Carmel A. Igba-Luga
Department of English, Benue State University, Makurdi
The works of Kyuka Lilymjok belong to the newer wave of writing in prose fiction. He follows closely on the heels of 20th century Nigerian writers. His works and those of others of his time qualify as young Nigerian writing especially when discussed in relation to the literature of his forebears- Soyinka, Clark and Achebe and subsequent fore-grounders of the tradition of modern Nigerian literature exemplified by the works of Osundare, Ojaide and Osofisan. Lilymjok has many published texts to his credit. These are: Hope in Anarchy, The Village Tradesman, The Death of Eternity, The Lord Mammon, My Headmaster, Bivan’s House and The Butcher’s Wife, the text of interest to this paper. Lilymjok like most other Nigerian writers is committed to a portrayal of his society from its multi-faceted angles, but in all, satire on moral decay stands out as prominent motif of his writings. And the satirical strand when taken to its most irrational and meaningless level results in the absurd as it is deployed in the novel; The Butchers Wife.
An Overview of The Butcher’s Wife
In the book; The Butcher’s wife, the author sets the tone and atmosphere of his absurd narrative with this philosophical posture of how treachery eventually destroys itself in Nnali:
Pride gave birth to two children: Envy and Greed. She nursed them until they could fly. In her old age Pride was thirsty and went to ask her children for water. ‘If I give you water,’ said Envy, your feathers will most likely glow more than mine.’ ‘If I give you water said Greed, I will not have enough to drink myself. Desperate and heart-broken, Pride jumped into a river to have a drink and was drowned. (Lilymjok, viii)
Thus the text prefixes that the evil disposition of Nnali was going to consume her. The narrative begins with an introduction of the prominent women of the village of Sarai. The prideful nature of Nnali – the butcher’s wife, is quickly established with this quote: “… somehow she always maneuvered herself into leadership position in anything that involved the women of Sarai” (Lilymjok, 1). Her evil machination justified by her self-importance is the pivot upon which the debasement of her and destruction of life is explored. Village life in Sarai is simple as it is in other villages. It is however piloted principally by Nnali the butcher’s wife to crudities, barbarism and a senselessness that assumes the absurd. The absurdist atmosphere of the text is established early by the women’s quarrel. Ordinarily there is no relationship between Gwanzang’s death and the killing of animals as meat for sale, but Koni finds a way – a way that borders on the absurd, to link the two. The invectives and counter invectives hoist the frame for subsequent misunderstanding about the necklace. The women’s repertoire of abusive language is foul, rude and reeks of harmful intentions: ‘‘To marry a butcher for the meat of it is a bad sale.’’ (p 8) Nnali’s response to Koni is fearful: ‘‘when you finish sending rats to me, I will send snakes to you.’ (p 8) The narrative is layered with unfortunate happenings and diabolical forebodings. In Nnali’s regrettable behavior, the degeneration of human values of dignity and integrity are heightened and amplified.
On the surface, the text narrates the life of a traditional and typical village that can be situated geographically and culturally in almost any part of Nigeria. The daily life of Sarai people comprised of farming and small scale commercial activities. In the market, there are butchers highly valued because of the importance attached to meat in the dietary menu of Sarai. Prominent among the butchers is Baita, Nnali’s husband whom she shares with two other wives that he married before her. There are also those who trade in herbs, ropes and mats. In a literal demonstration of the importance of meat over other wares of trade, the butcher is raised to prominence by his butchering table over the rope and mat sellers with their wares strewn on the ground; though the butcher sat like a disappointed king over the rope and mat sellers. Other items are spread on mats on the ground where the sellers also sat beside their wares. In line with tradition, certain items are sold by men while other items are sold by women. For instance, ropes were sold by men while root crops were sold exclusively by women (Lilymjok, 14).
In Sarai, a man’s dignity was measured by the size of his household – his number of wives and children, as well as the quantity of his grains in millet, corn and maize. It was also determined by the number of his livestock as well.
Historically, the text is situated in a post independent era; a period several decades after independence. Therefore social and ethno-religious challenges prevalent in the times are also reflected in the text. Religious conflicts are portrayed in the text because the villagers practice a multiplicity of religions; Christianity, Islam and traditional religion. Traces of religious crises in the text add to the absurdist bend of the novel.
