Department of English
Benue State University Makurdi
Kyuka Lilymjok’s Twilight for a Vulture is a novella that straddles the world of imagination and the environment. Its storyline is woven around the personae of Imka, a vulture who speaks and talks like a human being. This situates the novella in the fable genre.
A vulture is usually regarded with abhorrence from the human perspective as a bird of carrion that bears no relevance to issues of natural aesthetics or as a being of any real useful purpose to human life. However, in Twilight for a Vulture, Imka and the other vultures turn out not only to be intelligent, but to be immensely useful.
Imka, like other vultures, is forced to move to the city because of lack of carrion in the forest. The story of his life is one full of dangers and different other vagaries of life. The reader follows the travails of the vulture as he moves from one difficulty to another until his life ends in tragedy. Imka’s outlook on life as he passes through series of struggles is existentialist in the league of famous texts like Kafka’s Metamorphosis or Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. This chapter adopts an eclectic mix of theory it terms “Ecocritical existentialism” in reading the novella. The submission of the chapter is that the author has resourcefully weaved a novella with existentialist and ecocentric designs full of aesthetic imagination to voice out what it feels like to be a vulture in a world that alienates the species. The author’s nimble handling of the theme of this chapter in the novella rouses in the reader sympathetic and empathetic reception for a bird in perdition.
The universe is made up of living beings and inanimate things. Living beings of the universe one is aware of consist of human beings, animals, and vegetation. Of these, it is humans that express themselves in languages humans understand. If birds and animals have languages, humans do not understand these languages. Because humans do not understand the language of birds or animals, if these creatures have languages, they can’t know if these beings have been lamenting their travails, but humans do not understand them. This being the case, humans with conscience have since decided to use their own language that they understand to champion the causes of these other creatures.
Since time immemorial man elected to be the voice of animals, rivers, trees, hills and other forms of nature. He does this sometime for the sake of nature, but more often for his own sake.
In literature, oral or written, human stories about the natural world are often allegorical. In such stories, objects of nature are used to represent moral qualities, universal struggles or abstract ideas. According to Abrams and Harpham, a variety of literary genres may be classified as allegory in that they all narrate one coherent set of circumstances which are intended to signify a second order of correlated meanings (7). According to Abrams’ and Harpham’s classification, types of allegory include historical, political, moral, religious, dreamy, fables, parables, exemplum, proverbs and so on (7-9).
Kyuka Lilymjok’s Twilight for a Vulture is classifiable in the sub-genre of beast fable in that animals in the book talk and act like human beings. Abrams and Harpham point out that the beast fable is a very ancient fable form that existed in Africa, India and Greece. In West Africa, beast fables are folktales normally recounted in the oral literature of the people in evening homestead gatherings. George Orwell’s Animal Farm is an expanded beast fable that was expanded into a sustained satire on Russian totalitarianism under Stalin in the mid-twentieth century (Abrams and Harpham 8). Lilymjok’s Twilight for a Vulture while classifiable as a beast fable, because animals such as vultures, hyenas, wolves, and finches talk and act like human beings, can also be read from an ecocentric perspective. This is because the authorial voice has elected to voice out their perceived struggle for survival in a hostile environment. Imka the vulturein Twilight for a Vulture, lives in an environment with dwindling means of survival. The next section clarifies some key concepts used in the work.
Clarification of Concepts used in the Work
Allegory: An allegory is a narrative in which the actions of characters and sometimes the setting itself are contrived by the author to make coherent sense on the “literal”, or primary, level of signification, and at the same time to communicate a second, correlated order of signification (Abrams and Harphan 5).
Aesthetics: is used as a term to designate the systematic study of the fine arts as well as the nature of beauty in any object, whether natural or artificial. French writers in the latter part of the nineteenth century developed the view that a work of art is the supreme value among human products precisely because it is self-sufficient and has no use or moral aim outside its own being. The end of a work of art is simply to exist in its formal perfection; to be beautiful and to be contemplated as an end in itself. A thing of beauty does not need to have a utilitarian or moral purpose; it is self-autonomous, that is, self-sufficient in itself.
Nature: Nature as used in this paper refers to, the entire external world.
