniqueness which beggars unilineal trend or continuity from one book to another.

“The broil boils hard when the court grants the child to Ojo and the mother to Chuku. The division is an unnatural one which the combatants decide to settle with a fight.”

Although a clear radical concern links the books, his aesthetic and political messages do not readily subsume themselves within regular orthodoxy. Even solutions which he appears to have accepted are subjected to questioning, in consonance with the philosophical presumption that there are no final revolutions: that the struggle for social regeneration must therefore be fought on present-continuous terms. This is perhaps why none of his books attempts to say it all. Except for Memories of our Recent Boom which runs into 227 pages, his novels are usually short and brief encounters of an average of 120 pages, giving the impression of swift tactical rather than strategic assaults on artistic and social problems. As the East African critic, Peter Nazareth, has written, “it is as if each book is a fresh battle with the Muse”.

An overall picture of Omotoso’s works is therefore a fairly difficult enterprise; at least it is difficult enough to intimidate his not-so- adventurous academic colleagues who keep an embarrassed silence (as people do when confronted with something new) rather than hurt their reputations by saying something out of place or anything that may have to share shop with the anti-establishmentarian and sometimes, shifting canons that his works demand.

To the chagrin of such colleagues, Omotoso is an unrepentant experimentalist who will not take the easy road to acceptability. His background would seem to have prepared him well for it. In an age when the study of classics and the English language was the mark of the literary aesthete, Kole Omotoso went for the study of Arabic in his under-graduate years at the University of Ibadan. In the process, he broke the unspoken taboo that only moslems study Arabic. He did his doctoral thesis later at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland on Arabic Drama. His inbreeding of a multiplex of culture strands acquired a firmer outreaching with his literary foray into the culture of the West Indies where he has the distinction of writing the first full-length critique of West Indian theatre in a book titled Theatrical into Theatre, viewing Caribbean drama as a junction of multi-racial and diverse cultural influences.

Even before the literary motifs to be garnered from his study of Arabic and his relationship to the Caribbean (his country- in-laws) Omotoso had cut loose from the staple moorings of the established literary patterns by philandering with, and helping to domesticate a close affinity between popular journalism and the literary arts, especially the art of criticism and story-telling. This began his days a. Oyamekun Grammar School his hometown Akure and flowered during his Higher School at Kings College. Lagos when his first short story was published by Radio Times. His subsequent work in this direction evidenced by his editorship of the literary columns of Afriscope magazine and his ongoing writer’s diaries in West Africa magazine have become the norm bringing academia and the media into a necessary symbiosis.

Kole Omotoso

Thus, Omotoso’s output installs itself at the interstice between the old and the new, the popular and the highbrow, the naturalistic and the fantastic, giving the author a place at the bridge-head of the rising echelon of younger writers whose strength has been in the urgency with which old questions are asked and fresh answers are being teased or cajoled out of the bowels of time. The question and the answers which are implicated by Omotoso’s novels emerge largely from the author’s shifting of the literary camera to the wretched of the earth, the innocent, the helpless, those who suffer the pangs of wants, suffering and deprivation; those who do not enjoy even the wretched opulence of our neo-colonial age.

Omotoso’s prose fiction is consequently strung together by a concern for, and almost an obsession with certain recurrent motifs. His is a canvass that begins with the child figure, the poor child uncared for. The child is first encountered in The Edifice, in the story of the mullato, bom to a Nigerian father and a European mother who is allowed to drown by his Nigerian grandparents. In any case, they did not sanction their son’s marriage to a white woman, an outsider. This story becomes the mode for Isaac, a story of the same title in his collection Miracles and other Stories. Born out of wedlock, Isaac is brought up by vicious grandparents who see the child as a mere extension of their own limbs” for the purpose of errands except that the child could die for all they cared. Subsequently, he is run over by a Mercedes Benz car while foraging for food. The child figure turns up again in To Borrow a Wandering Leaf, killed by the motorcade of a visiting head of state. The theme flowers inexorably throughout the collections of short stories, Miracles and other Stories where like, “Victims”, an infant boy is killed to make medicine which incidentally fails woefully to produce the intended effect of enriching the murderer. The gamut of failed chances which confront the growing child are depicted further in stones “Firelash”,       where Duro, a little girl is burnt alive and “The Gamblers” where Kunle, a schoolboy — irking over his unpaid school fees, is out¬smarted by gamblers with whom he is journeying and the driver strips him and impounds his school shirt in lieu of his fare. The fate of Kunle is only a whit better than that of another schoolboy Lasisi, in the story, “Miracles take a little longer”. The bright sprinter is paralysed after showing exemplary feats in school games. It takes a year for him to recover. And against all these is a question mark, aptly framed by one of the many mothers in Kole Omotoso’s fiction: A medical doctor married to a man of the same profession, she wonders what chance the drummer’s son had in the world against her son who was getting all the education and care.