There is however hardly concrete evidence of Moslems in the village; no representative of a mosque. Christiaanity on its part is only represented by the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Traditional religious practices dominate the peoples’ belief system. To underscore this, people swear by Azazzag – an Oracle of the land. The Azazzag is physically represented by “a small gourd-shaped pot.’’ Apart from being the swearing totem of the people, it is a representative of –Aboi-abyin – the traditional god of the land (Lilymjok, 15). Even with the traditional religion, the people of Sarai seem to pay only lip service to the deity of this religion. The author captures the psychedelicattitude of the people to the worship of the gods of the three religions. A firm belief in religion and its strict observances are an anathema to absurdism. It is the absence of a sensible order to man’s existence that produces absurd situations. Nnali does not hold a firm belief in any religion. Her lack of faith in any religion is evident when she says:
‘Don’t be too quick to dismiss ignorance as counting for nothing,’ said the butcher’s wife. ‘The religion of Yahweh in particular should not look down on ignorance. I have a feeling it would last longer the religion that preserves ignorance longer. Look at the Aboi oracle and how in our ignorance we used to venerate it before our eyes were opened by the religion of Yahweh. Before we all thought the eerie voices coming from the shrine of the Aboi oracle were the voices of Aboi-abin—the spirits of the ancestors. But the moment the religion of Yahweh opened our eyes to know the spine-tingling voices were not those of Aboi-abin, what happened?’ (Lilymjok 10)
Family life is significantly captured in Baita – the butcher’s homestead. In polygamous homes as they are set up in traditional Nigerian societies, quarrels and fights are frequent occurrences. There is proximity between warring parties represented by the wives and their children. Fights are a common feature in Baita’s house made up of three wives and many children born by his first and second wife. Ngon’s mocking and hurtful lyrics often provoked the fights between her and Nnali. The first wife was mostly a spectator having little to do with the misunderstandings of the other two wives. But what she lacked in verbal or physical combat was made up by her children’s disregard of their father. The butcher’s second wife consistently tormented the barren Nnali with her reflective and biting songs. The butcher’s second wife had a habit of singing. Whatever she was doing she sang and that annoyed Nnali, because, though Nnali was a beautiful woman, to her chagrin it was her mate whom she always clashed with who had a beautiful, if annoying, voice. Nnali remarks that ‘‘she sang not in muffled discordant tunes but in loud clear and coherent tunes” (Lilymjok, 54). Often consumed by jealousy, Nnali thought her mate was undeserving of her voice because she was ugly; ‘‘a worm.’’ The second wife, bitter that Nnali took the attention of her husband away from her tormented Nnali with numerous songs composed to attack the barren and wicked woman. She knew more than anybody in their homestead that Nnali was evil; so for her she sang provocative songs thus:
“She was a bad woman, she was a bad woman/why did the bad woman do this? …It was because she did not know/The pains of child-bearing” (Lilymjok, 56).
The invective of one of her songs ends thus:
Life is a great evil But the bad woman is a greater evil than life That is why she is without child (Lilymjok 58).
In the text, Nnali, popularly known as the butcher’s wife along with other characters in the novel create the existential, absurd situation under review. In the above invective of Ngon – the butcher’s wife’s mate, the existential and absurd peer at us. ‘‘Life is a great evil’’ is an existential fact. Saying the butcher’s wife is a greater evil than life is absurd because there is no logical connection between the butcher’s wife evil and life.
According to Jean Paul Sartre, to establish the existentialist point of view, characters are purposely created to exhibit the existentialist attributes of degenerate moral values and loss of purpose in life. This we find in abundance in The Butcher’s Wife.
Existentialism as Framework of Analysis
Existentialism has deep roots in the early articulation of human reasoning. The beginning of existential philosophy is often linked to the postulations of the Greek philosopher Socrates. His students, Plato and Aristotle both charted divergent ideologies of idealism and materialism interrogating the relation between the soul and the body. Existential thinking is centred on what is known as “Dasein,” that is “what- it-is-to-be-in-the-world.” (Abrams & Harpham, 178)Man’s inability to rationalize his being away from a material position as well as his inability to provide convincing answers to the complexities that human life is confronted with provided the platform existential thinking was founded. As an intellectual and academic movement, existentialism rose to prominence during and after the horrific experiences of the 1st and 2nd world war. Existentialist thinking attacked the institutionalised values of Western society. Critical Western intellectuals contended that Western societies were in fact barbaric and hypocritical but hid behind the facade of bourgoise liberalism. Their ideas were concretised in academic circles in the study of philosophy. Existentialism as a philosophical movement was to influence the many approaches of Modernism.
Existentialism became concretized in the works of philosophers like Soren Kierkegaard and Martin Heidegger. Their philosophical postulations presented a front against the idealism and abstraction of Hegel concerning human existence. Kierkegaard writing in the 19th century is regarded as the articulator of existentialism. Ozumba calls him: “The indisputable father of existentialism” (67). Of importance to note about Kierkagaard’s work is that he did not view his writings as existentialist. It is the themes he addressed that class him with existential philosophers. His discussions revolved around the meaning of existence, man’s relationship with his creator, death, anguish, the meaninglessness of life and a treatise on the three stages of life; aesthetics, ethics and religion.