Existentialism: Existentialist philosophy is usually addressed to the absurd condition of man. According to Brockett and Ball, writers of the absurdist bent believe that the human condition is illogical and absurd because the desire for clarity and order is met by the irrationality of the universe, thus making rational or meaningful choice impossible (426). Abrams and Harpham also state that in existential philosophy, a human being is viewed as an isolated existence cast into an alien universe moving from nothingness whence it came toward the nothingness … it must end. Thus, man’s existence is both anguished and absurd (1). This existential philosophy can be found in Lilymjok’s Twilight for a vulture as the animal personae in the novella go through an obviously absurd and anguished existence. These animal personae also express thoughts and ideas that fit into existentialist philosophy.
Pristine: Unspoiled nature belonging to former times.
Twilight: The dim light just after sunset and before sunrise or the final stages of something; in this case the tragic end of Imka the Vulture.
According to Habib, in recent times “our own era” has witnessed a decline of theory in the sense of a grand narrative of historical development, or a series of archetypes with claims to universal explanatory power. Habib goes further to state that these larger visions gave way to more empirical modes of inquiry based on more narrowly defined fields and interests. Habib names ecocriticism as one of those new fields of theory “which examines the manifold significance of nature and the environment in literature” (279). True, ecocriticsm is a fairly new literary critical endeavour that began coming into prominence in the early 1970s. By 1978, William Reuckert coined the term “ecocriticism” defining it as an application of ecological concepts to the study of literature. Glotfelty in her introductory remarks to The Ecocritical Reader, states that ecocriticism is the study of the relationship between literature and the physical environment that has one foot in literature and other in the physical environment; negotiating between the human and the nonhuman. Glotfelty also points out that an ecologically focused criticism is a worthy enterprise primarily because it directs our attention to matters we need to be thinking with consciousness raising as a main task. Thus, Glofelty asks “how can we solve environmental problems unless we start thinking about them?” (xviii-xxiv). By making a vulture personae the protagonist, a literary piece of work like Lilymjok’s Twilight for a Vulture certainly can jolt a reader to attention.
To Borlik in Ecocriticism and Early Modern English Literature: Green Pastures, ecocriticism should be activist in orientation with the aim of promoting ways of reading literary texts that can, however indirectly, motivate and guide the human world to strive for a more ethical co-existence with the rest of the biotic community (10). Borlik’s view agrees with the consciousness raising task that ecocriticism should be imbued with. As Laurence Coupe puts it, ‘‘in order to defend nature …. they need to debate nature” in the literary and cultural world. (qtd. in Goodbody and Rigby 2). Borlik also points out that while ecocriticism is the term commonly used in the United States of America, in Europe Green Criticism is the term. While this paper agrees with Habib that ecocriticism may be a new field of study, it is however a theory that can be used to analyse literature of any era in history just like other grand theories he refers to.
Storyline of Twilight for a Vulture
Twilight for a Vulture is a novella of eighty one pages divided into seventeen passages. The central figure in the novella is a vulture persona named Imka. The storyline follows the travails of Imka as he is forced by starvation to leave his familiar terrain in Domen country in search of food in the city.
The plot of the story is linear as a reader is told of Imka’s travails as they happen in chronological order. The language of the story is simple and straightforward using standard English. The point of view is told from the omniscient point of view, which is an all-knowing, all-seeing vantage view point. However, it is a subjective omniscient point of view that leans mainly to Imka’s perspective. The point of view is further made intricate by the interior monologue that is frequently reflected from the personae in the novella. This is a sign of intricate artifice. The main themes that stand out in the novella include the harshness of life and struggle for existence in an impoverished environment. Characterization in the novel is woven around the animal world, featuring animals that think and speak like human beings. The next few sections are on textual analyses of the novella.
The Harshness of Life and Struggle for Existence in an Impoverished Environment Viewed through Imka’s Experiences
Passage One opens with Imka, a vulture, foraging in the forest for food without success. He has gone without food the previous day and is in a fearful state as he murmurs to himself, ‘What’s the meaning of this?’….. ‘for almost a whole day, I have combed almost the whole forest for what to eat, but can’t find a thing’” (i). He flies into the sky to scan for signs of carrion. What tells Imka in the sky that there is food on the ground for him is either the sight of a carcass on the ground, the smell of it or the sight of a swarm of flies on the ground which would usually be around carrion.
