By Ifesinachi Johnpaul Nwadike
The next story, “Yemi Vaughan” is a commentary on the not-so-easy task of combining motherhood with work. Our protagonist, Yemi, was an ambitious woman in her university days who had thought it all out; how it will work for her in her home when she gets a job and begins to have children. But the exerting arms of motherhood come like a whirlwind and blow the plans off her head. Five years into her banking job (six years into marriage) with her five-year old twin, Jasmine and Jackson, one can hear the voice of her career screaming a loud lobatan! Catering for the kids, getting them ready for school every morning, and dropping them off before going to work, especially with the boisterous and uncooperative Jackson, leaves Yemi concluding that “motherhood was such a thankless job!” (80) However, through the act of love and sweetness of her Cherubic kids on the day they raised placards in the car, wishing her a happy birthday even when she didn’t discuss it with them, Yemi has a rethink and vows to place the welfare of her kids over and above her job, especially now that their father is on transfer to another town.
The ninth story, which is also the title story for the collection, “Tales from Our Past”, reads a bit in structure like “The Terrifying Canopy Walk”. The same subject matter of phobia is also replicated in this humorous story where the narrator, Kanje, like yours sincerely, dreads snakes to a fault. The story opens where Kanje encountered a snake in their compound and “sped away… in a manner better imagined than described.” (90). Due to his excessive fear of snakes, Kanje shamelessly forgets what his mother asked him to buy from the market and comes home to lie that the prices went up and he couldn’t afford to buy it. On closer reading, we discover that a snake charmer was performing his magic in the market that day, hence Kanje fled in terror. He loathed himself the day he learnt from his mischievous friends that the snake charmer never really used a real snake, it was only a rubber look-alike. He recalls the day he abandoned his baby brother in his cot and ran for dear life because a snake entered the room:
Once this blasted reptile cleared the doorway, I shot across the room and out the door, terrified and covered with goose bumps. I must have flown out of the room because I actually did not feel the ground beneath my feet. How could my feet possibly tread the same floor on which a snake had just crawled? (93).
Years later, during a reunion with his secondary schoolmates, they begin to tell the tales of their pasts and the story of his fear for snake came up. Even with the retelling of the stories, Kanje becomes uncomfortable with fear. Then, from a distance, shouts of snake rent the air. Some of his friends who were earlier mocking him lean back. Kanje goes to the scene out of courtesy, but a reflex action makes him pick up a stone and hurl it in the snake’s direction. “Congratulations!” went everyone. Kanje has killed a snake.
“En Route to Bamenda” is a like few previous stories in thematic focus; a story of adventure by friends who set out to Mount Cameroon from Nigeria to have some fun. Their experiences on the road become a kind of metaphorical allusion to the poor state of post-colonial African roads and the dehumanizing state of Nigerian/African borders; it is also a big statement on the neglect of the viable tourism industry by African leaders who yearn for revenue but neglect potential sources of income. The resilience of the tourists, Reni, Toni, Bertrand, Gideon, and George, drawn from across many African countries, symbolizes the African man’s often disheartening indulgence of her leaders by being peacefully long-suffering.
“Bond of the Rakhi” moves us out of Africa and lands us in India where we are made to see the power of love. Yes, it is a tragic and emotive story of loving, living, remembering and surviving a terrible loss through nostalgic existence. Lucky James scores high in his very first attempt on magical realism by locating the very magical space of the human mind in an Indian cultural annual festival. Bond of the rakhi is a re-enactment of love and a rededication of self to the love of mankind, this time, achieved through distant relatives, Deepak and Joie, who was to die later in the story.
“The Right to Remain Silent” is a typical Nigerian/African story. Even a baby in the womb of a Nigerian woman will understand that this is the true story of his/her potential nation. I am particularly drawn to this painful and unsettling story, and I’m sure any reader will. For this particular story, Lucky James won my heart. I have been a victim and for the umpteenth time witnessed the brutal and insensitive and reckless actions of the men of the Nigerian armed forces, police being the worst. The experience of Daniel is heart-breaking and one can only cry so little in order not to cry so much for a nation that abuses the rights of her citizens and expects medals for it, and most times get it because justice never serves the abused. Though Daniel shares in the blame, for being too dumb and appearing so helpless, a trait the Nigerian police looks out for in their victims to wickedly carry out their evil acts. “The Right to Remain Silent”, in my view, remains the most painful story in this collection, with its attendant theme of huge loss of time and human resources. Perhaps, we have remained silent for too long.
