You do not need to go past several several pages into Adedayo Williams’ ‘The Remains of the Last Emperor’ before it becomes clear that the world the author has created is a crazy one, a world where human life means nothing, where the living cohabits with the dead and the dead with the living; where it is not strange to see a bird-like monster sitting in the middle of the road and pythons mounting a guard of honour.
In this world, an experiment is conducted to induce an earthquake; kids without hands, misshapen limbs and enlarged foreheads are no rarity; and you see a ghost pissing in your food. And there are giant lizards with forked tongues. In here, a medical doctor recites incantations and his father has the capacity to make you see what the best of binocular lenses cannot see. And do not be amazed that dead giants return to life in this crazy world.
This world plays host to a metaphorical medical ward called “The Ward of the Damned”, where inmates sound more like human rights activists than lunatics. You will agree with me if you listen to Lamidi, Jerry, Oseni, Suara, Alamu, Burma, Cobra, Soroye, Aboaba and their leader, Oriade a.k.a “Were Pataki”. Vital messages in ‘The Remains of the Last Emperor’, Prof. Adebayo Williams’ second novel, are delivered through the characters in the “The Ward of the Damned”.
The first edition of the book was published in 1994 when the late Gen. Sani Abacha was riding roughshod over the country. It has been reissued by by Parresia Publishers,
Do not mind the ghosts nor the pythons and pay little heed to the kids with enlarged foreheads, they are all just vehicles Williams employs to deliver a very political novel in a land gripped by a sense of unease, unprecedented wave of hooliganism, political murders, ethnic uprising, botched elections and students unrests.
The beginning of the book paints a picture of a stinking environment. We see human waste everywhere, we see traffic snarl and chaos with beggars taking vantage position everywhere. Rival begging syndicates even have room to quarrel. An old musician and the principal editor with A.J. Wiseman choose this setting for their meeting, where he gives a true account of the evil wrought on the nation by the Emperor decades earlier.
“Young man, take this pen and these sheets and put down the revelations for the generation unborn,” the young man is told and regaled with tale of a pillaged economy, which leads to a march on the seat of power by a group of patients from the asylum, a huge army of the jobless and others.
His decision to spill the yarn is derived from his resolve to dedicate the rest of his life to “the study and recording for posterity of the wise-sayings, riddles, mysteries, puzzles and puns of my people”.
The book lays bare the underbelly of a leader who is a tin-god and an emperor. Samusangudu, the last emperor, wastes the human resources of his country all in his bid to silence the opposition and remain in power for life. He is unwilling to be addressed as former emperor, but as the late emperor. Dignity of life means nothing to him. What matters is his survival even if it means ridding the land of every soul. He loves the people of Gbitiland so much that unleashing mayhem on them brings joy to his crooked heart. Unfortunately for him, there is another leader who knows that: “By the time you are talking about tyrants, you are talking about an individual or a group of individuals who have unleashed a reign of terror on the whole society. They do not normally get there by accident. So, you cannot remove them by one grand gesture of defiance, but by careful planning and timing.” And when “the law-givers had become the greatest lawbreakers”, rebellion looms.
Samusangudu protects himself with a snake (boa-constrictor) fed with babies from women in a baby factory in the Imperial Palace. He only meets his waterloo when his protector refuses his offering and becomes the predator. Soldiers later eat the snake and feel the serpent tastes like chicken and fish.
Employing the omniscient third person point of view in parts and the first person point of view in the main, Williams delivers a lyrical piece with the potential to make a housewife forget a pot of soup on the cooker! He hides behind Sir Dandy, who is in conversation with a young editor out to document history for future generations, Williams delivers an expose on the ruling elite of a country, which has a lot in common with Nigeria. This happens at a time when the editor’s firm has just been handed a manuscript that turns out a fabrication of the truth.
The last moments of the tyrant, though narrated in first person by the old man, has the omnipresent ring of the third person narration. The narrator, after surviving death, becomes some sort of spirit being who can see all, hear all but cannot be seen nor heard. This technique makes it possible for him to get all the juicy details of a tyrant’s messy end. The reader is let in on the tyrant’s attempt to use diabolical means to continue to terrorise the people.
Williams’ messages are clear: Absolute power corrupts absolutely . Another is the futility of absolute power. He also shows that when a people are determined, no tyrant can overpower them. This is inherent in the assertion the epoch ends with: “when the slave defeats his master”. It is hard for a discerning reader to miss this message: “A law is a law, a sacred order. Look, elder, we either have a law-abiding society or we have anarchy and chaos.”
I find profound wisdom in this statement that “Indeed, epochs end when the slave defeats its master, and history, in its own version of the resurrection, begins all over again like the frozen carcass of a Siberian beast after the winter of hibernation”.
The Remains of the Last Emperor brings to mind another political novel ‘Matigari’ by Ngugi wa Thiong’o. Justice, redemption and resistance to irresponsible leadership are themes, which run through both works. The fact that the people must remain eternally vigilant is captured in this quote: “Can there ever be an end to injustice? I asked with a deep sigh. It seems to be that as long as there are lice in the clothes, there will be blood on the fingers….There are some old versions of injustice which make new version of injustice appear like some form of justice. What is important is to move humanity and history forward to new ideals of justice.”
Magical realism meets oral African tradition and they blend well in The Remains of the Last Emperor’. This book, with cute lines and many a crazy character, is sure to remain in the reader’s consciousness long after closing the last page. I dare assert that Williams is classy prose stylist with a social conscience and an admirable desire to shape the society with his art.
Olukorede S. Yishau is the author of ‘Vaults of Secrets’ and ‘In the Name of Our Father’