Kierkagaard and Heidegger were both students of Hegel but they disagreed with his abstract idealism. The varied views of existentialist thinking resulted in the categorization of theistic and atheistic strands of existentialism. Kiekagaard and Heidegger provided the stand-points upon which existentialist philosophers are differentiated. These two philosophers established themselves as theistic and atheistic existentialist respectively. Heidegger’s major work “Being and Time” published in 1938 articulated the condition of man’s material life, the complicated nature of the being of man; his existence and the forces that consistently contrive to thwart his search for freedom and purpose to life. Heidegger’s concept of being captures hapless human beings in a universe without a ruler. In this dispensation, life is directionless. Time passes but there is no satisfaction, because the challenges of daily life propel human beings to an endless but unattainable search for happiness and fulfillment.
Heidegger influenced prominent philosophers like Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, Nietzsche and Dostoevsky. These philosophers grounded the atheistic strand of existential thinking.
Though there exist several points of departure in the details of existentialists ideas, “all existentialist philosophers share a common belief that man is always found in a situation,” a state where he can neither rationalise his existence or truly make sense of it. (Katsina, 16) The facticity of human existence is another rallying factor of existentialism; the indisputable knowledge that human life is controlled by birth, growth, degeneration and death is another factor. Atheistic existentialists especially, belief that: “existence comes before essence” all in the attempt to grapple with material being (qtd in Ozumba, 69).
Modern existential philosophy especially the atheistic type is popularized by Sartre. He expands on the ideas of existentialism beyond other philosophical postulations like metaphysics, ethics and morality. Sartre’s existentialism is unique in that, in his fictional works, he articulated the philosophy of existentialism, while his nonfiction was used as the creative outlet for the application of his existentialist philosophy. In his novels and short stories he created narratives and characters to live out his existentialist notion. Cox makes the point that the short stories, novels and plays written by Sartre and his philosophical writings can be enjoyed independent of the other while they can still be related to reinforce his philosophy of existentialism. Sartre’s ideas are encapsulated in major themes as: Being-in-itself and Being-for-itself, Consciousness and intentionality, Being-for-Others, The Body-Subject and Object, Freedom and Responsibility, Bad Faith, Authenticity, Existentialism, Ethics and Marxism. Amidst other theorizing on human existence Sartre’s treatise on absurdism is most pronounced in the being series, bad faith and authenticity.
In summation, Sartre posits that human life leads to nothing beyond material existence. But it is only when human beings fail to accept the inevitable fact that within the confines and limitations of man’s being, life can be lived to its fullest that a crisis results in them. Sartre argues thus, that, man’s insistence on his importance and necessity to existence leads him to “bad faith” (Cox,12). In other words he is controlled by a faulty mindset because he attaches false values to himself. Sartre deviates from Rene Descartes who conceives that the world is made up of mind, matter and God. In his twin concept of “being-in itself-and being for itself, Sartre merges Descartes’ elements and also undermines the universal notion of an all-knowing and omnipresent being who exercises control over the universe. Still Sartre’s being is in a state of flux, a “featureless” state of existence where being for itself seems to proceed from being in itself. But Sartre insists that his treatise is atheistic and so even being in itself does not refer to the essence called God. Sartre’s stance on accepting life with equanimity is contradicted by man’s dissatisfaction and purposeless search. Man does not exist as the quality of the being-for-itself he is only an invalidated part of it.
Sartre himself goes back and forth in a contradictory fashion in his postulation in the attempt to establish that being-for itself, does not proceed from being-in-itself. Coxsums criticizes Sartre’s notion of Being, when he remarks ‘‘the absurd does not leave you thinking about nothing, it takes you around in circles. It is not a non-thought state but an illogical and senseless one.’’ An exploration of the concept of being in Sartre’s work produces no logical direction even though Sartre insists that being for itself exists only in relation to the being in itself; the initial fundamental and limitless force. Being for itself has been interpreted by Cox as the state of “consciousness or person hood”(15). Further analysis of Sartre thinking on the double concept reveal that being- for- itself cannot be pinned down to any substance just like being- in- itself always escapes from itself. And only exists in the escapism of the past, present and future. Therefore its entire existence is formless and unstable. Still Sartre seeming irrationality and unco-ordinatedness are meant to reflect and symbolise the state of man’s mind and his entire existence as captured by existentialist writing in its non-fictional and fictional forms.
