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Okinba Launko’s Cordelia: When the dramatist tells a story

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This entry is part 9 of 12 in the series Reviews season two

Ubaji Isiaka Abubakar Eazy writes that Okinba Launko’s Cordelia queries how we make hasty conclusions on government without actually knowing what is going on within the corridors of power. He further stressed that the story depicts the heavy influence of the author’s dramatic skills in his storytelling acts.

For those who have been faithful to literature, especially African literature, the name Okinba Launko should not sound new to their ears. Okinba Launko is of course Femi Osofisan‘s pseudonym! Now, how many of you know this? Raise your hands let me see them. Okay, you, you, and you! Just only few out of multitudes! Too bad, you need to study more about literature.

Femi Osofisan ranks as one of African’s finest playwright, his generation came immediately after that of Soyinka and Clark. A peculiar trait of the dramatist of Femi Osofisan’s generation is that there were more at home with the plight of their people, they did not stop at being tragedians or comedians as John Pepper Clark Bekederemo and Wole Soyinka are, their dramas were radicals and had Marxist leanings. In fact, they practiced what is known in literary circles as the epic theatre form proposed by Augustus Boal and Bertolt Bretch.

One amazing thing about Femi Osofisan is that he is a very versatile writer experimenting with different theatrical forms and adapting classical plays into the African scenario (Tegoni for instance) but still with the obvious brush of radicalism that has almost become a permanent feature of his work. Whether Osofisan’s plays hinges on family cum domestic issues, the plight of the poor and exploited in a country, dictatorship, military in power or societal decadence, it is very difficult to beat Osofisan at what he knows how to do best, playwriting. If these were all, Osofisan would still be a force to reckon with in the literary arena but Osofisan is also a prolific poet and a storyteller. In fact, a poetry collection of his, Minted Coins, won the Association of Nigerian Authors’ annual prize for literature in 1987, albeit the collection was published under his pseudonym, Okinba Launko.

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You may ask why Femi Osofisan would need a pseudonym but if you live in a military regime where what you say and write becomes a threat to the khaki boys, especially if your writing is a ribald satire as that of Osofisan, you would understand why a writer would need a pseudonym.

However, all these na old tori. I have read Kolera Koleji (prose form) and now Cordelia has joined the list of books on my shelf. I have come to realise that even as Osofisan tells his stories with a dexterity that cannot be but admired, he is still a dramatist at heart hence he does more of “showing” than telling. Is that why Kolera Koleji could easily be adapted into a play which he (Osofisan) wrote? We do not want to speak of Kolera Koleji here, our object here is Cordelia.

Cordelia is a short story about the adventure of a distraught and hen-pecked university professor who finds himself steeped in a government coup.

Professor had just arrived at his office distraught one fine morning wondering why he finds it difficult to comprehend his wife (Remi). He rushes lectures and he is visited by two female students in his office. They believe Professor is not his usual self that morning. One of the girls introduces herself as Cordelia Nwaeze Peters – the daughter of a popular Colonel Nwaeze Peters of the Nigerian army – while the other is Stella. They leave and Remi calls Professor’s office to say she wanted to use the car.

But then, a coup had just been announced. The military government in place had garnered popularity and was in the citizens’ favour so many were not happy with the coup. The leader and announcer of the coup is Colonel Nwaeze Peters whose daughter just left Professor’s office. The effect of the coup’s announcement was violent, students left classrooms and began protest and Cordelia was almost mobbed but Professor was able to intervene and get her to safety, despite protest from his wife who barred him from leaving the office; the students who were much incensed by her father’s actions, threw stones at Professor’s car as he drove off.

Professor would later go through the ordeal of having soldiers torture him to reveal Cordelia’s whereabouts and it turns out Colonel Nwaeze Peters is not originally part of the coup but was blackmailed. To redeem his image, he must attack the coup plotters in their hide out but they have his daughter. He uses Professor to trick the coup plotters and storms their hideout for battle and at the same time rescue his daughter. All these were within a day.

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The colonel thanks Professor for his immense contribution towards saving his daughter’s life and also helping to clear of the army dissidents. The colonel announced to Professor that the Supreme Military Council has decided to hand over the mantle of leadership to him and he is offering Professor the position of a minister in his cabinet. Professor does not immediately accept and the colonel gives him time to think about it. He would go home and finally decide he would not accept the position simply because he does not wish to taint his image with corruption and he would also refuse the advances of Cordelia for an affair although he makes up his mind to break up soon with Cordelia and that is the end.

Now, it is a nice story about how we make wrong conclusions about government without knowing what is going on within. Cordelia’s life was put at stake many times for being the daughter of her father. I would not, however, accept the non-partisan position elected by Professor although I agree that it is difficult to remain untainted if one chooses to join the crew for how can one sheep survive amidst many wolves?

The story is narrated using the first person narrative point of view with Professor as the narrator. It uses the present tense for the verbs instead of what writers call the historical present or past. Now, that is quite an innovation! It gives the story a sense of immediacy but it does not come without complications.

You see, a story is usually told in the past, especially if it is in the first person because there is that feeling with readers that the person is telling you of an experience that took place either in the immediate past or long, long ago. So it is normal if you say “On this particular day, I saw the trees outside my office…” instead of “I SEE the trees outside my office…”

The complication might even have been manageable had the story observed the unity of time (all events must take place within one day) but the story ran into two days and the verbal complications came up when the narrator narrated the events of the following day. It is a nice experimentation but I cannot declare it a good one. I think the writer’s knack for drama is reflected in this. With drama, you always deal with the present tense, your stage directions are given in present tense and your characters words would almost appear in the present too, and so would it be safe to say Osofisan is borrowing ideas from playwriting into prose?

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Another thing is the ordering of the play, all is straight to the point. It is all action packed and lacks depth. It is the kind of story Cyprain Ekwensi would tell – the story moves fast towards the end. Not much was done on characterisation but I must say I admire the manner in which the writer gave the trees human attributes making them a reflection and prolepsis of the events that take place in the story. I would not say the lack of depth and a husbandry in characterisation is bad for a story, I especially dislike stories that drag on and on and become packs of boring lectures without much action. My aim here is to espouse the fact that Osofisan’s dramatic skills are also reflected in his storytelling act.

So, Osofisan goes more for the action than the narration by populating his story with dialogues and if anything, they make the story interesting because I could almost see it all happening in my mind’s eyes (ask me if I be winch lol), believe me, it is only a writer who has a penchant for the dramatic in prose writing who can make scenes come alive, as burning fire, the way Osofisan does.

The professor in the story reminds me of The Man character in Ayi Kwei Armah’s The Beautiful Ones Are Not Yet Born – both are not part of the system or government but against their wishes, they find themselves enmeshed in the whole imbroglio of their nation’s mess.

You want to read a story that is fast moving and action packed? You want to see humor demonstrated even under dire circumstances? Then you should read Osofisan’s…no…it is Okinba Launko’s Cordelia.

This is where I put a full stop for now. Should I keep rambling, I might never pick another book. So, una buy garri o!

©Ubaji Isiaka Abubakar Eazy

Series Navigation<< Let us talk classicism again: a critical review of Abdul O. Umar’s The SurrogateExamining the greatness of South African literature through the vista of Can Themba’s The Will to Die >>

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