A Symbolic Interpretation of Kyuka Lilymjok’s Bivan’s House

Terese Uwuave

Caliphate Tarbiyya Academy, Sokoto



Kyuka Lilymjok’s Bivan’s House holds remarkable efforts at indoctrinating new symbols into literature. The most significant of these is the symbol of a nation called ‘Bivan’s house’ which is the background of the novel. Besides giving Lilymjok’s novels a deeper meaning, the symbolic art has significantly given his works an enduring quality. In this paper, the concept of literary symbols is defined and an exploration of the symbols deployed in Bivan’s House is exhaustively treated. The paper concludes by acknowledging Lilymjok as one of Nigeria’s major symbolists.


A general discussion of literary symbolism is likely to breed myriads of controversial interpretations bigger than literature itself, especially if the concept is thrown to the public without an accompanying definition. That literary symbols deserve, at first, an illuminative and explicit working definition is incontrovertible.

William York Tindall submits that the symbol “conceals what it earns and resists total explanation because it is founded upon analogy, which philosophers say, is primitive, childish, and irrational” (12). Edmund Wilson avers that a literary symbol “…is an attempt by carefully studied means – a complicated association of ideas represented by a medley of metaphors, to communicate unique personal feelings” (21-22). The point of consensus among these scholars is on the representative nature of the literary symbol: What the symbol represents cannot be hastily ascertained without recourse to relationship or metaphor as well as association. The uniqueness and importance of Wilson’s observation is on his consistent emphasis on the artistic dexterity, circumspection and the nexus of complications that characterize art. This nexus of complications perhaps may signify appropriateness in the selection of symbols and the task of assiduously assigning to them traits that can exactly display and showcase the qualities of the intended invisible idea(s). This is the major aim of symbolists, and of the peculiarity of the art. The art of symbolism is a careful art that is sieged with high creative skills. Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s in ‘The Statesman’s Manuel’ explains this better. He observes that a symbol:

…is characterized by a translucence of the special in the individual, or the general in the special, or of the universal in the general; above all by the translucence of the external through and in the temporal. It always partakes of the reality which it renders intelligible, and while it enunciates the whole, abides itself as a living part in that unity of which is the representative. (437-8)

Coleridge attaches specialty to the literary symbol as a distinguished art form. This is an interesting feature of the literary symbol. However, M. H. Abrams is more lucid in his view of what a literary symbol is when he regards it as “an object or event which in turn signifies something, or suggests a range of reference, beyond itself” (358).

Abrams’s conception of the literary symbol opens our eyes to the indefiniteness of the art. Michael Meyer, in The Bedford Introduction to Literature, re-echoes this similar quality of the literary symbol-that of generating a range of additional meaning which according to him are normally more “abstract than its literal significance” (2143).

The use of symbols is an integral part of African writings, which is largely a literature of commitment (Agema 100). In particular, literary symbols are discernible in every form and aspect of Nigerian literature from Christopher Okigbo, to Chinua Achebe, Buchi Emecheta and Flora Nwapa to Maria Ajima and Debbie Iorliam, Su’eddie Vershima Agema and Sam Ogabidu. Tess Onwueme’s broken calabash as a symbol of a broken tradition is appropriately incorporated in The Broken Calabash, while Adichie’s Big Oga; a symbol of General Sani Abacha unforgettably roams the nooks and crannies of Purple Hibiscus. It is in this light that this chapter sets out to look at the use of symbols in Kyuka Lilymjok’s Bivan’s House.

Symbolic Manifestations in Bivan’s House

Kyuka Lilymjok has written in carefully crafted language, imbued with significant issues that are guilty of contemporaneity. By his writing, he is projected as a novelist who is disillusioned with the moral deterioration and corruption that have crept unabatedly and assumed an unalterable posture in all Nigerian sectors. Thus, Lilymjok’s exploration of the consequences of these ills on our country in his novel under consideration is remarkable.

Bivan’s House details the author’s disillusionment and consequent criticism of the corruption, moral, religion, and political decay in Bivan’s house – a fictional nation in the West African region which largely resembles Nigeria. Lilymjok’s obvious presentation of Bivan’s house as a microcosm of Nigeria is a demonstration of his distaste for corruption that has laid siege on the country. The representation of politics in the novel is disheartening. Political leaders are mirrored as egocentric with an air of insouciance to the suffering masses. Similarly significant is the religious aspect of the novel where pseudo religious leaders demonstrate shameful moral bankruptcy by orchestrating religious fanaticism that provoke violence leaving behind, maimed persons and animals to wallow helplessly amidst littered corpses, and polarised the nation thereby impeding development.