Absurdity: The Human Condition.
Sartre popularized existentialism, especially through his practical application of the theory’s tenets to daily life. The absurdist strand of existentialism is only one of the currents of Sartean existential philosophy he branched into. It is Albert Camus’ absurdism, steeped in pessimism that most intensely captures the absurdist core of the paper while Sartre’s ideas are still relevant to the discourse. Iwuagwu surmises that Camus’ philosophy is supported by a “tripod stand (of) atheism, the absurdity and meaninglessness of life and proclamation of man’s freedom.” (215). Albert Camus like Sartre wrote philosophical fiction. He also applied his theory of the absurd to his fictional works. Camus in his early works applied himself more to atheism, absurdity or the meaninglessness of human life with a peculiarity that bothered on the downright dismissal and extreme skepticism that human life was utterly useless. Sartre and Camus are existentialist’s staunch absurdists but at some time in their association they disagreed on the definition of the absurd. Sartre insists that his concept of the absurd differs from Camus.’ He accuses Camus’ absurdism as being comprehended in a limited sense. Camus’ absurd is viewed in the relationship between man and the world and this ultimately creates a pessimistic picture. For Sartre, the absurd is the given, that quality of existence that remains incomprehensible to man but not essential to meaningless.
Essentially the absurd has its nature embedded in human existence. Man as a material being is limited by his physical environment. He cannot know beyond what he understands or sees. He constantly seeks to overcome his limitation by increasing his knowledge base, but sadly the more he thinks he has achieved the more he realizes that there is still so much he is yet to grasp. This state creates in man frustration and anxiety. It is in this contradictory and unfulfilled nature that the absurd is interlaced, inseparable with human existence. The absurd lacks coherence and reasonableness. And man’s unsuccessful attempt to create order in a complex and unyielding world leads to confrontation with his environment and his search for clarity only leaves him with a mystery. Popovil points out that: “The absurd is characterized by absence of logic, the occurrence of incongruous and contradictory events (p.1).
An expression of the absurd in narrative is the example of the Myth of Sisyphus, a text in which Camus grounded his absurdist thesis. The subject matter of the Myth of Sisyphus is depicted in the endless toil of a mythic figure; Sisyphus, who neither completes nor quits his unreasonable and endless toil. Camus’ overriding proposition to confront purposeless life is that the”…absurdity of life requires one to escape through hope or suicide.” One of Sartre’s novel Nausea is also always cited as an example of how attributes of the absurd are woven into the narratives of prose fiction. In the text, The Butcher’s Wife, Nnali when confronted with the senselessness of her crimes and the inevitability of her nemesis chooses suicide. Again like Sisyphus who is imprisoned by the rock that rolls back for him to continue the endless push, Nnali wakes up daily to the painful and unchanging dilemma of her barrenness. She pretends to be happy and lively, but within she is eaten up by sorrow and mischief; she merely exists. The narrative in The Butcher’s Wife does not present any way out of the irrational situation that is created by Nnali, at least not a positive one. In the existential, man does not live or thrive, he merely exists, for to live entails purposefulness, meaning and a firm grounding in concrete values and beliefs.
Features of the Absurd in The Butcher’s Wife
Existentialist philosophy when applied to literature is expressed in the creativity of fictional writing. The absurd in literature began in the dramatic theatre. It is expressed by the term ‘theatre of the Absurd.’ Initially the principle was propagated in plays and modernist theatre. Martin Esslin coined the term. It was used as an approach to analyse the modernist and advent garde plays of Samuel Beckett, Arthur Adamov, Eugene Ionesco, Jean Genet and other authors who broke with the principles of classical drama. The concern of the theatre of the absurd is to present a humanity that belongs nowhere and whose existence is characterized by pain, uncertainty and an irrational state. The absurd theatre has its foundations in, and it is propelled by the chaotic and de humanizing events of the first and second world wars.
Absurdist writing came into prominence along with the modernist movement which became the dominant convention of the 20th century intellectual articulation. In art, the literary approaches of the 20th century were associated with unconventionality and disagreement with previous modes of writing, reasoning and expression. The philosophical precursors of unconventional movements queried the settled view that Western societies were civilized and had concrete values. The display of barbarism by societies touted as civilized and enlightened degenerated into the causes and in some cases irreparable consequences of the world wars. As a literary movement, modernism encompasses many approaches such as surrealism, expressionism the advent garde, existentialist and absurdist philosophies. These strands express some differences in their forms but, they are distinctively linked by a conscious and fundamental disassociation with the literary forms of the age of liberal humanism.
