A Peculiar Tragedy: J.P. Clark-Bekederemo and the Beginning of Modern Nigerian Literature in English;
by Adewale Maja-Pearce; New Gong, 2011.
Review by Akin Adesokan
Culled from The Guardian
A little over a hundred pages into A Peculiar Tragedy, it becomes clear that the pact between Adewale Maja-Pearce, the author, and John Pepper Clark-Bekederemo, the subject of what begins like an authorized biography, is headed for the rocks. Both cannot agree over the use the author wishes to make of a particular letter, and walking away from the gathering where the disagreement has started, Maja-Pearce wonders to himself: “And yet if [J.P. Clark] thought me brave in Saro-Wiwa’s case because of what he flatteringly regarded as my fidelity to the truth as I saw it, what did he expect in his own?” (117). Prior to taking on this biography, Maja-Pearce had put together a collection of essays, headed with a long piece on Ken Saro-Wiwa, the writer and political activist murdered by the Nigerian state in 1995. But along the way he fell out with the publishers over a matter of principle, eventually releasing the book under New Gong, an imprint he co-founded in Lagos.
The choice of a biography of Clark-Bekederemo poses several problems to the author, and he devotes a good part of the introduction to arguing out his reason. Convinced that of the four major writers who emerged in the early 1960s—Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka, Clark and Christopher Okigbo—Clark-Bekederemo has had the least international renown, Maja-Pearce sets about establishing why this is the case. He locates an intriguing lead in an extra-literary domain, the author’s conduct during the tragic civil war of the late 1960s in Nigeria. Although Maja-Pearce would devote considerable space to the analyses of Clark-Bekederemo’s poems, plays, and essays, which he reads for their intrinsic literary values and in comparison to the work of his peers, the weight of his judgment falls on the author’s politics, before, during and after the war. Indeed, the disagreement that ends their accord arises when the biographer brings up the topic of a letter written by Clark-Bekederemo which, as Maja-Pearce sees it, demonstrates that the man made enormous financial and political gains from his choices during the war. In the letter, the poet proposes to end his contract with the British attorneys he had earlier hired to sue Soyinka for libel, and also offers them a tender for lifting crude oil in exchange for supplying St. Louis cubed sugar.
During a war in which writers were jailed (Soyinka), killed (Okigbo), or taken up with the cause (Achebe), Clark-Bekederemo stayed on the Federal side. In Maja-Pearce’s telling, he went further by casting doubts on Soyinka’s motives (a letter to this effect is included as an appendix), allegedly orchestrating a campaign of calumny against his fellow writer. He topped this attitude by questionably attending a conference of Commonwealth literature in Australia, at a time when he and his wife played hosts to a shadowy character, in all probability a government spy. Maja-Pearce performs a remarkable duty by making these actions of Clark-Bekederemo during the Nigerian civil war the central issue in the book, and indispensable to its form and substance.
The author’s understanding of the historic role carved for this generation of Nigerian intellectuals informs the seriousness with which he approaches their works as well as public standings. This is familiar territory for an author who once argued, in A Mask Dancing, a study of postcolonial Nigerian fiction published in 1992, that the trouble with Nigeria was the failure of its writers and intellectuals. The title essay in his book dealing with Saro-Wiwa (“a businessman who hobnobbed with the Generals”) made a similar argument. He pursues this thesis in a more wholesome manner in the present book by making a connection between the privilege enjoyed by “young men and women…courted before they took their finals [at the university] and began their working lives with a Jaguar car and an elegant, old-style colonial houses, complete with servants” and “a dominant feature of Nigerian life” which “gives one the idea that nobody else ultimately matters” (22, 21). The dominant feature is the feeling of being a “Big Man,” an “Oga” with an insatiable sense of entitlement, and Maja-Pearce saw this attitude in action on the several occasions he visited with the poet. Add to this the fact of a poet from the Niger Delta chummy enough with politicians to offer oil contracts, and you get the sense of the tragedy of the book’s title.
