Book: The Combat
Publisher: Penguin Modern Classics, 2007
[Heinemann African Writers’ Series, 1972]
A very happy and safe New Year to you all. May this be THE year in which Nigeria starts taking real steps to adulthood although how that will happen in the chaos of the moment, I really do not know but unlike zillions of fake so-called men of God who litter the land, I foresee that something will have to give this year. May that ‘something’ be towards a better Nigeria.
I thought of how to open this year’s first column in the spirit of some essays past. There have been the salute to Andrians (old student of St. Andrew’s College) on the centennial of their famed Oyo institution in 2003; an essay on Fela Sowande, world-renowned musicologist whose Centennial was in 2005, as well as Charles Wesley and Methodism.
While this column has been forced by the Nigerian circumstances under the presidency of retired General Obasanjo to become increasingly political, my strength – or at least interest – has always been literature, music, culture and other little subjects that enrich our lives. For this and the next couple of essays, I return to those interests, reflecting my hopes and wishes that this country that has refused to walk at almost fifty, will wake up and realize its full potential. This book review and the two next essays may nonetheless still be deemed political because the subject is a real man of God whose commitment to social justice has made his voice one that should not be ignored.
As for our subject this morning, do set a goal of a book every three months, to start – even a pulp fiction – and from there, take a gradual step towards reaching a goal that makes reading almost as necessary as eating. If you are already a good reader, set a goal of making a reader of a friend or a family member. Each time you buy a book for yourself, buy one for this friend – or lend the friend a book. I made a suggestion years ago in this column that if you are one of those who travel abroad, do something different: take an excess baggage piece filled with books and magazines. I also suggested you give book donations to your alma mater as well as a fact that you can buy books from Used Book dealers where you can always get old classics for a fraction of a dollar in the U.K. and USA.
Kole Omotoso conjures a vulcanizer whose passion is reading!
“The drum signal of Radio Nigeria woke Chuku Debe at 5.30” may not be as well-known as opening lines like Dickens’ “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times” (Tale of Two Cities) or Melville’s “Call me Ishmael” (Moby Dick) but the familiarity of this opening line from an old favorite writer was enough to whet my appetite all over again. I first read Omotoso’s The Combat in 1975; the thin volume – 115 pages – confirms the saying that good things do come in small packages. I read it straight in an evening back then before a second and third reads many years later. I picked up Penguin’s new edition that contains an ‘Afterword’ two weeks ago to dig into this allegorical tale of a friendship that ended in tragedy. The familiarity of this beloved classic is not only about the opening lines but the re-read brought much enjoyment in the familiarity of places, sceneries, things and facts. There were also occasions to marvel at how far – and fast – Nigeria has travelled in four mere decades.
I followed Chuku as he drove his taxi along those familiar streets of Akure with such quaint names as Bovell Jones, Iworokogbasa Lane, etcetera. How about the old Race Course across from King’s College, Lagos where Omotoso studied for his Higher School Certificate – long since destroyed and replaced with the monstrosity now known as Tafawa Balewa Square? Or, the description of a simple action that could go unnoticed by a younger reader who would be unable to take in a little fact that there was a time when things worked well enough in Nigeria to find public taps all over the place: “Just before the lorry reached the Igbobi Hospital, it turned into the drive of a petrol station. The driver jumped out and went to the water tap…”
How about the nostalgic reminder of dear old St. Anna, the majestic magistrate court at Tinubu which was destroyed long ago: “At about 7.30 they went to St. Anna magistrate court, a matter of yards from Tinubu Square … and sat on the steps, waiting for the court to open”. In such little places, the book brings to life memories of a bygone era. Dating of historical events and facts also comes alive in this book that reminds readers of a time when two pennies bought a newspaper and that Nigerian policemen were already taking bribes from motorists long before the more voracious Tafa Baloguns of modern Nigerian Police came along.
Strange as that must now sound, Akure had a lone Texaco, long shut down back in the 60s, a fact the book beautifully weaves in: “The Texaco Oil Company hardly has any petrol stations left in Nigeria …The one in Akure was in a rather central part of the town … This Texaco petrol station had been deserted years before …”. In The Combat, this place that had been taken over by weeds “but for the intervention of Ojo Dada” – whose tire repair enterprise was located in the derelict yard – was the scene of the accident that led to the combat.
The Combat, like books by African writers, gives African readers the pleasure of such familiarities while English classics, in spite of the equal pleasure they may give, present African readers with problems of understanding scenery unless, of course, one has traveled overseas. I remember a letter I got from the author back in 1970 when I lived in subtropical Florida – first time out of Nigeria. He was at Edinburgh University and had described how there was nobody to say pele to him in the snowy completely-deserted streets of Edinburgh like many British towns when he slipped and fell on Christmas day. I could not empathize with him until the words of the letter flashed back to me three years later on an icy Washington, D.C. street!
While it would be unimaginable, a reader can read this book and enjoy it without taking in the political allegory central to the story.
Ojo Dada, ‘OD’ to his good friend, Chuku Debe, are the principal characters in this story of two friends who shared a room – and more – and did little kindnesses like leaving bathing water for each other at the well – when the going was good. A girl they also shared, Moni the hawker, was knocked up but since they knew not who really got the girl pregnant, each tried to claim fatherhood. Did it really matter? You want it to be OD, the tender-hearted romantic but somehow you suspect the “muscles and no-brain” Chuku, the brash no-nonsense man who claims to know what women want more than the voracious reader, OD.
Isaac is the child from one of those liaisons with Moni but one of the many ironies in the story is that the duel between OD and Chuku does not arise from the friends’ dispute about who really sired Isaac whose presence at the petrol station is not as a child following his father around. He has become a street kid because Moni, now a fat rich Lagos society woman, Dee Madam, has left him with her parents at Akure. Those two have made a fine mess of the poor kid who eventually runs out on them.
Other ironies abound. Although Moni has become rich, not once does she care enough to bring this luckless child into her life. After Chuku backs over the kid with his cab, it is ironic that neither goes back to the accident scene to check on the child as they are preoccupied with a combat that OD claims is on principle.
How about Moni’s “triumphant return” to Akure? She dresses Isaac, her child, not minding if he is dead but the greatest of the ironies is The Duel that arises out of something these two friends could have ironed out without the “help” of South Africa and the Soviet Union!
Absurdities? Omotoso’s working of many in the book does justice to his real life sense of humor which is capable of drawing a lot from the absurd!
In the court judgement on who gets the child, Omotoso has the magistrate awarding the child to “Ojo Dada … since medical evidence was more in his favour than … Chuku Debe. But the magistrate did not forget to comment that both men were of the same blood group”!
He goes further, making the magistrate decide that “The other man was to take Dee Madam and … they would produce their own child or children.” No consideration of Moni’s wishes.
And what could be more absurd than a Bishop who winks at female worshippers during prayers for “peace in Vietnam and Northern Ireland”? Or, to point out the farcical nature of press conferences, OD’s wild repartee when asked the very irrelevant question of what he thinks of beauty competitions: “They are super. They give you an opportunity of what makes of daughters you must breed.” Perhaps appropriate but very sexist and v-e-e-ry absurd!
Omotoso weaves a refreshing tale of the senselessness of The Biafran War.
The Nation on Sunday, January 6, 2008.