Festus Iyayi Biography
Nationality: Nigerian. Born: 1947. Educated in Nigeria; University of Bradford, Yorkshire, Ph.D. 1980. Career: Economic correspondent for several newspapers in Bendel; industrial training officer, Bendel State University, Ekpoma. Currently lecturer in business administration, University of Benin, Benin City. Awards: Association of Nigerian Authors prize, 1987; Commonwealth Writers prize, 1988.
Violence. London, Longman, 1979.
The Contract. London, Longman, 1982.
Heroes. London, Longman, 1986.
Awaiting Court Martial. Lagos, Malthouse Press, 1996.
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"… those who carry the cross for society always get crucified in the end …"
Festus Iyayi's three novels, Violence, The Contract, and Heroes, as well as his collection of short stories, Awaiting Court Martial, expose the abject penury and disenfranchisement that constitute the social reality of the majority of Nigerians. In language that is often vitriolic and stinging, Iyayi's protagonists potently display his contempt for the rampant corruption that strangles contemporary Nigeria. Businesspersons, politicians, generals, and other officials hoard the country's wealth and power at the expense of the working class. This base depravity of the ruling class manifests itself in various forms and ultimately trickles down to the ruled class. In each of Iyayi's novels the real tragedy is that those of the ruled class are either forced or coerced to absorb their oppressor's abuse. They in turn release their anger and frustration not upon the deserving ruling class, but amongst themselves. Iyayi, however, does weave threads of hope within each of his narratives via truculent calls by the main characters to defy their oppressors en masse and fight for their civil rights as well as for the future of their country. Also driving Iyayi's political critique is a profound acceptance of humanity's fragility and frailty. Especially in Awaiting Court Martial, Iyayi displays an uncanny ability for capturing the details of his character's troubled psyches through crisp metaphors and often naturalistic imagery.
Violence usually connotes physical abuse, but in his first novel, Violence, Iyayi redefines it as a continual, demoralizing structure that eliminates hope, pride, self-esteem, health, and the ability to live independently. Having to always rely on borrowed naira from those who are more fortunate leaves deep scars of shame and guilt. Iyayi's violence creeps into the corners of the pneuma of the lower classes, the have-nots, and renders them helpless against the socio-political machine powered solely by money, corruption, and privilege.
Obofun and Queen exemplify Nigeria's corrupt, monied class. Obofun makes his millions by winning coveted building contracts through his connections in the government and through the relinquishing of percentages of the contracts' total worth to those who award them. His wife, Queen, sleeps with other men to get what she wants—namely, supplies, which are otherwise expensive and scarce, for her hotels. When Idemudia, a typical, destitute laborer, is fortunate enough to find work, the conditions at the site are deplorable. If he wants to keep his job and be able to feed himself and his wife, Adisa, then he has to swallow the maltreatment. If he chooses to fight the system, to organize the workers against his boss, Queen, and to ask for higher wages and better conditions, then he risks being fired and subsequent starvation.
One of the most effective passages in Violence is a series of lines from a play performed at a local hospital. Iyayi utilizes this poignant and very effective device to convey his definition of violence. Idemudia witnesses this play is educated and inspired by the actor who denounces violence and advocates resistance, and then leads his co-workers in threatening to strike for better wages and conditions.
Iyayi's writing continues to be mordacious and gripping in his second novel, The Contract. The main character, Ogie, returns to Benin after an absence of four years and is amazed and disgusted at how quickly and completely the city has decayed. There is filth and chaos everywhere. He learns that the government awards contracts for building hospitals, roads, and low-cost housing, then demands percentages for awarding the contract. This practice leaves little or no money for building the structures the contract was for—resulting in inferior and often-abandoned projects. The people of Benin live in squalor while a few wealthy, corrupt officials get fatter. Anything can be bought or sold. Men will even offer their wives for a favored chance at winning a contract, or lie, cheat, and even kill for fortunes. Like Idemudia in Violence, Ogie's abomination of the stark contrasts of wealth and poverty in his hometown is potently conveyed. He swears he will fight the system of which even his father is a part. He takes a job at the council and soon finds himself tortuously torn and confused over right and wrong. He continues to reaffirm decent convictions, but eventually compromises his values to become "corruption with a human face." He decides he cannot beat the system entirely, but can take the money he receives from the contract percentages and invest it in Benin and local businesses, rather than hoard it in a Swiss bank account.
Heroes, Iyayi's third novel, is set against the background of Nigeria's civil war in the late 1960s. As in his previous work, Iyayi's style is forceful and bold. Once again, he cries out against the injustices in Nigeria through well-crafted characters and electrifying writing.
Osime is a journalist who supports the vociferous calls for a united Nigeria and those denouncing the Biafran soldiers and exalting the Federal troops. He sees the Federal troops as the saving force for Nigeria. But when the Federal troops shoot and kill his girlfriend's father without cause in cold blood, he begins to realize that there is more to the war than he had originally thought. Osime quickly sees that even though the Biafran and Federal troops commit wretched crimes, the generals and the officers are the real enemies of the people of Nigeria. The soldiers have learned to become murderers from the military's officers—they are merely instruments of destruction under the orders of officers who seek power, territory, and fortune. In its critique of the generals and military power, therefore, the novel offers a useful analogy for unveiling the hypocrisy and self-interest that lie hidden behind bourgeoisie ideology. Osime's solution is the formation of a third army—one that fights the greedy politicians, businesspersons, and generals. A total revolution, powered by the third army, could eliminate the corrupt officials reigning at the top of all sectors of Nigerian society and replace it with rule by those who love the land, work the land, and therefore respect it and its inhabitants.
Iyayi's criticism of Nigerian society is relentless in all three novels, but even among the dire revelations and depressing reality of the polarities of privation and opulence in Nigeria, he offers an encouraging creed for social change: "A people are never conquered. Defeated, yes, but never conquered." And some of the more striking moments of defeat are explored in Awaiting Court Martial.
The collection's fifteen stories create a gallery of tortured souls, poignantly imagined and rendered visibly luminous by Iyayi's piercing psychological descriptions. As in the novels, the main character's crisis, no matter how unique or personal, often reflects the political chaos and social disintegration of the nation at large. For example, the opening story, "Jeged's Madness," is about a mutually destructive marriage that ruinously ends when a rich bureaucrat, Mr. Throttle Cheat-Away, offers the husband advancements only so that he can rape the wife. The title story, "Awaiting Court Martial," is a dreamlike, first-person confession made by a once-efficient executioner of the state. The doomed soldier did not give the order to shoot his latest victim, his brother, who came boisterously laughing to his own execution. The brother's laughter disarms and ridicules the effectiveness of the mass execution, transforming the marksmen into boys simply "spitting at the sun." Uniting the stories are themes also prevalent in Iyayi's novels: political corruption, interpersonal cruelty, the nightmarish threats of kidnapping, murder, home invasion, or robberies, psychological obsessions, the power of dreams and folk values, and the political responsibility of the artist-intellectual—a few of the narrators seem to be Iyayi himself.
Current literary criticism of Iyayi's works has focused on the validity of postcolonial theories when applied to Iyayi and other non-exile writers (Femi Osofisan), and the aesthetic intertwining of radical narrative techniques with radical politics (Fírinne Nì Chréachàin); but perhaps the most popular treatment of Iyayi deals mainly with his exemplification of characteristics commonly associated with Chinua Achebe and other renowned authors of the Nigerian canon as it is articulated by and for Western readers (John Bolland).
updated by Michael A. Chaney
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