On his current flight searching for carrion, when Imka after a long search sees a swarm of flies buzzing and burring near the base of a tree, he finds it is carrion flies had gone very far devouring. As he joins the flies to devour the carrion, he realizes he is not only competiting with the flies but also hyenas more voracious than him and the flies put together. The scenario points to the struggle for survival over scarce resources in the forest. Like Imka the vulture, a hyena has roamed the forest for food without finding any. An interesting conversation takes place between the hyena and Imka as the hyena contemplates forging a-food-finding alliance between it and Imka.
The interesting aspect of the encounter between Imka the vulture and the hyena is that as transactional discussion go on between the two, the omniscient narrative voice shows the reader, interior monologue going on within each of the two. The scenario paints a picture of distrust and spirit of self-preservation in the minds of the two rivals which will not allow them cooperate for survival. It demonstrates the mistrusts and rivalries going on in the animal kingdom which also reflects what happens in the human world. This shows the allegorical nature of the work.
In passage Three, as Imka continues his search for food without success, he voices out his frustration loudly and this brings him in contact with a finch. The encounter between Imka and the finch reveals the fact that the lack of food in the forest of Domen country is a general malaise. The finch reveals that finches’ food like seeds of millet, wheat, fruits, insects, worms and spiders have been wiped out by pesticides and those remaining carry deposits of pesticides that eat up the innards of finches, thus leaving them (finches) without food. Imka also laments that pesticides are preventing their eggs from hatching thereby ensuring the extinction of vultures since they can’t procreate (17). At this point in their encounter, the role of animals vis-à-vis their relationship with man is brought out. Imka points out that an organization called Friends of the Earth is fighting against the use of nionic a pesticide that kills bees; he thus urges the finch to take the grievances of finches against pesticides to Friends of the Earth so that they can come to the rescue of finches as they were doing for bees.
The conversation between the vulture and the finch brings out the fact that man is selfish and fights only for his self-interest. The reason given for man fighting against the use of nionic is because bees produce honey for his use. When the vulture almost loses hope of man’s intervention in his species’ case, the finch revives his hope pointing out that ‘….vultures clear the earth of carcasses which breed diseases among men… ‘vultures clear the stench there would have been on earth and give the earth a cosy scent. Vultures may not make honey, but they make perfume. Vultures are not without uses to man as you might suppose’” (15). Thus, the two birds bring out the fact that the animal kingdom is of paramount importance to man: bees provide honey for man, vultures clear the environment of carrion thereby riding the earth of stench, while finches eat worms and insects that attack crops and infect man with diseases thus, giving food and health to man.
While man is portrayed as a selfish being in the relationship between him and birds, he is however a being that can rescue birds from destructive potentials of harmful pesticides and other practices harmful to nature, if he is also the cause of these harmful practices. The scenario allows Imka harbour some hope.
In Passage Four, Imka is forced to flee the forest for the city where he hopes to find food. In the city he finds many vultures that had migrated to the city without hinting him of their movement. This includes his friend, Lugom. This shows that in the struggle for survival, every being only looks out for itself.
In the city, Imka finds another vulture by name Sakko who tells him that it is not only vultures who do not have enough to eat, human beings also do not have much. He tells Imka that they forage for food in refuse dumps alongside the poor of the city. The outlook Sakko paints of the city is almost as bleak and fearful as what obtains in the forest. When Imka asks Sakko how long he had been in the city, Sakko answers tartly, “Long enough to know the city promises only a violent death in the end” (20). This statement, ironically foreshadows Sakko’s violent death later on in the novella. Using pithy exchanges between them, Sakko and Imka express their determination to remain in the city despite the bleak outlook because as Sakko puts it, there is nowhere else to go. Imka is equally apprehensive of their situation as he says he is not sure of his own fate having moved to a place he does not know. The collective view of their situation is bleak and existential. Their fate appears an ill one; and they without medicine to cure it.
The plot of Twilight for a Vulture even though linear is also episodic. As the passages progress, so do the different experiences Imka and the other personae go through develop in different dimensions. In Passage five for example, Imka and Sakko come upon a huge cache of stale food and decaying meat on a refuse dump in the city. Having eaten to their fill, Imka comes up with an ingenious idea of stuffing the found meat in polythene bags and carrying it to Sakko’s nest so that they do not have to go out hunting for food the next few days. No doubt for a vulture to come up with such an idea is exceptional. Sakko commends Imka.