The principles of the absurd which began in theatre also became established in poetry and prose fictional writing became foregrounded. Writers of literature combined the motifs and forms of modernism and absurd principles. They charted divergent forms with abandonment of the techniques of naturalism or realism. Foregrounders of Modernism; Eliot, Woolf, Pound, propagated the technical attributes of anti-conventional ideology in their writings. These forebears contended that “the inherited mode of ordering a literary work which assumed relatively coherent and stable order” could not account for nor correspond with chaos and emptiness in contemporary society. In Modernism, writers sought new forms and techniques to capture the devastated and disordered reality of human life. (Abrams & Harpham). Modernism shares attributes with absurdism but unlike the absurd, most modernist writing is concerned with fragmentation of idioms and automated language whose aim is to violate the conventional rules of grammar. Lilymjok’s The Butcher’s Wife is written with a leaning to the absurd principle. Absurdist literature deploys metaphors to portray an inexplicable universe and man’s being or existence in a life that is beyond his rational grasp. The absurd is encapsulated in features such as the fantasy and nightmares, horrific happenings, persistent evil and inexplicable circumstances, all these sum up to depict the human condition.
It is also established that the prolific disposition of literature renders is to be free to multiple interpretation. Therefore early African writing in English both in the form of creative works and corresponding literary criticism has dwelt on cultural concerns. The Butcher’s Wife is one text that can also be studied from a cultural position to examine for instance the consequences of multiple cultural interaction in traditional but evolving African societies. Consequently a novel like The Butcher’s Wife, set in a traditional milieu is absorbed within the 19th and 20th centuryphilosophical and literary conventions. This Ker explains that “the African novel (shows itself) as part of a larger fictional universe.” (3) An appraisal of The Butcher’s Wife yields that the author, Lilymjok appropriates the existentialist philosophical tenets especially the absurdist strand in writing the novel. He lines his text in the tradition of the absurd practiced by pioneer Western writers.
Early creative prose writing of the absurd in literature finds expression in the novels and short stories of Sartre, the eerie short stories of the Poet, Kafka’s The Trial, Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury. On familiar geographical terrain, the absurd in literature is reflected in the novels of Soyinka; The Man Died and the Interpreters. Another absurdist work is Amah’s The Beautiful Ones are not Yet Born, Ben Okri’s works especially The Famished Road and a short story; Converging City combines the absurd and attributes of magical realism to depict a view of life that cannot be easily fathomed by the characters as well as the readers.The absurd is also gleaned from the writings of contemporary Nigerian writing like Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun and Habila’s Measuring time. Adichie particularly in her ageless novel; Half of a Yellow Sun, deploys the techniques of 19 and 20th century European novelists to portray the absurdity of war, destruction. Adichie draws from historical evidence to portray that man’s debased and perverted nature takes on a cyclical trend. It is a negative but never-ending state which continuous to plunge man into a barbaric state in successive eras of civilization. Lilymjok in Sieged is influenced by Orwell’s Animal Farm, the text Sieged captures in metaphoric form, the political hunters in ‘Bivan’s house who are “self-serving, and are ever willing to remove (eliminate) from their way anyone or group that constitutes a threat”(Edebor, 144). The culture of self-aggrandizement exhibited by the politicians of Bivan’s house, when carried to extreme levels results into the absurdities of greed, envy and evil. The Butcher’s Wife becomes the exemplary text where the absurd is explored.
In the convention of writing absurd literature, texts portray the existential way of life like terror, fear, unreasonableness and a general atmosphere of uncertainty and danger as part of the philosophical picture” (Cox, 3).The Butcher’s wife is examined through the framework of existential philosophical postulations. By its contents it lends itself to be so treated. Its contents are suited to Cox’s position when he maintains that “To read philosophy is often to have to reread it, all the while taking time to sit back and reflect” (11). Unlike Sieged which is racy, in The Butchers Wife, the reader is forced to reread some parts of the texts, especially when confounded with Nnali’s malicious behaviour or vileness. The devilish nature of Nnali is imposed on what would have been a serene village, facing the daily friction that arises from communal living. Even Nnali’s father is a regular human being. There is no link or explanation between her bad manners and her family background and therefore no basis for rationalizing her behaviour which consequently is absurd. The treatment of Nnali’s character by the author is used to portray the human extremities of greed, envy and tragedy. This paper does not set out to impose logical explanations on the text; its purpose is to undertake an appraisal of absurdist features as they manifest in the text.
