Obi Egbuna’s greatest strength as a writer lies in his conversational narratives which is totally believable. With Egbuna there is simply no breach between his reading audience and his characters, nor does he slowly pull you in, like most writers would, until you are trapped inside the story lanes. No, Egbuna whisks the reader away immediately along the conversational byways into his world of characters, even sometimes stopping all literary protocols to address his reader, as where he gives whom-it-may-concern a quick tip regarding a love spot he himself discovered where he might rendezvous on an unplanned romantic evening!
Obi Egbuna successfully suspends all disbelief from the very first sentence. It is in this manner that The Rape of Lysistrata takes off:
“In the remote mountain region of New Mexico, not far from Los Alamos, there is a small convent habitation concealed in the desolate tranquillity of silent hills. A huge sign outside the main gate proclaims the compound out of bounds to visitors of nondescript intentions. Not many people know of the existence of this convent. And those who do never speak of it now, except perhaps in whispers. There is a reason for this. The place is not really an ordinary convent. It is in fact a Home for Alcoholic Nuns. I know. I was there. Sister Stella Maria Dominique, as I left her that last time, was reading The Seven Who Were Hanged, by Leonid Andreyev. It made sense under the circumstances. That was of course long afterwards . . .”
I am certain that the large part of this success has to do with the stories themselves; how close to truth they ring. In The Rape of Lysistrata the reader may be distinctly aware of the feeling that the writer is offering bits of himself to his audience through his work. Even the first-person protagonist is given his own name, Obi. And let me warn you, too, you may catch yourself trying to guess how much of it is fiction as the line between truth and make-belief is precariously thin. Now, that is the hallmark of a good writer, as the writer will bring you back to earth in the end by placing important notice to the effect that the narrative and incidents in it are entirely fictitious.
The story is set in Iowa, USA, where a community of writers are gathered from all over the world in an International Writing Program hosted at the university in Iowa. From the beginning, I think that the writer has selected an excellent backdrop from which all the action can most naturally develop.
The story opens on a very decisive note where we are taken right to the crux of the matter through the literary perceptions of the Program participants, of course, viz, the issue of racial superiority and the absorption which each participant seems to have in his own country. Matter of fact, the pervading theme of racial prejudices prevalent in the entire work is captured here in a single, albeit very lengthy second paragraph. And the author, through the subtle voice of the Poet-director of the Program, sums the argument of this story and the conclusion which he intends for you to draw from it as follows: “. . . all literatures of the world, in spite of their many-sounding languages, make one literature . . .”
To a very large extent, this one statement just a page into the book is a complete giveaway. Indeed, you could shut the book at this point and not think to miss a thing. Yet, I am telling you you would, in fact, have missed a lot embedded in the structure and dynamics of this compelling story. You would miss an ambitious sex strike, the soul-tugging Asikatali song, to mention just a few ingredients of the story.
Because of the many hinged subplots in The Rape of Lysistrata, it would be difficult to re-tell the story briefly in a straight forward manner. However, it begins with a first meeting on a bridge between Obi and Kazuko Fujimoto, a Japanese Poet and returning participant in the International workshop. As a matter of fact, we begin to experience the story through the eyes of Kazuko; it is also she who makes the ominous prediction of doom, which did come to pass, I might add. Kazuko may not be the central character but she does exert some control on the story, even to the point of staying relevant in the scheme of things long after her exit from the scene.
As the story populates and the actors appear one after the other, the action begins to heat up. The main impetus of the plot is that “a scar-faced ugly nigger from Brazil has raped a lily-white American woman,” an act so repugnant that it is tantamount only to urinating on the Statute of Liberty (Pg 135).
At the center of the rape saga is Mimi de Beavoir, a beloved student activist well-known for organising the successful sex strike which ends the campus fraternity war fought on racial grounds, and as a virgin, and on the other part is Moses Camilo, a Black Brazilian who arrives Iowa preceded by his reputation as an angry black man – his undoing. For, when Mimi stumbles upon some pages of an article, presumably written by Camilo, only some weeks before their wedding, she considers his ideologies a crime so vile that rape is the least that could label it.
Mimi’s horror at such blatant odium is real. Her hard and unrelenting stance will bring about a sad end to Camilo as well as to our story. But it is completely justifiable, if indeed one may justify a perjury. You see, according to the article it would be impossible for a Black man to love a White woman let alone consider marriage to her. In the real sense, no Black man ever makes ‘love’ to a White woman unless he despises her very badly because of what she represents to him, “her mascot value ” (Pg 178).
A White woman is in fact many things to the Blackman but a woman. She is a piece of England or any other white civilisation that has rampaged over his fatherland all these centuries and stands for what is beautiful in it. Every piece of jewellery that adorns her body has a history of unrewarded Black toil, sweat and blood behind it. She is also the vehicle for birthing “future threats to Black manhood”, “the one thing that soldiers and rapists of Black women hold sacred.” All these make her deserving to be ravished by the Blackman, his opportunity for revenge for the many sins committed against him. When he gets the chance to make ‘love’ to a White woman, he is really a guerrilla activist in the thick of action. Sex between a White woman and a Blackman is counter-sex, a protest.
