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D. O. Fagunwa and his overbearing ‘ helpers’: a novelist’s predicament

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Fagunwa Illustration

Whenever the full history of the Nigerian literature is written, Daniel Olorunfemi Fagunwa (popularly known as D.O. Fagunwa), the Yoruba language novelist, would certainly occupy his rightful place as one of its pioneers.

Although literate in the English language, Fagunwa chose to put his indigenous language in the limelight by employing it in the writing of his novels which not only enjoyed wide readership among the Yoruba-reading population of the then Western Nigeria, but also attracted critical response from both Yoruba and non-Yoruba scholars.

Given Fagunwa’s education and exposure, it might be unfair to draw the conclusion that he was blissfully unaware of the limitations he was imposing on himself in terms of readership and critical appreciation when he chose to write in Yoruba.

What seems more likely the case is that he was probably willing to sacrifice on the altar of cultural and linguistic nationalism the fame he would certainly have gained beyond his ethnic block and the hefty financial reward that would have come rolling to his doorstep had he chosen English as his medium of expression.

According to Ayo Bamgbose, although “Fagunwa… was quite familiar with certain works in English literature, including translations of stories from Greek mythology… two possibilities were open to him. He could use his knowledge of English literature to produce a European type of novel… or he could create something of his own, drawing his inspiration from traditional material. It was the latter course that Fagunwa chose. Fagunwa based his novels on the tradition of the Yoruba folk-tale (Bamgbose, 1974).”

That’s it. And his decision came at a cost. After all, barely educated Amos Tutuola whose 1952 novel, The Palmwine Drinkard, which appeared sixteen years after the Church Missionary Society (CMS) had published Fagunwa’s first novel, Ogboju Ode Ninu Igbo Irunmole, had achieved instant, enthusiastic local and international readership and has since then enjoyed serious study by literary scholars and students across the globe. It remains in doubt if Tutuola could have readily found a publisher (especially, one with considerable stature as Faber and Faber) if he had written his book, say, in the 1970s or even late 1960s.

But today, no historical account of Nigerian literature in English is complete without Tutuola receiving a prominent mention (due largely to his pioneer status) despite the widespread strictures by critics of what many of them perceive as the grievous harm he inflicted on the English language and his penchant for almost confusing the reader with the several and mostly unrelated tales he appeared to have untidily lumped together to realise his novels.

However, Chinua Achebe’s essay, “Work and Play in The Palmwine Drinkard,” (published in Critical Perspectives on Amos Tutuola (Bernth Lindfors ed.) represents not only the most significant effort by a very influential and convincing literary voice to lift Tutuola from the critical dustbin where most critics had impatiently consigned him, but it remains till date the most ambitious and persuasive endeavour to help readers and scholars alike make some really interesting meaning out of what many had long dismissed as Tutuola’s medley of rambling, depthless tales starring mostly flat characters in largely unconvincing scenes.

Tutuola’s work, however, continues to enjoy some prominence in the African literary landscape that Fagunwa’s can only dream of despite the availability now of the latter’s books in English translations and some extensive scholarly studies undertaken on them.

Until very recently, Bamgbose’s 1974 book, The Novels of D. O. Fagunwa, had remained the most comprehensive work on Fagunwa’s novels. In addition to critical analysis of his novels, Bamgbose provides some background details that enhance the reader’s appreciation of Fagunwa’s life and work. For instance, it is from him that we learn that

“Fagunwa’s first novel, Ogboju Ode Ninu Igbo Irunmole, was written for a competition organised by Miss Plumber in 1936. The Church Missionary Society bought the manuscript for 20 (twenty pounds sterling) and published it in 1938. The book was an instant success, and was very popular in the schools” (Bamgbose, 1974:3).

If Fagunwa’s target audience was the Yoruba, to achieve a wide readership among his own people, probably, after convincing himself that his story might be of little or no interest to the outside world, he was then a great success. German/Jewish scholar, Professor Ulli Beier, writing in Black Orpheus in 1965 reports that Fagunwa’s Igbo Olodumare which he says is, in the consensus of many people, his most popular novel “had sixteen prints since 1947”.

Says Beier further:
“when Chief Fagunwa died suddenly and tragically in an accident in December 1963, few non-Yoruba speakers may have realized that with him Nigeria lost its most popular writer” (Beier 1965:51).

Prof Beier was a great admirer of Fagunwa. He had collaborated with Bakare Gbadamosi to translate the first chapter of Fagunwa’s Igbo Olodumare, which was published in Odu: Journal of Yoruba, Edo and Related Studies in 1963.

