The folktale tradition in a technological world: A review of Onyemaechi Maxwell Opia-Enwemuche’s The Oracle of Isieke

This entry is part 7 of 10 in the series Reviews season one

Last Updated on June 2, 2018 by Memorila

In The Oracle of Isieke, the author, Maxwell Opia-Enwemuche, wrote a sweet novella that teaches why jealousy, wickedness and evil should be shunned as one who kills with a sword, dies by the sword. Ubaji Isiaka Abubakar Eazy reviews

I salivate for times bygone
When we assemble at night
At feet of elders to gladden
Our minds with juices from
Their oral repertoire

– From ‘Dele Bamidele’s Konko Jabele

When I was young and my elders say to me that their younger days was better than ours, I was forced to ask myself how such assumption could be possible. What do they mean by better when my age was fortunate to have the television, air condition, radio, internet and better health facilities? It was not till I grew up that I realised the wisdom in their words.

I was not fortunate to be born in the village but my father was the old traditional type who felt the need to gather his kids once in a while at nights to tell them stories; stories of the tortoise and his wily ways, of how the tortoise came to have a seemingly cracked shell, of how the lizard liked nodding its head, stories of hunters and spirits, stories of man crossing seven seas, seven rivers, and seven mountains to achieve their aims, stories of man in eternal struggle with the supernatural. I practically lived in those worlds and wish I could turn back the hands of time if only to relive those moments. Truly, I can say that those of you born in the age of PS, Mario, computer games and Android phones games have no idea what you have missed. Indeed, I salivate for times bygone.

Indeed, in the transition from orality to written literature, there was much transference of the techniques of orality into the written medium. The use of proverbs in Chinua Achebe’s works is one of such example. Another is the folktale tradition; Chinua Achebe, for instance, employs folktale in Things Fall Apart, where Ekwefi tells her daughter, Ezinma, the story of how the tortoise broke its shell. Amos Tutuola’s narrative technique in The Palmwine Drinkard was heavily influenced by the folktale tradition, yet that which I find most fascinating is Cyprian Ekwensi’s novella titled The African Night Entertainment, I could read that book twenty times and never get tired!

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Even in the face of series of breakthroughs and new discoveries by science, galloping advancement in technology, and migration from the close existence of villages to living in ‘mind your business flats’ in the cities, I believe that we can reinvent the culture of orality and keep it alive in different ways. We can use the television to record our tales and play them out (Wait a minute, what happened to the Nigerian television programme known as Tales by Moonlight?). We can document our tales in writing using the ambience of old moonlight storytelling and this exactly, is what Onyemaechi Maxwell Opia-Enwemuche has done in his novella, The Oracle of Isieke.

The Oracle of Isieke is a tale of jealousy, wickedness and evil. As Achebe says in Things Fall Apart, a man is measured based on his achievement for while age is respected, achievement is revered. So it happens that Mazi Uchenna Okechukwu wins the title and honour of being the greatest yam farmer in the land of Isiaku after every year’s harvest. This is as a result of his hardworking nature but there are some who are not happy with the fact that one man continually wins this honour every year. So they plan on having him humiliated by changing the words of the oracle of Isieke– accusing him (Mazi Okechukwu) of raping a six-year-old girl to death and secretly had her buried on his piece of farmland. It is an abominable act and one which must not go unpunished else untold hardship would be visited upon the village by the gods.

The verdict was that Mazi Okechukwu and members of his family are to be banished from the village and abandoned in the evil forest to be devoured by wild animals, an ordeal which Mazi Okechukwu and his family miraculously survived.

Years after Mazi Okechukwu had been expelled from the land of Isiaku, things became worse as there was famine and sickness in the land, and death ate to its fill. Many were contemplating abandoning the village for better life elsewhere. The king has the responsibility to ensure the safety and well being of his people so he embarks on another long journey to consult another oracle at Isikwato who reveals that which had long been hidden to the king and many others.

The solution to the problem is to find the man who has been wrongly accused, punish those who had framed him up and cleanse the land of sin. Now, where would the king find a man who had long been believed to be killed by wild animals, how does the king identify those who committed the heinous act, and how does he restore the peace and well being that had been lost in his kingdom? You can only know this when you read the novella.

