Power in the Oyo Empire: A review of Tunde Leye’s Afonja: The Rise – Ayodele Ibiyemi

Tunde Leye’s Afonja: The Rise is a well written piece of historical fiction. It chronicles the story of a society in transition. Crises engulf the society after a despotic prime minister enthrones and kills kings in quick succession.

The entire novel is an attempt at representing this period, a period of great turmoil in the society. Historical fiction is one of the most controversial sub-genres of literature and every attempt at writing it should be commended.

The strength of Afonja: The Rise lies in its attempt at fidelity with history. The story of Afonja is especially controversial as it led to the final disintegration of the old Oyo Empire. The empire never recovered from the incident and Afonja is considered one of the individuals who led to the empire’s downfall. This story has been captured in a film directed by Jare Adeniregun and Yemi Amodu as well as in a play by Toyin Abiodun. The addition of Tunde Leye’s novel is commendable.

First, the justification of the text is a little bumpy and certain parts have uneven edges.

Perhaps it is the formatting style but it does not distract from the merit of the work, even though it is noteworthy. Also, it is the story of a people whose language is not English.

Another challenge faced by Tunde Leye is the challenge of narrating a story in another context. This is also done well, and the attempt at translating proverbs from the Yoruba language to English is reminiscent of Chinua Achebe’s novels. However, some of these proverbs lose their context as they transition into English language.

The novel is also peppered with Yoruba words. This is commendable but considering that the language has evolved from what it was during the time the story is set, a glossary would have helped readers understand these words. But then, perhaps the decision not to include a glossary in the novel is part of the politics of glossary which comes up frequently in literary discussions. The author might be of the opinion that he is Yoruba and does not need to explain himself. This may not be an answer to the question of who an author writes for but it is a good addition to the discourse. Maybe tone marking the Yoruba words could also have been helpful so contemporary Yoruba readers can understand the words.

Also, going with ideas espoused by New Historicism, there are questions of whose version of history is Afonja: The Rise based on? Afonja as a historical figure is controversial and he is often seen as a traitor in Yoruba circles. The first thought anyone familiar with Afonja’s story would have is that Leye is attempting a hagiography by trying to rewrite the story and center Afonja as a patriot.

The plot of the story does not indicate this however as it only shows a man who is complex and wants power, like any other human. Leye represents all the characters as full humans with their own complexities and this is why he cannot be successfully charged with trying to rewrite history. The characters are fully formed and they are shown beyond being merely power hungry.

 The novel’s eponymous title might be considered a sensational attempt to give an inkling of the overall story but it is bigger than just the story of Afonja.

African cultures have always been accused of perpetuating patriarchy and relegating the female gender to the background. Tunde Leye also contributes to this discourse by showing his female characters as central to the story as decision makers. While a lot of them are not centered in the controversies, they made strategic decisions that determine the fates of men. The Aremo’s mother kills herself and her son so peace can reign in the empire. Also, Aole the king is a weakling but he has a wife who advises him and guides him. A king is supposed to listen to his official advisers but Aole respects his wife’s advises and relies on her guidance for a lot of decisions. This is also reminiscent of Chinweizu’s opinion that women control the men who in turn control the people.

Also, the sacrifice of Aremo’s mother shows the primacy of the nation in ancient Yoruba culture. The people shared a common patrimony and there were several references to Oduduwa, the mythical ancestor of the Yoruba race. Now that nations are being demystified and the idea of a common patrimony is fast disappearing, this novel reinforces again the opinion that modern nations are imagined constructs. The Oyo empire in the novel had business deals with other tribes and accepted many people from those tribes but they were either assimilated or itinerant. Perhaps this is a model that could prove useful for the modern age. This also shows that commerce has always been an important factor in human history.

The novel is dialogue driven and the characters are given words of their own so they can express themselves as full human beings. These interchanges are central to the story as they help to immerse readers in the story. Good as the novel is, there is a slight editorial gap on page 32 where ‘that’ is erroneously substituted for ‘what.’ The language use also oscillates between simple and complex but the author manages to retain attention throughout the novel.

Leye is courageous to have picked one of the most controversial aspects of Yoruba history and decided to retell it as fiction. He reminds us of how culture, religion, trade and lust for power have decided the course of human fate since time immemorial. The book also provides valid research material for anthropologists, literary critics, political scientists and ethnographers.

Leye is successful at using the novel as a reminder of human instinct and how relevant history is in contemporary times. He justifies this in the preface when he writes:

Because our history must be told

By the young and by the old

Around lanterns and around laptops

In voices that are ours and that understands us

So that we may know

So that we may learn

So that we may remember

Afonja: The Rise is a book that will make readers want to read more, research more and understand the Yoruba culture better.

Ayodele Ibiyemi is the winner of the Ken Saro Wiwa review prize at #LABAF2019

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