The child-themes are understandably often tied to the images of the mother. In “Isaac” it is the mother’s neglect which makes the child hostage to the forbidding duo of grandparents whose pernicious alter ego are to be found replicated in virtually all of Omotoso’s prose work. The hapless grandmothers contrast sharply with the image of the mother in the short story titled, “The Woman and The Goat”. This mother grooms and fattens a goat for the market — the only hope that his son’s school fees will be paid; but before it is sold, a car runs over the goat. The owner of the car, a Mercedes Benz car, carries the goat away in lieu of repairs to his dented car. The same story surfaces again in Memories of our Recent Boom where, it is not the goat but the mother whose leg is overrun by lorry. The leg had to be amputated causing her as breadwinner of a home-without-a-man to bring up her three children — two boys and a girl — as best she could in the circumstance.

This mother’s fate is not dissimilar to that of Mary in the novel, Sacrifice. Seduced by a local photographer and abandoned with child, she brings up the child and educates him as a medical doctor with proceeds from the world’s oldest and youngest profession, prostitution. Her plight and tragedy is that her son, Dr. Lana Siwaju, graduates into a good practice, marries into a “good” family, is respected in society but he cannot face the reality of his antecedence. His wife wants him to break with the mother who proves incapable of breaking with prostitution. At this juncture and at every such juncture, Kole Omotoso’s fiction waxes into the allegorical and marvellous-realist. The duty of a son to a mother is transposed in terms of the commitment of the elite for development of a much-raped continent. The up-liftment of Africa from a past that is as seedy as oppressed and as oppressive as Mary’s, the doctor’s mother, is fused into a present-continuous metaphor. The mother is the past, an inadequate past. The wife says, “To occupy our present trying to locate the past is a waste of the future. But this mother as Dr. Siwaju retorts is not just a symbol of all our collective past in black Africa. “She is my mother not my past”. Thus, the novel as a whole, balances on the tight rope of distinction between the realistic and the engagingly symbolic. All of Omotoso’s seven novels walk this tightrope in one form or the other.

 

IT IS USEFUL FOR ANALYTICAL PURPOSES TO MAKE A THREE- DISTINCTION BETWEEN the various forms:  the naturalistic, the marvellous-realist and the critical engagement strains in Omotoso’s fiction. The more naturalistic form is exemplified by his first and seventh novels, The Edifice and Memories of our Recent Boom. Both deploy very direct story-telling techniques. The first tells the story of a young man, Dele, from a provincial Nigerian town, who follows the seductive pulls of the English language to study in Britain. It is a story of alienation in a cold, different if not indifferent climate as wintry as its people. Dele experiences all the slash and bog of racism and cultural isolation. And he tells this in the first person. He returns home however with a white wife whom he promptly relegates to the parlor of neglect while he philanders incessantly with “native” women. Omotoso’s uncanny sense of empathy presents the other side of the coin of cultural isolation and chauvinism, unrelieved by human consideration against which this woman’s life is slapped. She too tells her story. Her child dies in circumstances unexplained to her: her husband goes into politics and carouses in the murk and filth of it against all his glib professions before she came down from Britain. We are confronted in the end with a searing tale of marital breakdown as harrowing for the victims as for the society, whose endless divorce from creative dreams is amply personified by Dele. True, it is the wife who tells us in her own person the story of the decay of her husband. Without warning, she slips into her own narration at the point where the edifice, the man, the marriage, her expectations begin to crumble. The interesting thing is that when the divorce takes place, Dele does not marry one of his native women. He reaches out a hand to another white woman. This tells the story of a jinxed elite ever returning to false starts.

“The question and the answers which are implicated by Omotoso’s novels emerge largely from the author’s shifting of the literary camera to the wretched of the earth, the innocent, the helpless, those who suffer the pangs of wants, suffering and deprivation; those who do not enjoy even the wretched opulence of our neo-colonial age.”