But the writer’s recriminations are not only for the Whiteman but also for the Blackman whom he accuses of sublimating away the energy that would be needed to squeeze a trigger in battle against the oppressor in bellicose relations with the Whitewoman. Like in the Greek parallel, Lysistrata by Aristophanes, which provides fodder for Egbuna’s work, people in dire situations tend to balk at the prospects of applying their inner strengths, whatever they are, in saving themselves, preferring instead to go about their mundane lives subserviently.
To her credit, Mimi does not jump to conclusions at this horrid piece of literature but first goes to Camilo and offers her body to him in the hope that he will have a change of heart and not take his ‘vengeance’ upon her. She is horrified when he goes ahead to ravage her, proving his aversion for her and his willingness to carry out his vengeful retaliation against White people for years of oppression suffered by his own race. She therefore heads to the police station with a trumped-up charge of rape.
I shall pause here to give you a bit of the background to this ‘hate literature’ that proves so fatal to Camilo. The article, The Little Boy of Brussels, is an actual work, one of three essays written in a London prison and published under the title “Destroy This Temple.”* In it the writer describes an experience in prison in which a new prisoner, a young Black boy barely 17, is brought to prison. As the writer looks on their eyes meet and the boy suddenly smiles, perhaps relieved to see another black man in a White prison. But a White prison officer seeing the smiling chap mistakes his smile for recidivistic lust for a passing White nurse and flies into quite a rage. The writer alludes by this incident to the general intolerability of the society at the time of White and Black love, considered one of the highest degree of offence. The writer is thus lashing back when he avers that any attraction of the Blackman to a White woman is abnormal and can only exist in the context of revenge.
The irony, though, is that this article purportedly written by Camilo was in fact written by Obi, giving the story a sad twist, indeed.
It would be easy to confuse the subject of The Rape of Lysistrata with the theme of racial prejudice ubiquitous in nearly every page. Yet, while the book does make some potent points condemning the obnoxious claims of one race to superiority over another, there are larger issues closer home which it seeks to address, chief among them, preoccupation, whether with one’s race or self, giving rise to assumptions with attendant negative implications. Matter of fact, every plot (subplot) of The Rape of Lysistrata hinges on this. In this way, the story involves the reader at a very personal level.
It is Camilo’s self involvement that blinds him to the extent of sacrifices which his late wife Marya Belbina had to make to support him just because he would not revise the end of his novel to make it acceptable to publishers, preferring “to die in hunger like a man than live in plenty like a zombie.” Unfortunately, it is Marya Belbina who ends up dying – in prison – for his convictions when she is caught stealing money from a dying patient at the hospital where she worked in order to support them both. Again, it is Beth MacShane’s unhealthy self-indulgent love for Camilo that leads her to plant the extract from Obi’s work among Camilo’s books with the evil intention of giving Mimi the benefit of his supposed real feelings about White women. And, it is Mimi’s single-minded and dogmatic belief in her own causes that secures Beth MacShane’s desired effect – Camilo commits suicide while in prison, falsely accused of rape by his own fiancée. Finally, it is Obi’s consumption with anger that provides the weapon of destruction.
It is not until the final chapters that all these come together offering explanations and filling in the gaps for the reader.
In the end Obi lets himself off. Mimi and Beth, too. Perhaps too easily when he declares Lysistrata raped by the Mannikin boy of Brussels.
The Mannikin boy here is an allusion to The Little Boy of Brussels, a painting by the same title, which, to the author’s mind, represents the servitude image of the Blackman etched on the European mind and monuments. Mimi de Bevoir, just like Aristophane’s Lysistrata, stands for the force fighting against suspect ideologies. Therefore, to say that Lysistrata was raped by the Little Boy of Brussels is to assert that a victim willing succumbs to oppression when he refuses to fight back his oppressors squarely and fairly but allows him all kinds of advantages by his weakness. In this sense, it is the mental state of the victim that must bear responsibility. And, in the author’s own words, “What we need to do is not to throw stones at devils, but to get rid of hell” (Pg 188).
Obi’s convenient run-away tactic thus serves to reinforce the issues. It does duty to the living, too.
With all due respect, Egbuna’s sentence structures sometimes suffer to the point of breathlessness, alternating between windingly long sentences and jerkily short ones. However, these obviously jaundiced strings of sentences do no real harm to the story overall. I see a story moving seamlessly in the direction it was intended.
* Although the title “Destroy this Temple” by Obi Egbuna does in fact exist, I am yet to verify that “The Little Boy of Brussels” does form part of it but rely here on the author’s explanation to Mimi de Beviour in the work itself. Hence, I hesitate to make a categorical statement about this & wish my reader be aware of my reservation especially since the author goes on to state in his caveat that the narratives are purely fictitious.
I like this short biography of Obi B. Egbuna http://www.jrank.org/literature/pages/3911/Obi-B-Egbuna-(Obi-Benue-Egbuna).html