The events of the text progress and revolve around the butcher’s wife. The narrative is layered with perspectives of tragic happenings. An instance is the violent clashes between adherents of the different religions that results in deaths. One of the women, Ntaa observes sadly: “We seem to be going for death condolences now than for wedding or naming ceremonies…,’’ (3). “And every death digs a grave in our hearts” (3). The women’s counter invectives also set the absurdist tone of the novel. While lamenting the butchering of people in religious conflicts, the women unwittingly are setting the stage for verbal and physical butchering of themselves. What seems to be an ordinary misunderstanding between Nnali and Koni degenerates to proportions that results in violence and tragedy. The absurd atmosphere once prefigured only intensified until the unpleasant fate that characterises The Butcher’s Wife and eventually ends with Camus’ philosophical option of suicide.
A prominent attribute of absurd reasoning in The Butcher’s Wife is reflected in Nnali’s greed. She is greedy and dissatisfied. Even though she has large herd of livestock more than anyone in the village, she seeks to and succeeds in destroying those of another woman. She is consumed by envy and poisons Kyantuk’s livestock with the “leaves of Asab tree” (Lilymjok,20). Nnali’s evil consummation manifests as a nervous state which she experiences: “Her heart started beating violently. Her eyes were becoming misty” and she is for a moment satiated after the evil act is done and the tragic consequences felt by the unfortunate victim (Lilymjok, 20). Her treacherous deeds include harvesting other peoples’ millet fields as fodder for her cattle so that they are healthier than those of other people in the village and procreate more.
Absurdity is heightened and exhibited in the text; The Butcher’s wife by the incidence of the necklace. Koni and Nnali have quarreled and exchanged bitter invectives to hurt each other. Koni taunts Nnali about her barreness and ridicules her husband, the butcher while Nnali accuses Koni who is a widow of living loosely and having her eyes on the husbands of other women. Koni thinks the misunderstanding is over, but Nnali harbours and nurses vengeance. She contrives a complex treachery in which she exchanges Koni’s necklace with Daye’s which she had the opportunity of taking when it fell off Daye’s husband, a carpenter. He came to work at her house and without his knowledge, his wife’s necklace hung from his work clothes and eventually fell off them. Nnali got hold of the necklace. For a while greed and the pride of owning the necklace struggles with her desire to use it to deal with Koni. Greed and vanity are pitched against vengeance, but vengeance eventually wins (Lilymjok 33). Nnali chooses vengeance.
Existentialism among other features deals with man’s freedom to exercise certain choices. Similarly Kierkagaard’s three stages of life the aesthetic, the ethical and the religious were before Nnali but she chooses the aesthetic so as to satisfy her selfishness and evil pleasures which are attributes of the aesthetic stage. Stumpf in Ozumba posits that the:
aesthete for the most part knows nothing about universal moral standard, and has no specific religious belief. His (Her) life at this level has no principle of limitation except in his (her) own taste (75).
Nnali is presented with opportunities to forgive Koni (if at all there is any forgiving to be done) but she chooses evil and by this she exercises what is termed by Sartre as ‘bad faith.’ Bad faith is an individual’s conception that their world or society revolves around them, so they exercise an over-sized image of their being, they forget that the world moves on and that (baring his family) a person passes on without such passage effecting or changing society.
The narrative of the search for the necklace, further entrenches the absurd thesis. The search becomes a “riddle” for the women to solve (Lilymjok, 79). After a brief fight between Koni and Daye, after Nnali has tried to plant suspicion of an illicit love affair between Koni and Bagan, Nnali’s husband, the two women (Koni and Daye) decide to go into the bush and search for something they thought Nnali was hiding when Bagan – Daye’s husband saw her in the bush, which thing they tought would help them resolve the necklace riddle. All this is very absurd. There is no logical connection between her being seen hiding in the bush and her hiding something in the bush. There is also no logical connection between whatever she might be hiding in the bush with the necklace in dispute.
An eerie atmosphere descends on them once they enter the forest. “The bush they used to walk in with indifference was no longer the same bush.” It assumes a “sacred and evil” mood. (79). This is also absurd. Why should a bush they used to walk in with indifference suddenly turn sacred?
Daye and Koni grope around in circles to see if they will find anything that will help them resolve the necklace mystery. A foreboding of evil envelops the entire environment as the two women searched. Koni annoyingly confesses that they are searching for something they don’t even know.While Koni’s comment may be taken as a remark of exasperation, within the narrative of absurdist prose fiction, it fits well into the meaninglessness that characterise writing about the absurd. In the circumstance of the text, even going to the bush to search is an aburd thing to do.