Throughout the novel, Lilymjok exhaustively utilizes striking symbols to drive home his message. All the symbols are given a mark of consistency, deliberateness and conscientiousness that put their appearance beyond mere coincidence. To achieve a full understanding of Lilymjok’s literary world would require unveiling his symbolic veil.

Bivan’s House

Bivan’s house, which also serves as the title of the novel, is the mother symbol in the novel. All activities carried out in the novel are under the platform of Bivan’s house. All through, the novel reflects Lilymjok’s efforts to indoctrinate this personal symbol into literature and give it an international stamp. Lilymjok stays so close to the rudiments of symbolic usage that nowhere in the novel is there a revelation of what Bivan’s house symbolises. However, an in-depth study of Bivan’s House as a novel shows clues that the symbol symbolizes Nigeria as a country. The location, the binomial system, the components, the nature and activities carried out in Bivan’s house all bear striking resemblance to Nigeria.

Geographically, Lilymjok skilfully crafts Bivan’s house as a miniature of a West African nation in order to equate it to Nigeria which is a West African nation. This alone would not have yielded the artistic expectation and would have consequently rendered the symbolic intention invalid especially as there exist many West African countries. But the omniscient narrative voice in the novel goes on to say:

It was in Wombe’s Agony Column that the expression Bivan’s house was first used as an epithet referring to the diamond-rich West African State of Coastal Diamond. Like a tie on a garbage bag, once the expression was used, it stuck. (6)

From the above expression, the image of Flora Shaw sitting in her room and singlehandedly choosing to name a large group of people with diverse languages and cultures cannot be avoided. The naming of Coastal Diamond as Bivan’s house seems to be Lilymjok’s re-enactment of the naming of the British Protectorate on the Niger River as Nigeria. Just as Wombe Agony Column initiates the naming of Coastal Diamond as Bivan’s house, so Shaw initiated the naming of Nigeria which incidentally first appeared in The Times of London on 8th January, 1897.  Just as with Bivan’s house, once the expression Nigeria was introduced, it stuck.

Although the political origin of Bivan’s house seems different, the structure is reminiscent of Nigeria, despite the change in names. The Primehead in Bivan’s house equates the President in Nigeria, while the House of Archery equates the National Assembly; the Big Feast represents the ‘Governor, while the Ceremonial Feast stands for Ministers. Close Banquets are Ambassadors while Ceremonial Pots, Common Calabashes, and Hunting Bags equate Commissioners, Local Government Chairmen and Councillors respectively. Thus, symbolically, Lilymjok photographically captures the Nigerian nation, its naming and its political structure.

Another interesting consideration is, do happenings in Bivan’s House: bear resemblance to happenings in Nigeria? Bivan’s House is a novel that dwells on rampaging corruption that has engulfed a fictional nation. To some extent what gives volume to the novel is the author’s lengthy exposition of corruption. Corruption is not alien to Nigeria. On the contrary, the country rarely fails to find mention among the most corrupt nations on earth.

Corruption in Nigeria dates as far back as the early 1960s, immediately after independence. Adewale Ademoyega, defending the first Nigerian coup in Why We Struck, mentioned corruption as one of the reasons for the coup as people in government were fond of diverting government money into their private pockets. (48).

Religious conflict in the novel is another reality that suggests Bivan’s house is a miniature Nigeria spoken of in a fictional and symbolic form. It is Lilymjok’s metaphor for Nigeria. This is the most horrific aspect of the novel which invokes a nightmarish experience in the readers. Maria Ajima, in her paper, ‘Religious Violence and its Consequences as Mirrored in E. E. Sule’s Sterile Sky and Kyuka Lilymjok’s Bivan’s House” dedicates her entire time analysing this horrific scene. According to her, “the central incidence of the book is built around what happens when Talgon gets caught up in a religious crisis as he attends a wedding on a Saturday.

