Tuesday 20 December 2011

Disdaining the Literary Pyre: Biyi Bandele's Burma Boy

Above all, a good review should be informative and deeply reflective of the issues in the book it focuses on. You, the reader, are to conclude on what side this review should be commended for. But most importantly, pertinent questions are asked. Questions not only the readers should provide answers to. The book's writer and editor are questioned too. CLR leaves you here with Oyebanji Ayodele's take on Biyi's Burma Boy. Read and comment.


As my eyes meandered with passion through the lane of texts that an author's pen has cleared before them, I was made to put into consideration the level of a pen's potency in bridging the titanic gulf between man and history. The mere understanding of the storyline lands with a thud in my mind the Yoruba proverbial saying that:

If the mountain doesn't deem it fit to move close to Mohammed,
On Mohammed lies the onus to move close to the mountain

Here is a sliver of man's history which has been creeping out of his reach into oblivion being chased back to its dwelling by a writer's pen. Truly, a pen is mightier than a rapier. The novel is a manifestation of Biyi Bandele's refusal to allow issues relating to the Second World War lie on a literary pyre. His culinary adroitness in concocting Tommy Sparkle's, his father's, Burma tales with other historical ingredients which his voracious reading taste produced is also evident.  We are all invited to take a sip from the urn of ages – Literature.

The griot in Biyi Bamidele through this novel seeks to inform the mind that cares to know that there was once a realistic battleground on which the Schwarzenegger simulations of blood, courage and death were better acted out (without rehearsals). The Second World War drama is presented based on the experiences of a fantastic Ali Banana, a young and inexperienced black soldier whose desire to fight for kingi Joji of Ingila (king George of England) results in a situation no reader could have prognosticated. Want to know more about this baby soldier? Hear him speak:

"I'm the son of Dawa the king of well digggers whose blessed nose could sniff out water in Sokoto while he's standing in Samanika. I'm the son of Hauwa whose mother was Talatu whose mother was Fatimatu queen of the moist kulikuli cake, the memory of whose kulikuli still makes old men water at the mouth till this day." (Page 37)
As a strong reminiscent of war, one sees nothing but war and more war…

When two mammoths engage in a free for all, grasses suffer all for free. The reader is made to see the involvement of the blacks in a war which has its causes subsumed in the white clouds of their black understanding. One striking thing about the war as recorded in the novel is that nobody is coerced into the army. Here is the message:

"Kingi Joji, monarch of Ingila is fighting a war in a land called Boma and he wants our help. He wants all able – bodied men to go to Kaduna and join his band of warriors." (Page 43)

What then pushes the like of Pash, Ali Banana, Danja and other Burma boys into joining the army? Love for their fellow humans you say? Never! Fellow humans who before the war and even after subjected them to imperialism. Ignorance is the word! I want to believe these characters are not in any way like the Biblical Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego who weren't only impudent at the sight of the furnace but who also strove into it with confidence. The war front is never a kulikuli market as Aminu Yerwa sees it.

"When the OC asked Aminu why he brought so much with him, he said he'd been hoping to keep some for himself and to sell the rest in small portions to the boys when we got to India." (Page 53)
Whereas, the only ware for sale at the warfront is death!

If the attainment of manhood means death or some inane thing, I'd rather be a boy all my life. Samanja Damisa posits that "a boy is a man when he feels he's a man." Imagine Pash becoming a man with one leg; Samanja Damisa himself becoming a man with just one ear and Ali Banana… Why not read that up?

What if I say once a thespian is forever a thespian? The mode of narration of the story is an attempt by Biyi to hide behind a visor – Thespis' palm – which in this situation is transparent enough for the reader to discover that the work is better described as a novel written in four acts with its own prologue and epilogue. The ingenious diction which the author employs can be likened to that of an oral artist. The book is fraught with proverbs, songs and other literary embellishments with which the conflict is doused. Listen to this:

"A man does not run on thorns for nothing: either he's chasing something or there's a snake chasing him" (Page 96)

And indeed, they are running on thorns for something:

"… He is there to kill you or die trying…His commanders tell him that if he's taken prisoner when unconscious, he should stuff his tongue and choke himself to death…Our mission is to insert ourselves inside his gut" (Page 27)

Moreover, as detailed as the narration is, the narrator (or maybe the editor) leaves the reader to puzzle out an instance of contradiction.

Consider this:

"… my tale is long but I'll make it short. That very night, Yusufu, Iddrisi, and I set out on foot and headed as the crow flies, in the direction of Kaduna" (Page 43)

In relation to:

"They didn't ask me to come with them that night. In fact, they laughed in my face when I asked if I could come with them. I had to wait a month before I made my own way to Kaduna" (Page 49)

 Which do we believe?

The misuse of the word "anorexia" on page 179 also calls for notice:

"Quite soon the men began to fall sick, exhibiting symptoms ranging from flatulence to anorexia…"

Anorexia at the war front where there is little or nothing to eat!?

The sincerity of the story is apparent in its characterization. That it is complex is enough to be taken as an attestation to the fact that the stage on which war is acted out is large enough to take a large number of soldier-actors (as far as they can kill and may be killed). The story is one that can be likened to a scalpel slicing through a pregnant woman in labour. A monster is born rather than a baby. Via the convincing voice of the griot, the repulsive story of those who killed and died in the service of a history which is not theirs refuses to be laid on a pyre.

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