After Imka makes the suggestion that the two vultures carry meat in polythene bags for future use, relations between him and Sakko turn sour due to his pride in making the suggestion and Sakko’s implacableness. This leads to Sakko sending Imka away from his nest where he had earlier housed him. For Imka pride comes before a fall and for life misfortune is never far from fortune.
Passages Seven and Eight appear to serve as interludes devoted to the beauty of nature Imka finds himself. This essay treats the beauty of nature in a subsequent section. Passages seven and eight are also devoted to Imka’s quest for a new place to stay after being driven away by Sakko. He later locates a forest grove which he decides to adopt as his new place of abode.
Passage Nine details endless and fruitless search for food vultures engage in, in the city. This shows deterioration of the food situation with the vultures. While food competitors of vultures in the forest are hyenas, in the city they are dogs and pigs. When Imka finally locates the carcass of a goat signalled by the usual horde of flies flying in circles around the spot, the narrative voice details how difficult it can be for a vulture to tear the flesh of such carrion if it is still fresh. When Imka goes back to the site of the goat carcass the following day for more carcass, he does not find even a strand of flesh. Passage Ten finds Imka in the city searching for food.
The socio-cultural environment in Passage Ten and Eleven hints at a setting that seems to be that of a Western society. This is indicated by the celebration of Halloween. Halloween is celebrated in Western countries such as European countries, United States of America, Canada, Australia or New Zealand. The Halloween festival began in England, Ireland, and Northern France over 1900 years ago. It began at a time Celtic druids went on the biggest holiday of the year believing the souls of the dead could mingle with the living during the holidays. With the arrival of Christianity in Europe, the church used the Halloween holiday to bring paganism and Christianity together, making it easier for the local populations to convert to the state religion. A lot of celebrations accompanied with lots of food and disguising like demons takes place during Halloween festivities. Thus, the celebration of Halloween gives opportunity to the vultures to eat well and to compare their state of being with that of human beings. Imka points out that human beings celebrate things like Halloween because they loot others resources. “celebration is a party over looted resources” (52). Vultures having taken the path of honour of waiting for nature to deliver sustenance to them “according to the scheme nature wants all beings to live by” have no excess to hold celebrations over (53). This viewpoint implies that human beings have surpluses to celebrate over because they are exploitative of others, while vultures have little because they are honourable and live by the rules of natural provision.
When one of the vultures in the course of the conversation among the vultures says it is stupid for human beings to suppose their dead ones “… are in some abode called heaven or hell’’ (54), his statement smacks of existentialism that life is material with no afterlife, and happiness is what one makes of it here on earth.
Passages Twelve, Thirteen and Fourteen bring to the fore further travails of vultures. Imka finds and rescues Sakko his erstwhile friend from a trap it had fallen into. The rescue gives occasion to Sakko to repent and apologize for his past mistreatment of Imka. Imka is all philosophical as he sets about rescuing Sakko. Through Sakko’s incidence, it is exposed that because of hunger in the humanoid world, humans set traps to catch vultures to either eat or roast as chickens for sale to unsuspecting buyers. This raises the question whether the setting of such incidence happens in a developing country where such things are most likely, or in a developed western country where Halloween takes place. Any disequilibrium the above question may generate can easily be resolved by the fact that there are western societies that celebrate Halloween that are not developed and also societies that are not western but celebrate Halloween.
When Imka learns that Friends of the Earth may rescue Sakko who is missing, he remarks: “Man is bad, man is good; what can a vulture do?” (65). This indicates that man is not totally bad and there can be a symbiotic and positive relationship between man and the animal world.