The once familiar bush sets the stage for the violent death of the two women. Not finding what they do not even know they are searching for, Koni does another absurd thing. She takes hold of one of the butcher’s wife’s sheep grazing around and demands to know from the sheep what its evil owner was hiding and doing in the pasture when Bagan saw her. This is the peak of absurdism when it descends into madness. Even Daye is shocked by Koni’s action. From behind, the butcher’s wife appears and ends the absurdism by hitting Koni on the head with a bamboo stick, killing her. (Lilymjok, 80) Even the butcher’s wife act of hitting Koni with the bamboo stick is driven by absurdism. She could have shouted to make her release the sheep from her grip.
Once Nnali commits the crime she, becomes a bundle of nerves. Physically, the state of her troubled mind is reflected by her “hysteria and panic” Kasai sees on her face which makes Kasai to say: “You look like someone who has seen a ghost.” (85) Nnali replied “The devil just rode past me on a horse” (85). Nnali’s remark is not only absurd, it is senseless. It is made to scare the already scared Kasai. Kasai’s reaction to it is also absurd.
Within Sartre authenticity thesis, Nnali exhibits inauthenticity and irresponsible behavior coupled with dishonesty. When faced with choices, she chooses to execute her long-planned revenge against Koni because Koni taunted her about her barrenness. In the course of Nnali’s evil contrivance Daye also falls. Popovic contends that the “presumption of inner inborn guilt has to a great extent emerged from the belief that evil resides in man” (7). Nnali is guilty from the beginning. Lilymjok’s text is referenced along other absurd fictional works like Kafka’s Trial as well as Camus’ Stranger, The Tunnel and On Heroes and Tombs written by Sabato. Their major characters are represented as “sinners or heretics”. Popovic describes them as:
Modern avant-garde heroes (who) remain imprisoned in their emotional universe feeling that everything is meaningless and hopeless, and they are completely indifferent to the consequences of their deeds. (7)
Nnali reels from one misdeed to another. After the murder of the two women, she plots how to make her husband the village keeper while the current one is still living – something absurd to the custom and tradition of her village. In the custom and tradition of her village, a butcher cannot be a village-keeper. She is in the course of effecting this absurdity when her crime of murdering the two women is exposed.
Consequently, Popovic, Rahimipoor and Edoyan argue that absurdist literature represents reality more than realist discourse does. Along with characters in texts, outside the world of texts, readers and even philosophers and other intellectuals are all confronted with the seemingly simple but confounding question of “who am I? What am I? Why am I here?”Rahimipoor and Edoyan insist that among the genres of literature, the dramatic genre proves the “more promising in providing answers to these questions”(9).The absurd captures the ugly reality of human life beyond mundane reality. The narrative of absurdity leaves no lead to the often complicated and irrational circumstances of continuous evil and unreasonableness in the text. This strand is exemplified with some incomprehensible and unfair instances in the text. The relationship between Baita and Nnali is ruled by an unnatural and irrational tie. Baita justifies his affection for the barren Nnali to demonstrate to Nnali’s father that he was wrong to oppose their marriage and also as a way to console her over her barren state. A popular version in the village has it that Nnali is barren because her father cursed her; still no rational position can be proffered to Baita’s neglect of the other wives with children, because he had enough to cater to the needs of all his children. This is another instance of absurdity in the text.
When asked why she is always on the paths, Kakusheh another character in the novel will say the paths are lonely and she is on them to keep them company. This is absurdity bordering on inasanity. The butcher’s wife latched unto this absurdity when she wonders whether the lonely paths Kakusheh keeps company will fight for the latter if she attacks her, and if against the odds, she is lucky to kill her the way she killed Koni and Daye, the lonely paths will testify against her.
Yet in the relationship between the butcher’s wife and Kakusheh we find some relief of absurdism in the text. If Nnali is seen in the text not only as a butcher’s wife, but as a butcher herself, Kakusheh might be said to be the vulture that is always not far from the carcass of the butcher’s wife’s butchery. The butcher’s wife thought so herself. ‘‘The butcher’s wife crouching behind the tree chuckled. Kakusheh of all people saying this when she knew two of them were seen in the village as the butcher and the vulture. If she was a troubleshooter, Kakusheh was never far from where the trouble she might have fomented was brewing. She was the dog always sniffing about the village for an aroma of scandal anyone had kindled.’’ (Lilymjok, 132)
Luckily for Nnali and unfortunately for Sarai village, the vulture was not nearby when the butcher’s wife was butchering the two women. If she is good at brewing scandals, Kakusheh is good at feasting on them with her talkative mouth.
When Bagan searching for the necklace in the pasture wonders if he is going mad, Kakusheh says he will be better off mad. This repartee by Kakusheh brings the tale back to its absurd run. When Bagan says he does not understand himself, Kakusheh wonders rhetorically who understands himself? Searching for a necklace in an expansive pasture without certainty the necklace is even in the pasture as Bagan does is an absurd act. So goes on one puff of absurdity after the other in the novel that sometimes puffs the reader to insanity.