One can therefore understand why he could describe Fagunwa, a writer whose readership was restricted to the Yoruba-speaking people of Western Nigeria as the country’s “most popular writer” in 1963! And yet he added that only a “few non-Yoruba speakers” were aware of Fagunwa’s popularity, if not existence. He clearly overstated his point, obviously goaded by his overflowing admiration for Fagunwa and his work.

By 1963, Nigerian writers like Amos Tutuola, Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka, Cyprian Ekwensi, Christopher Okigbo, T.M. Aluko and some others were already well known all over Nigeria, across Africa and beyond and being widely studied in European and American universities where, maybe, only an insignificant few might have some vague familiarity with Fagunwa’s name and work; so he could not have been “Nigeria’s most popular writer” in 1963.

Early critical works on Fagunwa was restricted to Yoruba scholars and some others who were, probably, on some kind of “literary adventure,” or “exploration,” especially, from Western countries, with some eager mission to “discover” new “curiosities” in the emerging literature from Africa. These had to collaborate with Yoruba scholars to gain access into Fagunwa’s work. It was, therefore, the earnest hope of scholars outside the Yoruba enclave (whose appetite had been whetted by what they had read about Fagunwa) that Yoruba scholars should rise to the challenge of making Fagunwa’s five major novels available to the outside world by preparing their translations in major world languages like English or French. Interestingly, however, when this expectation began to be gratified, it created its own problems.

For instance, by 1968, when Wole Soyinka’s translation of Fagunwa’s first novel, Ogboju Ode Ninu Igbo Irunmole (as The Forest Of Thousand Daemons) was issued by Nelson Publishers in London, Soyinka had already attained considerable international status as a writer, a fact, it would seem, Nelson had hastened to exploit. Unlike what is the standard practice in many translated books, Soyinka’s name got undue prominence on the cover of the book, and given that he was already a known name among readers of African literature in English, it tended, in the opinion of some readers, to diminish that of the original writer.

Of course, that would be to the rich benefit of the publishers even though, it grossly put the creator of the work at a great disadvantage. One edition whose cover I am looking at as I write now tried to achieve some from of balance. It announces “Wole Soyinka and D.O. Fagunwa” as joint authors of the book in that order.

Now, many of us have read quite a number of Greek, German, French and Russian works made available to us by some diligent English translators. In most cases, the name of the translators appear inside the books or even when they appear on the covers, they are rendered in very small types that one would not readily notice them.

It is possible that many Nigerians may not even be aware that majority of the novels, poems and plays they read in high school and college were first written and published in French by French-speaking African writers, like, Sembene Ousmane, Camara Laye, Aminata Sow Fall, Mariama Ba, Mongo Beti, Ferdinand Oyono, David Diop, Leopold Senghor, etc.? How many people can readily remember the name of the translator of any of these books? And that is because their names were not placed in such a way as to compete for prominence with or even dwarf out that of the author.

Other translations of Fagunwa’s books I have encountered have allowed the Nelson Publishers’ model to dictate their preference. Gabriel Ajadi’s translation of Igbo Olodumare (as The Forest Of God) published in 1995 by Agbo Areo Publishers in Ibadan went further than Nelson. Dr. Ajadi’s name stood out in a far heavier type than Fagunwa’s.

In fact, he is presented as the author of the book. The reader is only informed through an explanatory note on the cover that the book “by Ajadi” is an annotated translation of Fagunwa’s work.

Only recently, I saw the cover of another of Fagunwa’s novels translated by Professor Olu Obafemi and it followed almost the same pattern set by Nelson and Ajadi’s publishers.

The danger then is that Fagunwa’s name, despite what is perceived as his literary success may continue to sound unfamiliar to many people, even those who had read his translated works.

His dilemma is compounded by the fact that his stories which drew heavily from diverse traditional folk tales in form and content and which he appeared to have lumped together in such a disjointed manner to realize his novels might have considerably reduced his appeal to contemporary audiences whose literary taste have already benefited from immense enhancement from a variety of well plotted works from many African writers they have been exposed to.

He had a choice to extend the reach of the traditional paradigm he drew heavily from to lend his stories more depth and help his characters develop further and become more rounded, but he, probably, did not consider that necessary.

Now, of all the novels written by Fagunwa, it is only Gabriel Ajadi’s translation of Igbo Olodumare as The Forest of God that I have read. In an introductory note, Dr. Ajadi submits that “Fagunwa’s world is dichotomized: there is a world in which we live and move, and there is a world which we cannot see.