In Passage Fifteen, life gets more difficult for Imka and other vultures because there is an outbreak of an epidemic of rats that gobble up food vultures usually feed on. Imka thinks of migrating from Domen Country to another country, but realizes that not knowing such country the way he knew Domen may make it difficult for him to find food there more so that he was getting older. At this point in the novella, a young vulture tells Imka of Parsee country where men do tree burial and vultures find a lot of corpses to feed on. Parsee country practices tree burial because the people of Parsee believe that placing corpses on trees for vultures to peck the flesh and the bones falling to the ground for interment in the earth helps the process of reincarnation. The information given to Imka makes him express his usual existentialist thoughts. He says, “Nothing good is ever near… Life is so mean and miserly; so mean and miserly, it is so wretched and miserable’’ (68). The statement encapsulates the philosophy of existentialist thinkers such as Jean Satre, Albert Camus, Eugene Ionosco and Samuel Beckett who propounded the view that a human being is an isolated being cast into an alien universe with the human world possessing no inherent truth, value or meaning. He further asserts that there is a fruitless search for purpose and significance by man as he moves from the nothingness whence he came, toward the nothingness … he must end; an existence which is both anguished and absurd (Abrams and Harpham 1; Garvey and Stangroom 302-305). In Twilight for a Vulture, such meaninglessness, anguish and absurdity of life is the lot of the vultures.
In Passage Sixteen Imka embarks on a mission to find out more about Parsee country from the young vulture that had earlier told him about the existence of the country. Imka’s conversation with the young vulture is full of cynical humour confirming him a typical Lilymjokian character who is wise, philosophical, sarcastically humorous, full of quips and funny aphorisms. Imka is pleased to find the young vulture intelligent, cynical and humorous like him. This gives Imka the assurance that the wit he so much has will not die with him.
Passage Seventeen which is the last passage in the novella brings to a resolution the mystery surrounding Sakko’s disappearance. It is revealed that Sakko thinking Imka had abandoned him attempts to escape, and in the course of the attempt, is found and shot by hunters killing him instantly. Sakko’s fate shows Satre’s existentialist concept that someone’s fate is the outcome of choices made by that person (qtd. in Ritzer and stephnisky 603). Imka is deeply affected by Sakko’s death. Biki one of Imka’s new vulture companions captures the existential fate of vultures thus, “… we are caught in the dance of life, a dance on nails and broken glasses” (77). The phrase by Biki is a dense metaphoric and cynical expression that aptly captures the existential lives of the vultures. They are caught in a “dance” a happy activity of life, sharply contrasted with the dance done on nails and broken glasses – sharp objects that can cause injury and pain. The sunk state Biki paints gets harsher when he suggests before the three vultures leave to find Parsee country that they eat the corpse of Sakko to assuage their hunger. Imka is outraged by the suggestion and his outrage is further aggravated when Jela obliquely agrees in an ironically humorous manner that Sakko’s corpse should be carried in their bellies implying he agrees with Biki’s proposal that they eat Sakko’s corpse because of the hunger raging in their bellies. Imka stands fast by his decision for Sakko’s corpse not to be eaten. This depicts Imka as an honourable persona who respects friendship. As they depart in search of Parsee country, the three vultures die one by one from the pangs of hunger thus lending credence to the existentialist creed of anguish, meaninglessness and absurdity of life. The novella ends in a tragedy. The other significant aspect of Lilymjok’s Twilight for a Vulture has to do with the aesthetic portrayal of nature in passages seven and eight of the novella which the next section examines.
Aesthetic Portrayal of Nature in Twilight for a Vulture
In passage seven, during Imka’s search of a place to make a nest as far removed from Sakko’s as possible, Imka happens on a grove in a forest which he becomes enthralled by. The narrative voice describes the grove thus:
What he saw was awesome. The tree climbers, shrub stems and branches artfully knotted themselves into a pad at the roof of the grove that appeared impenetrable to rain, or even the wind. It was a breath-taking sight that held Imka spell bound for a long time. (33)
The scenario portrayed is of a breathtaking artfully designed nature at its sublime and pristine best. The beauty of nature here well captured by Lilymjok through Imka the major character of the novella serves as a cheering interlude in a cheerless tale. It is like a comic relief in a tragic play.
The grove in Imka’s eyes is a piece of artwork of nature. The vulture is so thrilled by the handicraft of nature that he decides he would make his home at that spot. Through the eyes of Imka, the narrative voice further describes a captivating scenery in the forest using poetic prose thus:
The rays of the early morning sun shot through the trees of the forest in dazzling, effervescence beams that tickled his bucolic elements … the sun rays had a particular twinkling and shimmering quality Imka found enthralling. They created on earth what he called miniature rainbows of light and water. This was the sort of day he would say the sun was flaunting its royalty. (38)
Imka further demonstrates his love of such natural beauty as he becomes fascinated and hypnotized such that “he bellowed in ecstasy” (40). The love of Imka for nature places him in the Romantic school that celebrates, loves, is devoted to nature and concentrates on emotions (Cuddon 65). As Imka demonstrates, he is overwhelmed by the natural beauty he finds in the grove. The authorial voice gives rein to Imka’s raw expression of animalistic pleasure at such find by using the apt word of “bellowing” (4).