Absurdism savours of madness and madness is everywhere in life. When we understand we are all mad, the mysteries disappear and life stands explained (Mark Twain). Finding the text of The Butcher’s Wife replete with absurdism, vest the text with realism – if surreal realism. The absurd strain in humans is perhaps more pronounced among writers: You don’t fight fascism because you are going to win, you fight fascism because it is fascist (Jean Paul Sartre). I write to keep from going mad from the contradictions I find among mankind – and to work some of these contradictions out for myself (Montaigne). I write because I have found no other way of getting rid of my thoughts (Nietzsche). I write to keep my thoughts from falling out of my head (Marie Synder). Lilymjok being a writer, it shouldn’t be surprising finding the strain of absurdism (madness) in him which he passes to his characters. It is indeed that strain that moved him to write The Mad Professor of Zwigwi full of absurd statements.
In the village it is rumoured that Nnali controls Baita by diabolical means. She is known to be evil but the village keeper and other elders do not quickly make her responsible on the matter of the missing necklace until it is too late to save the women. And Nnali the characteristic icon of absurdism does not abandon nor change from her evil inclinations. In essence the absurd becomes the new reality of human existence. Camus proposes that a way out of an absurdist existence is for the absurd character to choose hope or suicide, Nnali chooses the latter – suicide. She refuses to swear by the traditional Oracle.
Nnali’s husband is returning home from another village when he hears Daye’s painful groans and accusation of Nnali. He chooses ‘bad faith. He finishes off Daye who was injured by his wife, Nnali.
The events of the text propelled by Nnali’s evil machinations continue to weave the absurdist thread. After the death of the women, the search for the necklace is still shrouded in mystery. It is on the tale of the mysterious search that irrationality and uncertainty of how the women met their death is anchored. Bagan, Daye’s husband says he saw his wife and Koni in the bush searching for something but admits he cannot explain why he did not talk to them but rather went his way to another village to attend to one of his patients there. It can be explained that the absurd atmosphere enveloped him. Unknown to him, he was seeing his wife alive for the last time. Bagan goes into the bush the women were before they met their death to search for the necklace. His paranoiac state is complimented with Kakusheh’s rhetorical question: “who understands himself? Life… is a strange thing” (Lilymjok, 134). The atmosphere of irrationality and uncertainty and loss of essence affects the entire village when the bodies of the two women are found. On their way from the village-keeper’s house, Dankat and Bosan lament their existence. Bosan mourns “No one knows where we are or where we are going.”(Lilymjok, 119) From a metaphoric stance, the spiritual and physical loss of values and virtues of Nnali becomes that of the entire village and at an enlarged level Nnali is an iconic symbol of man’s universal debasement. Though towards the tail end of the novel she shows signs of forswearing evil and embracing good when she asks that her slaughtered goat be shared equally between her and her mates, the choice of good faith she is exercising seems to be coming too late.
Nnali – the buther’s wife is not only wife to Baita a literal and physical butcher, she is wife to metaphorical butchers – pride, greed and envy that butcher harmony in Sarai; butcher peace in her, and end up butchering her. She is the empress and quintessential antithesis of life that flies the flag of death. Oblivious of the presence of a butcher in their midst that will butcher some of them and end up butchering herself, the women of Sarai lament butchery by foreign butchers. In their midst irony stands laughing at them.
In The Butcher’s wife, the author propagates the absurd principle of the inexplicable evil that is innate in man. In the treatment of his subject, Lilymjok depicts the denigration of human dignity unabashedly exhibited by Nnali. Her evil standard holds sway and eventually destroys her along her tethered husband, who unreasonably ignores his two other wives and children. His neglect subjects them to perpetual poverty.
In the text, all norms of standard behavior and human relations are violated by Nnali. Beyond the portrayal of social malaise by writers of contemporary prose fiction, the author’s engagement with absurdist philosophy forces attention to the bizarre nature of human existence. The work strives to establish the negative attributes of human behavior; the weirdness of it which becomes the absurd. New Nigerian writing as exemplified by The Butcher’s Wife deliberately appropriates absurdity as an ideology of the text. Lilymjok’s The Butcher’s Wife breaks out of the pervading literary box of the theme of realist prose fiction that most contemporary Nigerian texts (including some of Lilymjok’s politically motivated text) are engaged with. In The Butcher’s Wife, the author gives us a glimpse of the negative consequences that man and his society are thrown into when greed and a preoccupation with ‘the self’ overrides the wellness of the majority of the people.
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Modified 26 may 2016
Retrieved 11june 2016