The former world is the world of man, and the latter is the world of spirits, gnomes, trolls, fairies, ghosts, ghommids, and kobolds. These beings are perceived as being in competition with men; they claim to be superior to man, and man in turn tries to claim his primary place in the universe…”(Ajadi, 1995: 8)

The main issue with Fagunwa’s work is not that it looks more like a cluster of fairy tales, as some critics have argued, which are made to relate in some way to the protagonist, a great hunter, who had gone into a strange, dreaded forest armed with weapons and charms for outlandish encounters with strange spirits, even though such a tale, given especially its peculiar style of rendition, might not greatly appeal to many readers just as it might also not fit into their long-settled perception of reality.

But, that should not have mattered sufficiently if it was the only issue. Magical realism, after all, has over the years shed the shocks it used to elicit to enjoy widespread acceptance as a valid genre in literature. That Fagunwa, therefore, so casually, collapses the “wall” demarcating the world of spirits and man and causes them to interact freely is certainly not enough to attract for him isolation from contemporary readers.

After all, there are literary masterpieces that feed readers with strange tales about ghosts and diverse spirits having both healthy and adversarial interactions with humans.

Apart from the obvious examples in William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, Macbeth, Hamlet, etc., Ben Okri’s well received masterpiece, The Famished Road, for instance, also have such scenes of human interactions with the other world. But what makes the difference at all times is the craft, the artistic quality that tickles and thrills the imagination of the reader and easily draws him out of the world his natural senses have become too familiar with and compels him to easily identify with and even (imaginatively) inhabit the outlandish world the writer has created.

Ajadi claims that in his translation, he endeavoured to retain Fagunwa’s peculiar style and allowed him to speak for himself instead of trying to impose his own interpretations on his sentences.

A note explaining what he refereed to as the philosophy of his translation is served the reader before he is allowed to delve into the novel.

Ajadi writes:
“The main purpose of this work is to provide an annotated translation of Fagunwa’s Igbo Olodumare, a translation which respects the style of the original and the intention of the author, thereby affording a critical access to the novel by literary scholars and students of letters as well as general English readers… My task as a translator is not to rewrite Fagunwa’s Igbo Olodumare in English in my stylistic idiosyncrasy but to unveil his meaning through his own words and style in the translated edition (p. 21)”.

Some eminent critics of African literature have tried to insist that Fagunwa is indeed a writer of note despite some reservations the people they describe as “Euro-centric” critics have expressed about his work. Chiwenizu et al in their book, Toward The Decolonization Of African Literature (1980:272) praised Fagunwa’s depiction of characters “by use of symbols, by use of appropriate names that sum up a character or give a clue to his behavior, and by use of historical sketches that give either the genealogy of the character or an account of his past deeds, or of significant incidents in his life”.

On his part, Abiola Irele argues in his book, The African Experience In Literature And Ideology (1981:77), that since Fagunwa “was the first to make a new and significant literature of the (Yoruba) language, to have given the oral tradition an extended literary form, he was a pioneer”.

According to Prof Irele, Fagunwa “did more than give new life and effect to the oral tradition which he inherited from his culture; he also created out of the communal material it offered him a distinct personal statement in artistic terms upon the issues of human life”.

Irele insists that “it would be a grave error to dismiss his works as simple fantasies, or more seriously, as naïve childish productions” since in Fagunwa’s works one can easily see “maturity of expressions and of visions…which is as fully adult as the most modern novel”.

Prof Beier (1965:52), on his part, is full praises for Fagunwa’s language. According to him:
“Fagunwa is fond of rhetoric. He likes words. He likes to pile them up, say the same thing over and over again in infinite variation. He is a master of rhetoric, who can make repetitions and variations swing in a mounting rhythm, like Yoruba drums.”

Contemporary readers of Fagunwa will readily discern (although, in a lesser degree) in The Forest Of God the quest motif which they had already seen in Amos Tutuola’s The Palm-Wine Drunkard.

Tutuola’s hero goes in search of his dead “tapster” who supplied him excellent palm wine but who had died after falling from a palm tree, while in Fagunwa’s narrative, Olowo-aiye sets out in search of adventure, to hunt in the forest of the great spirit called Igbo Olodumare.

Due to these similarities in themes, background and even characterization, some critics have come up with suggestions about Tutuola’s indebtedness to Fagunwa.

In an article for The Journal Of Commonwealth Literature (1970:58) for instance, Bernth Lindfors sums up the view of these critics by stating that Tutuola “had stolen most of his material from Yoruba folk-tales and the Yoruba novels of Chief Daniel Orowole Fagunwa. He was a plagiarist pure and simple and not an untutored genius gleaning from his own teeming brain”.