The author in these passages shows that nature has the inbuilt capability for a symmetrical, geometrical and aesthetic ordering of beauty without human necessarily ordering it to such sublime artistic heights. He patterns his language in poetic prose to capture the analogy of a beautiful work of nature exhibiting such an ingenious artistic design. The narrative voice portraying nature in such serene and pristine state is capable of arousing the aesthetic sensibilities of readers such that they can identify the beauty inherent in their environment and advocate for the preservation of the ecosystem. The evocation of natural aesthetics is also a demonstration of an authorial leaning to ecocentrism.
The authorial voice also displays its descriptive prowess in the realistic portrayal of the personae of Imka. The spider in chapter eight wondering the ability of Imka a bird that feeds on carrion to have such grand aesthetic sensibilities says, “for a vulture that feeds on carrion, it is difficult to understand how you came by your disposition’’ (i.e. Imka’s aesthetic dispositions). The view of the spider here is mistaken. A vulture always dealing with carrion is perhaps better placed to see and recognize beauty than other creatures of the forest. (41). The vulture home to death, can easily be enliven by the life of beauty.
While imbuing him with features of human sensibilities of wisdom, honour, dignity and a tartly sense of humour, the narrative voice dorns Imka in the grim physics of a vulture. It also gives the reader a glimpse of Imka’s animalist character:
The fierce way the four vultures attacked the dead goat with their beaks and talons communicated a shared consciousness of a dread of dogs or pigs appearing on the scene. Their relentless pecking and tearing soon opened up the dead goat spilling its entrails on the ground. The flies went into a frenzy Imka feared could attract dogs or pigs … As soon as they opened up the goat, the four vultures began gobbling its entrails as fast as they could … He (Imka) resigned to their uproar and began pecking the carcass fiercely as other vultures were. (47)
The foregoing description is quite detailed and realistic depicting the nauseous details of vultures pecking at carrion thus reminding the reader of the animalistic nature of Imka the protagonist in the tale.
The eco-sensibilities the author evokes in this novella are similar to those he evokes in The Death of Eternity, Sieged, The Lone Piper and Birds’ Case, The Mad Professor of Zwigwi, The Dark Star North, and The Old Woman and the Birds. Going through these various novels of the author, one walks away with a renewed sense of environmental awareness and the need to preserve the environment. One might not be cutting it too fat to say these works of Lilymjok are environmental streams one can always go to for environmental bath.
The three vultures that seek to migrate from Domen country to Parsee country in search of greener pasture die in the process. As the case is with the three vultures, it is with human migrants, particularly illegal ones. Migration is always a perilous and uncertain venture both for man and beast, and so should be carefully weighed before embarking on.
This chapter has attempted demonstrating how in a rare imaginative creation, Lilymjok has written a novella that draws readers attention to the needs of a vulture a bird that feeds on carrion; a bird largely ignored by man because of its lack of aesthetic beauty and nauseous eating habits. The author in this novella gives such a bird a voice and aesthetics sensibilities that are startling. By his portrayal of the vulture and its dire conditions in the margin of society and in society itself, the author may move society to protect this bird of prey.
Further deepening the significance of this novella, its message is laden not only with the aesthetics of nature, but with existentialist ideologies that bring it to the same pedestal as famous existentialist artistic texts of Alfred Jarry’s Ubu roi, Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. Above these texts, this novella has the added perspective of environmental sensibility that speaks for the animal world. The tragic ending of Twilight for a vulture raises not only pathos in a reader, but engenders in him questions that linger demanding for answers. The novella in an exquisite manner provides an interface between literature and the environmental sciences. The paper considers the text an important milestone in the writings of Lilymjok.
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 First presented at the Lapai Humboldt kolleg National conference Holding at the main Auditorium, Ibrahim Badamasi Babangida University, Lapai, Nigeria from 27th-29th June, 2018.