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...