Religious violence is a recurrent decimal in Bivan’s House with a lot of massacres and destruction” (10). Any Nigerian reader of Bivan’s House who reading this statement on Bivan’s House will most likely recollect the series of religious based violent conflicts that result in massive destructive of lives and property. Perhaps, as a testament to this assertion, Shehu Sani notes in The Killing Fields thus:

In Nigeria, religion has been so manipulated that virtually all institutions in the public and private sectors have been polarised along religious lines. Civil servants, community and social workers are usually victims of intimidation and oppression in their places of work… Religion is thus, not used to serve its purpose. (1)

Apart from the religious aspect of Bivan’s house, which is more or less a mirror of Nigeria’s incessant religious killings, there is the police aspect. Talgon is arrested and detained by the police for no just cause.  As the case is with the police in Bivan’s House, it is with them im Nigeria. Ajima in her paper, “Religious Violence and its Consequences as Mirrored in E. E. Sule’s Sterile Sky and Kyuka Lilymjok’s Bivan’s House,” 2013, lambasts the Nigerian police which epitomizes corruption. She decries their corrupt nature and inefficiency.

Talgon regards Bivan’s house as “a weeping irony for coastal diamond…. It is a house for sale, a house for hire, a house for rent and a house for mortgage” (7), but no one is buying, hiring or renting it because it is a corruption infested thing. Nigeria does not fare better. It is a weeping irony of what a nation should be on account of corruption ravaging it.


Pehaps of all the symbols Lilymjok used in Bivan’s House, those of the names of headhunters representing different political office holders are the most ingenious, most pungent and most likely to be applauded globally if the text receives global attention. According to the omniscient narrator in Bivan’s House, Politics in Bivan’s House originated from a society of headhunters. The leader of the society of headhunters was called the primehead and so he who was called president or prime minister in other countries came to be called primehead in Bivan’s house; the national assembly or parliament in other countries was called the house of archery in Bivan’s house; a governor was the big feast, ministers were ceremonial feasts, ambassadors were close banquets; commissioners were ceremonial pots, local government chairmen were common calabashes and councilors were hunting bags. (7)

            Headhunters existed during very primitive and barbarous times of cannibalism and unrestrained savagery. Titles of headhunters being used for political office holders in Bivan’s house symbolize the crude state of politics and governance in this country. All the titles not only carry the signature of vulgarity, they are about feasting. It is therefore not surprising that governance in Bivan’s house is about eating government money.

The Rat

A common tendency associated with rats is thievery. Thus rats are universally seen as thieving creatures. As literary symbols, they are seen as such. It is bearing in mind this universal image of rats that one wonders why the rat has been excluded in Michael Ferber’s A Dictionary of Literary Symbols

It appears that it is with their popular image in mind that Lilymjok used rats as a symbol in Bivan’s House. A rat as a literary symbol in the novel signifies theft of public property by government operators. A character in the novel remarks that “[p]eople in government are the big rats cornering everything into their holes” (154)

Rats are also seen as vicious creatures. Perhaps, it is based on this image that big rats were used to torment O’Brien in Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, and also the reason Kyuka Lilymjok used rats as a symbol of the vicious character of people in government.

The rat is undoubtedly, the most recurring symbol in Bivan’s House. The overt presence of rats is such that an average reader would see the deliberateness of their presence. Based on this premise, understanding the symbolic implication of the appearance of rats in this novel will not only explain why the author spends a lot of time narrating the activities of rats, but of what relevance the rats are in the novel as regards what Lilymjok aims to achieve with their presentation.

Notably, the novel begins with the appearance of a rat; a “rat stuck its head from under a pile of garbage stacked behind Talgon’s office, darting its eyes left and right” (1), and ends with the rat as it “ran along the small path dividing the two houses before disappearing into a hole further off’’ (194). Rats are symbolically used here to depict deviousness, filth and decay. This depiction leaves the reader with a feeling of inhaling a repugnant and nauseating odour that is both repulsive and abhorrent. Lilymjok’s brilliant use of the sensory organs, especially the olfactory sense brings the reader close to experiencing the decay Talgon experiences.

In Bivan’s House, Lilymjok fastidiously painted a revolting picture of rats scavenging dirt in front of Talgon’s office right from the beginning of the novel. More revolting because Talgon detest rats:

Talgon had a strong distaste for rats. Of all rodents, he had more hatred and revulsion for rats. Every day when he worked late, he was bound to see a rat darting across his office towards the restaurant opposite his office. The rats always came out about this time when everyone except him has closed…. Once he had tried evacuating the heap of garbage behind his office where he believed all the rats were hiding, but found many rat holes in the empty patch of land outside the pile of garbage. (1-2)

Talgon’s natural dislike for corruption may literally be said to have led to his dislike for rats. Dislike of corruption is literal while dislike of rats is metaphorical. The physical and spiritual combine and chime so well here.