Since his primary concern is with these men’s vocations as writers, Maja-Pearce simultaneously pays attention to the writings, often in highly idiosyncratic ways. The choice of subordinating everything else about Clark-Bekederemo’s career to his alleged role during the war has the advantage of showing us the man for the writer. But it also has the disadvantage of making the work that the writer produced an appendage to the history. To be sure, Maja-Pearce follows contemporary opinion in identifying Clark-Bekederemo as the most accomplished of the three poets—besides Okigbo and Soyinka—prior to the war. In fact, his simple verdict is that the poet produced his best work during this period, and that the result of his stance during the war was to destroy his art altogether: “[I]t may simply be that his talent was of the type that flowered early and was gone by the time he became fully conscious of it…in which case he might as well have taken the money but then kept quiet” (371).
There are some very compelling analyses of Clark-Bekederemo’s poetry, which the author frequently builds into the very flow of his own prose. The chapter entitled “Kiagbodo,” focusing on the poet’s country home and the setting for their rancorous disagreement earlier mentioned, is constructed as the affective fount of Clark-Bekedremo’s poetic inspiration. The man appears to rise out of the watery landscape with his lyrical poems, and the reader is invited to a visceral encounter with the world of “Night Rain” and “Land of the Gods.” The book attempts an important discussion of the vexed “language question” in African literature, and here Maja-Pearce is on the side of the angels. There is also a sustained and informed discussion of the plays Ozidi and Song of a Goat, and the chapter on the poet’s controversial visit to the United States in 1962 contains a judicious analysis of America, Their America, the product of that experience. Maja-Pearce does great justice to the book by comparing it to a contemporary text, An Area of Darkness, V.S. Naipaul’s account of his visit to India.
It is through this kind of almost even-handed treatment of the man and the work that Maja-Pearce succeeds in painting an altogether complex but convincing picture of Clark-Bekederemo. The prose is distinctive, with the author indulgently slipping into Pidgin expressions in mid-sentences in a manner likely to perplex even a Nigerian reader. He writes through free association, and does not always pause to disentangle the several strands of his narrative. For example, we are told of the decision to challenge J.P. and his wife over their relationship with the man who lived with them for about a year in the late 1960s (86). The confrontation, however, does not occur until some fourteen pages later, and the contents of the intervening pages, in my opinion, belong elsewhere in the book. He could also have spent more time on Masquerade and The Raft, plays which put Clark-Bekederemo in productive dialogue with the likes of Soyinka and Femi Osofisan, and whose dramatic values are underserved by the suggestion that drama is not his forte.
Maja-Pearce is interested in a different kind of dialogue between Soyinka and Clark-Bekederemo, that being the rivalry at the start of their career, which their divergent roles during the war did much to deepen. In my view, he goes to an unnecessary length in giving Soyinka so much space in this book, and it seems only so he can knock the Nobel laureate for reasons less to do with literature and more to do with his own recent quarrel with Soyinka, a man he used to idolize.
Nonetheless, A Peculiar Tragedy is in a class all its own. It is well researched, written with wit, and represents a major contribution, indeed a great service to Nigerian letters, all the more so for its thoroughgoing iconoclasm. There are a few errors of fact. Ozidi was staged by Dapo Adelugba at the University of Lagos in 1995, contrary to the author’s claim (p. 227) that the plays has never been performed, and Soyinka could not have visited Sweden in 1968 (266), since he spent that year in solitary confinement. But there are also many passages that will make the attentive reader laugh out loud.
Maja-Pearce is an exacting, plain-speaking, self-deprecating and self-critical writer (“I was only looking for one million naira to finish a project which might not move the nation forward…”, 112). How in the world did he and Clark-Bekederemo find each other and what made them think they could work together in a lasting manner?
I suppose this is another doing of the god of happy accidents.
Dr. Adesokan, author of the novel, Roots in the Sky (Festac Books) and the scholarly work, Postcolonial Artists and Global Aesthetics (Indiana University Press, 2011), is an Associate Professor of Comparative Literature, Indiana University, Bloomington.