Memories basically tells the same kind of story. This time of two brothers, Aburo and Meje.  Meje goes to school at home and abroad and makes good. The other is apprenticed to a motor mechanic bur survives enough to partake like his educated brother of the largese which the season of oil boom makes possible. Lurking within their relationship is the unsolved riddle of a child born to Banke, a girlfriend to the younger brother who had abandoned and forgotten her. She finds herself with child as the Bible says, and to make matters easier for herself, marries the elder brother Aburo. Meje discovers on his return from Britain that he could not have children He would want to re-claim the child whom he considers his own but who, if the woman’s last testament is to be believed, belonged to neither. The two brothers although wealthy and able to carpet their own desultory paths with gold dust if they wished, are locked in a seething battle of mutual self-liquidation which makes it impossible for them to look out, reach out and seek to uplift the poor locality which produced them. They lavish their wealth on flash and fripperies, while their village of so many motorcades and political rallies decays in poverty. Thc village will be given a thought only when it is too late. The end comes abruptly. Meje and Banke, driving firom opposite directions pursued by their private worries run into themselves in a “wrecked embrace of twisted bumpers and scalding car-burrettors.” Meje dies with his dreams of seeking grace in service to his community. The message is that no one gets a second chance after wasting the first.

The Combat and Sacrifice — the more marvellous realist of Omotoso’s novels — almost self-consciously take the private worries to the public place. The Combat is an allegorical novel on the Nigerian civil war while Sacrifice as indicated, is the story of a continent told through the lived experience of a small-town prostitute. The tortoise in the novelist and the guerilla strain in Omotoso’s techniques come alive in the deft-transposition of the story of individuals in society into a paradigm of the whole society. In Combat, the effort is more blatant but no less successful. The novel describes the work-a-day lives of slum dwellers, Chuku Debe, the taxi driver to whom the news of a second military coup is like someone else’s business, unknowingly kills the child Isaac with his car. His friend, Ojo, a motor mechanic, challenges him to a duel to have revenge. Unknown to them, the child is the offspring of Moni, a girl whom they had both shared between them and whose son each of them claimed to have fathered. While the courts were seeking to determine whose child it is, the quarrel explodes through a sleight of authorial camera techniques beyond the personal realm of the two friends. A widening circle of combatants is drawn into the matter.

“Chuku Debe, the taxi driver to whom the news of a second military coup is like someone else’s business, unknowingly kills the child Isaac with his car.”

The broil boils hard when the court grants the child to Ojo and the mother to Chuku. The division is an unnatural one which the combatants decide to settle with a fight.

Absurd dimensions emerge when international factors are imported into the fray. Chuku pledges the child he is yet to see to the Russians in order to get military assistance. Moni the mother of the child had become a De Madam too big for one man. But losing her does not stop Ojo from going to the South Africans for military assistance. Beating the drums of conflict and dredging up ludicrous ideological issues the international burst of intrigues lead ineluctably towards the complete divorce of reason making tragedy when it comes, quite a bizarre affair. While Chuku and Ojo are rousing foreign support and media and military assistance for the final push, Moni discovers the body of the dead child over whom all the mayhem was raging.

The futility and tragic dimensions of war find eloquent portrayal in the stink of death that accosts the combatants. Of course, the guerilla in the novelist does not allow a one-dimensional picture to emerge. Because of its deliberated fantasy, we cannot say that Omotoso has written a novel of the Nigerian Civil War. Yet, we cannot argue that he hasn’t. The story, in this sense, is only a parable of war, one which insists on being assessed on its own terms as a study in the absurdities of conflict — such as the countr\ went through during the civil war.

Unlike The Combat and Sacrifice the remaining three: of Kole Omotoso’s seven novels tell stories of critical engagement with social causes. They do not depict only victims; they are also stories of resistance. They are certainly not the best artistically realized of Kole Omotoso’s fictional works. However, they give a clear indication of his concern for, and strong inclination to do battle for social regeneration.

-Excerpted from Kole Omotoso, by Odia Ofeimun, published in Perspectives on Nigerian Literature, 1700 to the Present, VOLUME TWO. A Publication of Guardian Books Nigeria Limited. Edited by Yemi Ogunbiyi, with a foreword by Stanley Macebuh. First published 1988.

 

 

 

 

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