            The rats attracted to Talgon’s office neighborhood by a pile of garbage and discarded pampers refuse to be flush out from their feeding centres especially as the land continues to be a dumping ground for refuse. The graphic presentation of rats resisting Talgon’s efforts of flushing them out makes them something symbolic of corrupt politicians in Nigeria who cannot be expelled. At the beginning of the novel, the rats are seen sneaking about looking for what to pilfer. Their sneaky behaviour bears striking resemblance to the sneaky behaviour of politicians in Nigeria.

Lilymjok realistically paints the picture of an internecine war between Talgon and the rats that an ideal reader would be compelled to ruminate on who will win the war. Though Talgon resolves to flush out the rats about his office, his resolve is a shaky one on realization that if “the rats currently there [sis] were flushed out or even killed, other rats would take their place as long as the land remained what it was” (2). Perhaps making a case that Talgon lost the war to the rats, a rat is seen at the end of the novel running along a path by Talgon’s house. (194).

The unfortunate scenario here painted is the picture of Nigeria’a political condition. If one group of corrupt politicians is expelled either by the gun or the ballot box, the expelled politicians are likely to be replaced by equally corrupt politicians.  To expel the rats in Bivan’s House, dumping of garbage in the vacant patch of land about Talgon’s office must stop. Similarly, to expel corruption in Nigeria, the state of anomie in the land must be reversed by Nigerians becoming less delinquent in their handling of state resources.

Corruption is a rat mentality Talgon’s effort alone cannot eradicate. In a way, one can note that the author might have been prophetically looking at the emergence of a leader who Talgon represents as is now evident in the person of President Muhammadu Buhari. Despite the anti-corruption fight of the President, it is evident that he cannot fight alone.

The above justifies Lilymjok’s series of alarm in the novel concerning the rapid multiplication of rats in Bivan’s house. For instance, he declares that “there is a rat mentality everywhere you turn in this country. Now Bivan’s house is a house of rats. A rat mentality can lead to Black Death, the sort of death caused by black rats in Europe” (154).

The Mondo

The mondo is another significant symbol in the novel. Readers are ignorant of the existence of this powerful musical instrument and Talgon’s expertise in playing it until in the middle of the novel. Of course, it is in the middle of the novel that the mondo is needed. Fleeing from the religious massacre in Durmi in Bangora, Talgon wishes he has a mondo with him to loll the child he escapes with to sleep. With “a mondo, he knew the child would go back to sleep or at least, become quiet the moment he began playing it” (47). 

The mondo is a symbol of the healing propensities of music or at best its tranquilizing effect. The horrific activities in the novel, especially the gory mayhem have turned people into a bundle of nerves that the mondo is needed to soothe. This gory eruption of violence is painted in such a way that even animals are seen wondering hopelessly. The neighing of horses, shrieking of insects and braying of donkeys (98) are all indications that the natural world is gravely impacted on by the orgy of violence at the wedding arena. This is where the mondo as a musical instrument with healing propensities or tranquilizing effect becomes helpful. Perceiving the hush that fell over the town following the violence:

Talgon felt listless and threatened. But he also felt a little hopeful. From the outcry that followed the burning sky, there were many survivors of the religious carnage. Together they would pull out of the catastrophe. If only he had his mondo with him. This was the type of moment to play a healing tune on a mondo. Before he goes to sleep, he must somehow find or improvise a mondo and calm the town to sleep. (49-50)

One of the most exciting and successful experiments that Lilymjok carries out to determine the validity of this symbol is on Beckin, who is an epitome of frustration, hopelessness and despair. Meeting Beckin as a character is definitely an experience that readers would not easily forget. Beckin is so bitter one is surprised the sound of the mondo alone could restore her to cheer so easily. She expresses this miracle in her own words: “The music from the mondo you just played is sweeter than the music from the wind in the trees in a quiet, windy night. The beat of the mondo weaves into my heartbeats so much as to be part of them” (60). The mondo is so powerful that even animals seemed relaxed by it. It seems to heal not only Beckin, but people in quarters of Bangora town accessible to it. The quietness and calmness of the night when the mondo is played suggest that even the ecosystem is lull into peace by the music flowing from this musical instrument.