“Two Unfettered Adults” is a lovely story in its own right; a match-making story, the kind of story a love doctor would be regaled with. A story of two adult’s frustration with life, their fateful rendezvous with destiny and their final procession to that state of fulfilment that is precursory to all things beautiful. It is a story of waiting for too long for the right things to fall in place, and when the right things came, it came in its fullness and splendour. Had Lucky James titled it “Everything Good Will Come”, Sefi Attah, I guess, would have been glad to look away? Yes, at least, for the sake of “Fred” and Mofe. The sudden twists and turns in the story give it that needed suspense to make it a blockbuster box office if adapted into a movie.
The second to the last story, “Sunset Years” is a ‘had-I-known’ story, though beautifully rendered with a strong sense of artistic freshness. Josef is our new generation epitome of a prodigal, though his own repentance came at the heels of his final descent to irredeemable failure. He lived a reckless life, failed himself, his father, his long-suffering wife and even his only son. Through the diary he kept, his waywardness was laid bare for all to see and understand the kind of person he is and of course, to take note of the road not taken, comparing it with our current life’s journey to get a full insight of how not to be a human being. That is what a good story does, and this story cuts it for me. Lucky James succeeds in doing it with almost all the stories without necessarily sounding like a literary shaman.
The last story in the collection “Teacher Danlas”, using Danlas as a specimen, investigates and brings to our consciousness, the many woes of a teacher in a land that has little or no regard for education. And to imagine that this is a land that has produced world class intellectuals is to begin to get abreast with the pitiable level of endemic rot that has befallen the education system where hitherto celebrated teachers are now instruments of caricature and general societal disdain. Lucky James, through teacher Danlas, highlights the teachers’ understanding of their vocation; their dedication to that dedication; their will to move on, even when their immediate environment disregards their social value, worth, and immeasurable contribution to the development and growth of humanity. The teaching profession in the host country of the story’s setting is no longer what it used to be, worsened by government’s purposeful neglect, starvation of funds and attendant poor pay by month’s end. The private institutions that we thought have come to the rescue are being made administratively unfit by the sole proprietors. Hence, the teacher is a frustrated individual, and the teaching profession, a frustrating one. If the teacher is a man like our Danlas, he is unable to pay rent, he marries late due to his inability to do the needful, he can’t even feed well, let alone get a better clothing or footwear; in fact, he is not the kind of in-law any family would love to have, as we can see in the story. Teacher Danlas’s story is every teacher’s story and teaching experience and it’s made worse by students like Tanko, the reckless kind of student that could drive a teacher nuts. That kind of student whose parents are not ashamed to come to school to fight or question the teacher or demand his sack for using his vocation-given-discretion to correct an errant child. Yet, Mr Danlas, like most teachers, dares to stay back and make good humans out of the handful that are willing to learn rather than resign in frustration and annoyance in a country where a job as uninteresting and humiliating as teaching is a rare luxury. Those who wish to know why our youth are running away from this once-noble vocation should read the story of Teacher Danlas, it may not capture the entire scary and discouraging details, but it is surely a window through which we see what teaching in Nigeria looks like.
In all, Tales from Our Past ‘goes well’. It scores a bull’s eye in chronicling the human syndrome. It is a collection of stories of our very selves; our sensibilities, actions, idiosyncrasies, victories, lessons and losses. Though no writer, in his/her first attempt, writes a completely flawless story, hence there is a handful of visible flaws in structure and narrative techniques, but they are not such that can dampen the flow of unfolding plots in the stories. It is also true that most writers see the short story as a rehearsal ground from which a full novel could be erected, hence, some of the stories read like a developing novel given the very fact that some did not really follow that momentary structuring of plots that short stories are known for. But then, there are much visible artistic strengths the author could be associated with; his handling of satire and humour is too masterly to be amateurish, the good use of metaphors, similes, personifications, innuendos and metonymy are quite remarkable. There is also the author’s attempt to incorporate the modernists’ technique of stream of consciousness in stories like “Bond of the Rakhi”, “Teacher Danlas”, “Sunset Years”, etc. With all these, Lucky James compiles and dishes out completely human stories that make bold statements on any event or social milieu it attempts to address. Brimming with plausible characters and taut plots that make the reader feel as though the actions are taking place before his or her very eyes, Tales from Our Past is a binocular vision of the many angles of our society.
- Johnpaul writes from Ibadan. He can be reached through Nwadikejohnpaul@gmail.com