21 Nov 2014

BOOK REVIEW: THE LAST DUTY


Isidore Okpewoh’s African Arts Prize for Literature winning novel“The Last Duty” is what any reader would find an interesting read regardless of tribe or race. The novel explores the effects of war on Aku, a young woman whose husband is imprisoned on allegations of collaborating with rebel soldiers. Alone and with a son to cater for, Aku struggles to survive in a town she is hated as she belongs to the tribe of the rebels, Simbia. This makes things even harder for her in Urukpe, as she can hardly venture out for fear of being attacked by a mob incited by the violent and traumatic experiences of war.
The author cleverly uses the character of Chief Toje to expose the wicked and deceptive machinations of the leaders we have in society. Chief Toje, a rubber business tycoon is character is portrayed as arrogant, cunning and self-seeking. He feeds lies to the commander of soldiers, Major Akuya Bello about his business rival, Mukoro Oshevire who is Aku’s husband, accusing him of being a Simbian rebel collaborator. Major Akuya Bello is quick to arrest Oshevire without any investigation and send him off to prison since the information is coming from an important, respectable and ‘honourable’ chief like Toje. With Oshevire languishing in jail, Chief Toje decides to solve the problem of his ineffective manhood by making lewd advances towards Aku. Although suspicious of Chief Toje’s intentions, Aku cannot put up much of a fight to stave off Chief Toje as he is her only hope of survival. He lavishes her with gifts of food, money and material things on her and her son which is a welcome relief for her as she has no other means of survival. Odibo is the errand boy that serves as an intermediary between the Toje and Aku. Having been born with a deformed left hand, Odibo relies on Chief Toje for survival and has to suffer the degradation and verbal abuse usually meted out to him by Toje. To avoid suspicion that he is having an affair with Aku, Toje devices the method of sending Odibo to her house to deliver the gifts and invite her to Odibo’s house while Odibo keeps Oghenovo her son company.
As the war rages on, Brigade Major Ali Idris the new commander in Urukpe has his own problems of trying to maintain peace and stability in Urukpe. He is forced to execute one of his soldiers who in a fit of jealousy fueled rage kills a senior officer having an affair with his lover. After finding out the danger Aku is in from Chief Toje, he assigns a soldier to stand watch over her house secretly to protect her from any attack. Asides trying to come up with strategies to outsmart the rebels, he also tries to figure out what Chief Toje is up to with Aku. While Toje claims benevolence towards Aku, he is willing to indict her husband Oshevire as a rebel collaborator and recommend him for hanging which according to Ali is quite contradictory.
Odibo on the other hand is resentful of Chief Toje for making him feel less of a man because of his deformity. His feelings of resentment are at first directed towards Aku because Chief Toje takes to humiliating him in her presence. As time goes on he gets attracted to her, an emotion which she shockingly responds to. Unknown to him Chief Toje being impotent only succeeds in arousing Aku without ever satisfying her and her being without a man for three years has heightened her womanly needs. She finds relief in the arms Odibo and starts a secret affair with him. Chief Toje becomes suspicious and a confrontation occurs between the two men leading to violence.
As all this goes on, Oshevire faces a tribunal that declares him innocent and he is released from prison. His freedom however does not come at the right time as he returns only to learn of all that has gone on in his absence. Although he holds up a tough front as a man, it is easy to understand from his actions that he is crushed that not only did Chief Toje plot to have him sent to prison but has also made a mess of his wife.  The novel ends with Oshevire and his family trying to leave town but Oshevire is shot dead by a solider after he fails to heed a command to stop.
Characterisation in the novel is one the most interesting elements of the novel “The Last Duty”. The child-world of Oghenovo is a welcomed relief from all the troubles of the adult world. Oblivious of all that is going on with his mother, the young boy is more concerned with when the father he has never met his returning. The author also employs the use of irony to convey messages that would ordinarily not have been effectively communicated. It is ironic that Oghenovo longs for his father but when his father returns, the little boy decides he doesn’t like him because he makes his mother cry. It is also ironic that despite his airs of importance and sense of worth, Chief Toje is unable to pleasure to Aku and she finds comfort with Odibo who has been portrayed as the useless specimen of manhood. Furthermore, the prison offers more solitude and protection for Oshevire who upon his release only comes to meet with the bad news that leads to his tragic death when the prison that is seen as a place of confinement was a much better place for him to have been.
With a simple language that is easily understood, the writings of each of the characters portray their personalities. From Ali’s point of view, the reader can judge he is a just man trying to do good and only finds himself caught in the wicked deception of Chief Toje. Toje on the other hand is the callous, scheming scumbag that is perceived as upright and respectable in the society when through his narrations in the novel we can see he is not worth his measure in gold. He is an evil man who tries to manipulate Major Ali into getting witness against Oshevire and he is also ruthless in trying to get all he desires. He can be said to be symbolic of many Nigerian leaders that are held up as good men in society when in truth they are the cankerworms eating into the fabric of the nation. Through Oghenovo’s writing, we come to terms with a little child that is caught in the middle of a war and misses a father he has never met. As he tries to make sense of all that is going on around him, he also tries to be happy by finding joy in the gifts and material items he gets from his ‘father.’ From Aku’s point of narration, the reader can judge she is but a victim of circumstance, with no other hope of survival she has to take up the position of mistress to a man that is her husband’s rival. In her mind’s eye he is a saviour but unknown to her, he is part of the cause of all her woes. Oshevire, Aku and their son represent the suffering masses who are the victims of the power play of those in power.

The plot on the whole is not very complex as it is quite easy to understand the ongoing in the novel. The narration of each character is an extension of what the last has just told us making for a smooth flow reading for the reader.  On a closer look at the war going on between the seceding Simbians and the Urukpe people, we can say perhaps the author is referring to the Biafra incident in Nigeria’s history. The state of Black Gold referred to in the novel can easily pass for Nigeria with black gold being symbolic of Nigeria’s richness in oil. Through the subject matter we can see that the novel has themes of the effect of war, corruption of leaders in power as well as the struggle for survival. The tone of the novel is that of hope for a better future with the atmosphere being tragic. 

Akinyoade Akinwale
Department of English, University of Lagos
Graduate of Mass Communication, Yaba College Of Technology

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