Note on Festus Iyayi's Heroes

It was T. S. Eliot, a foremost formalist critic, who made the very significant admission that
the greatness of literature cannot be determined by literary standards alone. He had,
however, aptly added that whether it is literature or not can only be determined by literary
standards. The task of the literary critic is not so much the elucidation of those aspects of
a work that give it non-literary greatness as it is the enunciation of the literary qualities of
a work and a demonstration of how these aid or subvert its greatness. It is in this light that
we would see Festus Iyayi’s great socialist manifesto cast in the garbs of literature. We
would want to know if Iyayi’s obvious pre-occupation with commitment does remove from
the success of
Heroes as a literary artefact or if the pre-occupation is successfully
integrated into the primary task of telling a story in the conventional form of a novel.

Iyayi does expose, in stark detail, the several inadequacies of his then war-torn society.
But the question that readily comes to mind is if he is a credible witness or one who would
twist or distort reality in order to force out his message. Does he distort the fictive
harmony of his narration in order to preach? Is the narrator through whose eyes we see
the event unfold himself a reliable witness? The answer to these questions would go a
long way in helping us determine the literary value of
Heroes as a creative re-
presentation of history.

The main evil exposed is the inhumanity and barbarity of soldiers at war: the killing of Mr.
Ohiali; the Biafran killings and torture (ch7); the massacre of POWs and deserters (227-
232); the raping of Ndudi by two Biafran soldiers then two Federal troops in one morning
(244); Brig. Otunshi’s command that soldiers with leg injuries be executed (149); his
alleged shooting, while Colonel, of a Major in the eye for looking lustfully at his wife ; the
alleged murder by the Head of State and a Governor, of a lover had by both in common
(98); the manhandling of Osime Iyere at the stadium by soldiers.

Against this picture he attempts to set up another one of a humanity that is more or less
innocent, threatened only by the greed and creeds of the upper classes of society: the
Ugbegun deputation to the Federal troops that Biafrans be not massacred in their
territory; the Umunna at Uromi; the testimony of Musa from Kafanchan, that Ibos had been
held in love before the war, and several other examples. Osime therefore preaches a
class brotherhood (168,131-33) that should unite against an exploitative class. The
exploitative class is ostensibly made up of a parasitic and despicable royalty (98)
perfidious officers (189) clergymen, professors and an ever-increasing list of privileged
persons in society. The officers are shown to be capable of sending their men to war just
before the month end with the precise (and diabolical) aim of claiming their salaries, in the
event of their dying in action. They are shown to have deserted their men during the ill-
fated crossing of the Niger by the Federal troops, an act that led to the massacre of some
one thousand fighting men. Corrupt activities are also hinted at (40)

Osime would therefore want us to see wars as evil designs by the privileged class aimed
at satisfying their selfish desires. The underprivileged are the unfortunate fodder used by
them to actualise their evil dreams. This is borne out by the discriminatory promotions; of
Brig. to Gen. Otunshi after the Asaba bridge-crossing disaster; of a Major to a lieutenant
after a disastrous outing in which he lost 300 men. (It is significant that Sgt. Kolawole who
had dissented during the operation had been demoted to the rank of Corporal).

Other evidence of the selfishness of the privileged class abound. There is the case of the
ambush at Nkesio where the Captain of the group is driven in a jeep to safety while self-
sacrificing ratings like Sgt. Audu battle on, despite the fact that they would take no
personal credit for their act of heroism. It is in this light too that we would see Kolawole’s
decision to stay behind on the doomed bridge in what his immediate commander
describes as foolish self-sacrifice or heroism (87). There is also the revelation that only
few soldiers guard the Benin airport while a hundred guard the governor’s house (90)
The three anti-aircraft guns at Asaba are mounted around the officers’ houses. Officers
get drunk in parties while the ordinary soldiers are not allowed to taste alcohol. What we
are meant to believe is that the upper classes cause wars, stay out of the wars (64) and
that a third army needs to rise against the oppressors and perpetrators of this injustice
(166-7, 171,179,214,240)

There is however a very serious problem of empathy. We can only go along with our
naïve, over-trusting hero (who has so suddenly turned hypercritical after a farcical
conversion) if his viewpoints are credible. How much do we identify with his seemingly
near-sacrilegious and anti-social criticism of otherwise revered institutions like royalty,
clergy, academia and even military command structures? Are his rather exaggerated
presentations of the poor condition of roads, flooded schools, market- and city-filth (22-
26) not indicative of an over-censorious sensibility? How sane are his responses in
matters of love? Examples to consider are the hotel-booking episode where he seemingly
sadistically turns down Salome’s amorous advances, his unnatural reaction to Ndudi’s
rape etc. What does he want us to make of his nagging doubts about the origin of evil?
(See pages 95&142 where he dilates on the seemingly innate bestiality of a man and
page 40 where his despair hones on something in the make-up of the black man) Before
we can fully participate in the creative impulse of the author he has to clearly convince us
that the evil he is here decrying is an exclusive preserve of the upper classes. It also does
not help matters that he gives a hint that the concern with social salvation was the innate
preserve of a strong breed (223) But of course, what undermines the message most is his
resort to faulty details. If he had merely imposed his views through the tiresome elaborate
internal monologues we probably would have condoned his narration as simply one other
badly written novel. But for him to seem to want to sway our emotions by the presentation
of information distorted beyond recognition or the presentation of outright falsehood is
unpardonable. As long as the author has chosen the sub-genre of the historical novel, his
presentation of the well-documented Nigerian civil war and his picture of the Nigerian
officer corps ought to have shown a greater fidelity to reality...