The mondo injects life into bitter Beckin so much that she seems to connect once more with humanity. Connected to humanity, the mondo moves her emotionally to sensual feelings for Talgon. Playing the mondo after the violence of the day is no doubt a refreshing interlude for those who survived the carnage, but are traumatized by it.

Professor Yagu

Professor Yagu is literally the husband of Beckin but symbolically a beast the wife calls Wilkim. His bestiality is evident through his dealings with his students, especially female students he exploits sexually. A psychological trip into the heart of Yagu reveals that he is pathologically bad in character. Because he is too bad to be true, he cannot be seen as a representation of academic corruption and failure.

Through the bestiality of Yagu, Lilymjok shows a degraded human being that preys on vulnerable human beings. The horror of his life is matched only by the horror of how he died. Everything about him seems devilish, mystical and unreal. Near death or perhaps in death, he does not fail to terrify:

The man kept moving sightlessly without a face, with an eye hanging out, one of his hands thrust out as if it were the walking stick of a blind man feeling the path before him. If the eye hanging from its socket could see, it did not see the body of his wife on his path. He stumbled on her body and fell down with a ghostly thud. (93)

The above description is reminiscent of terrifying zombie movies. A man whose face has been eaten up by acid poured on him with one of his eyes hanging out while he lops forward tops the horror pile. The way he dies serves a moral end: The violently wicked do not deserve a peaceful, but violent death.

Talgon and Beckin

Talgon and Beckin are the major characters that shape the course of action in Bivan’s House. While Talgon symbolises hope and efforts by a few individuals that creates hope, Beckin symbolises meanness of the world that destroys hope. Beckin is a typical example of people whose unfortunate life experiences has turned them against everyone including themselves. She is a worse version of Talgon’s father. Her final conversation with Talgon concerning the rescued child Talgon left in her care confirms she relapsed into her bitter and mean state of existence after she was temporarily brought out of it by Talgon’s presence and music. Typical Beckin:

Besides, I kept him [the child] with me because of you. For days, you have been away without a word from you. Thinking you had abandoned us, I began to resent his presence. So when he said he would go, I allowed him; in fact, I urged him to. (193)

            Story-within-a story is Lilymjok’s peculiarity. In most cases, he tells sub-stories within the main story to further the main story. In other cases he uses similes, metaphors and allusions to tell other stories with the aim either of embellishing the main story or averting the mind of the reader to stories similar to the one he is telling thereby helping to etch his story more firmly in the mind of the reader. The author’s use of symbols in Bivan’s House, not only help to tell the story of Bivan’s house, they tell their own stories. A symbol in a story, apart from helping to tell the story in a more interesting way, tells its own story. What is said here on a symbol is affirmed by M. H. Abrams view of a symbol as “an object or event which in turn signifies something, or suggests a range of reference, beyond itself” (358).


Commenting on the importance of literary symbols in literature, Arthur Symons posits:

Without symbolism there can be no literature; indeed not even language. What are words themselves but symbols, almost as arbitrary as the letters which compose them are mere sounds of the voice to which have agreed to translate their sounds by those combinations of letters? Symbolism began with the first word uttered by the first man as he named every living thing; or before them, in heaven, when god named the world into being. (1)

Lilymjok’s skills in literary symbolism are highly commendable especially as he strictly follows its rudiments from the beginning of the novel to its end. There is immense significance to his use of literary symbols in this work. His effective use of such symbols in Bivan’s House excites interesting and varied interpretations which rich literature usually excites. The literary technique of using apt symbols tends to give an enduring quality to a literary work because such symbols tend to give rise to new interpretations in the course of time. It is having this in mind that one can say without fear of contradiction that Bivan’s House as a literary piece will endure well into the distant future. Finally, from his skilful deployment of literary symbols in Bivan’s House, one can boldly say Kyuka Lilymjok is among prominent symbolist Nigerian writers.

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Uwuave, Terese. “Political and Moral Decadence in Kyuka Lilymjok’s Bivan’s House.” Unpublished paper. 2014.

William, York Tindall. The Literary symbol. New York: Columbia University Press, 1955. Print.

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