• Ugochukwu Ejinkeonye, a literary scholar and journalist, is the author of the book, NIGERIA: Why Looting May Not Stop

There is no intention here to wade into this needless controversy, but it would appear that in his haste to “discover” the source of Tutuola’s material, Professor Lindfors seems to have turned a blind eye to a simple caution on source analyses supplied by R.D. Altick in his book, The Art of Literary Research (1975:95). Says Altick:

“One commonsense question should accompany all attempts to establish the direct indebtedness of one author to another on the grounds of verbal similarities; might not the resemblances be attributable to the fact that both Author A and Author B were nourished by the same culture?”

The Forest Of God has been described as a Yoruba national epic, that is, if we understand an epic as a long narrative on the life and heroic exploits of a great character.

This novel serves the weird tale of a hunter, Olowo-aiye, who sets out on a hunting expedition in the dreaded forest, Igbo Olodumare, armed to the teeth with charms and weapons. He says:

“Today is the day that I go to the place where the powerful ones go, to the abode of the strange beings, to the place that is very dark in my eyes; I will leave peace behind; I shall go in to meet trouble; but difficulty is the father of treasure; good name is better than a new bride; if I endure the trials of today, I shall reap the treasure of tomorrow; if I joyfully return from Igbo Olodumare, my name shall surely endure in the world.”

Olowo-aiye engages in several fights that are so fierce he thinks he would give up. But like the epic hero he is, he emerges from all his fights very victorious. His first fight with Esu-kekere-ode, the demon that lives under the anthill, ends amicably when he reaches for his flute and plays an enticing tune on the greatness and magnanimity of the God, Almighty. This was at the Jungle of Silence.

His next encounter is with Ajediran, the exiled witch, with her elder sister. He later marries Ajediran at the palace of the king of Igbo Olodumare after he defeated Ajonnu-Iberu the vicious gnome who keeps the gate of Igbo Olodumare, in a very fierce battle that was watched by animals, weird creatures and gnomes of Igbo Olodumare.

After being lost in the “forest of God” for three years, Olowo-aiye commences his search for his home route and this brings him in contact with his dead mother who gives him a bean cake that would never finish no matter how much he ate from it. Later, he goes to the house of the kind host and master story-teller, Baba-Onirungbon-Yeuke who takes him on a visit to Death’s house.

He later sets out with some of his countrymen who join him at Baba-Onirungbon-Yeuke’s house and had to be taken prisoner in the town of the snakes by Ojola-Ibinu, the head of all the snakes in the world. They had to device a way of killing this snake-king and passing the valley of the vicious ladies before they could peacefully go home, signaling the end of the very hazardous adventure.

In this novel, though the narrative remains in the first person point of view, we have in fact three narrators.

This is arranged in a linear progressive form to commence with the unidentified narrator who then encounters his old friend, Akara-ogun, the son of Olowo-aiye, born to him in his absence, after he had left for the adventure in Igbo Olodumare. It was he that now tells the story of his father’s exploits until he feels it is time to let his father’s diary speak for itself. And when this is done, he reemerges and then allows the first narrator to indulge in his valedictory speech of some didacticism and moral preachments before the book finally ends.

The Forest Of God is made up of 172 pages. It commences with a brief introduction, a literature review that chronicles the most perceptive comments made about Fagunwa’s works by scholars over the years. There are also chapters devoted to some biographical information about Fagunwa, his works, his use of the Yoruba language and his rhetoric.

The notes at the end of the novel (p. 148) offer insightful explanations on some complicated idioms or other forms of language use and provide quite a number of privileged information from the translator that aid the reader’s appreciation of the work.

Some terms describing Yoruba food items, cultures, mores and customs are also made clear to the reader by the translator through the notes.

It would be futile denying the pride place Fagunwa’s pioneering effort has earned him in the African literary landscape.

His work will always be studied due largely to its very historical and even cultural significance. But one may not always help nursing the feeling that his work is akin to some curative dish which people are often compelled to take as opposed to some really sumptuous delicacies which they go all out to secure and savour.

The book’s strength, however, lies in its ability to raise the hope of the reader and encourage him to follow in the quest with a promise that a great discovery will come as a reward for the quite unentertaining journey. But at the end of the day, the reader is left with this deflating feeling of being duped – and by someone who had no intention of doing so.

Ugochukwu Ejinkeonye, a literary scholar and journalist, is the author of the book, NIGERIA: Why Looting May Not Stop.


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