We must applaud Maxwell Opia-Enwemuche for a job well done. He actually brought the Igbo culture to the fore, especially in his description of the proceedings of the new yam festival. Among the Igbos, yam is regarded as a staple crop and mainly cultivated by men. Whoever produces the largest piece of yam during the new yam festival wins the honour of being regarded as the greatest yam farmer in the land for that harvest season or year. Hence, yam is a celebrated crop and the festival is done to encourage hardwork and appease the goddess of the earth (Ani) so she can keep the soil fertile and allow bountiful harvest the following year. I find the novella quite educating and informational. But is the book good enough? Let us see…

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While the writing is not bad and I love the idea of using the framed narrative technique mode, I think a second round of editing would help eliminate few grammatical inconsistencies and the book’s outlook. The style of presenting speeches need also be checked. And about the plot, that twist of raping a young girl and burying her on Mazi Okechukwu farm did not go down well with me, except if those that committed the abominable act could actually be linked to the plot to bring about the downfall of Mazi Okechukwu.

In narrating the story, the writer used the effaced narrative style whereby a narrator begins the story and later fades into the background only to reappear at intervals or at the story’s terminal point. So if the writer brought “Grandma” in at the story’s prologue to tell the story and removes her in the first chapter then he should let it remain so and avoid authorial intrusion. Perhaps the writer wanted the reader to remember Grandma was still telling the story while driving deeper into the story’s world but he made a bad job of it.

I am not comfortable with the manner in which characters were introduced without first creating adequate ambience but this was controlled in later chapters. For example, I dare say the forty kids gathered around Grandma in the prologue appeared out of nowhere!

Another issue I have with the story is the lack of coherence and verisimilitude. First, my findings made me to understand that Ani is the goddess of the earth and not a ‘god’. Also, since the story temporal setting is fixed at 1800 (by the writer) I wonder why the writer could not stay with the story in 1800 and decides to zoom into present while he is confidently writing of the past. I know Amos Tutuola was accused of the same issue I have just identified and one critic who defended him said that it is normal for a storyteller to use modern images in description while telling a story of olden days. Well, I think Tutuola could be forgiven considering the level of his proficiency in the English language at the time he wrote and also the fact that he was trying to explain strange phenomenon which (although would have at once been grasped by Africans but) would not easily be comprehended by the Europeans who were Tutuola’s target audience. What I speak of is the use of terms like Igwe Chiyelugo IV to name a king (even though the Igbos were historically never known to operate a centralised government as at 1800), the addition of the Roman figures to the name of kings is an English innovation that never existed in Africa as at the time the story happened. The use of “Mr” and “Mrs” for some characters as a way of showing respect is also wrong. I believe words such as “ichie,” “dee,” “mazi,” “ogbuefi,” “pa,” etc are appellations indicating respect or titles. Else, use the names only instead of Mr Ifeanyi, Mr Ogazi, etc.

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Using latinated terms and expressions to capture characters’ speeches does not also go well with the story, as well as using biblical images such as Sodom and Gomorrah or words like ‘gallon of water’ where ‘a pot of water’ should have sufficed, ‘Isiakuwas,’ ‘holy books,’ ‘school,’ Isiaku Trust Funds,’ ‘wonderland of Arabia,’ ‘Princess Diana of hearts,’ etc hampers the story presentation since these things are modern phenomenon that could not have been in place as at the story’s temporal setting and neither could the old village grandma have been conversant with them if we assume it is her voice we hear.

I find it ridiculous that the night which began the story was a night with forty children yet it was a night with “dead silence in the village of Isiaku with the hooting of owls and the screeching of crickets” and that part of having Obiora son talk of seeking greener pastures in Lagos when it is still 1800 is not good for the story.

In conclusion, Maxwell Opia-Enwemuche has written a good story and proven that he is one of the last bastions of the African culture and the traditional storytelling style in Africa (even in the face of scientific and technological innovations). By writing this story he teaches his readers to shun jealousy, wickedness and evil. Also, while we can only hear an oral tale once or twice with some parts easily shorn off or added to, we can read this written tale over and over again (without alterations) since we would have our copies within reach on our bookshelves. However, he should work on the story’s flaws and ensure they do not appear in future editions and stories.

The wonderful thing about literature is that you can sit at one spot, open a book and let your soul travel into the world of the book! The Oracle of Isieke is indeed “A Journey Through Time” and we must thank the author for taking us on the trip. For those who will soon sojourn into the world of The Oracle of Isieke, I must plead that you send my greetings to the people of Isiaku, and of course to Mazi Uchenna Okechukwu, the greatest yam farmer in all of Isiaku! Tell him the grandson of Ubaji from the future sends his greetings!

© Ubaji Isiaka Abubakar Eazy 2017

Read Eazy’s reviews on Memorila every Saturday!

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Ubaji Isiaka Abubakar Eazy

Ubaji Isiaka Abubakar Eazy holds a degree in English language and literary studies. He is a short story writer, copy editor, book reviewer, literary critic, poet, and essayist. He teaches English as a Foreign Language in Hargeisa, Somaliland.

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