Review of Azuka Onwuka’s Wings of the Night
By Okechukwu Uwaezuoke
Appearances are often deceptive. Even the awareness of this incontrovertible fact, sadly enough, never restrains those who would hasten to pass judgement on circumstances they do not understand. Such is man!
Right from the first page of Azuka Onwuka’s beautifully-written novella, Wings of the Night, the reader encounters a dishevelled character. This character – who we shortly understand is a shepherd – lives a solitary life and, for that and other reasons, elicits unflattering comments from passersby. A few words gleaned from these passersby’s whispered conversation confirm their judgemental attitude.
This shepherd must be mad, one of them affirms. His reasons: “He entered this village a few days ago with his sheep and wanders about, sleeping wherever he likes. Is that the way your people behave? The way he looks alone will tell you that his mind needs one more round of kindling.” (Page 6)
In a nutshell, the shepherd whose name we are soon told is Nduka is being deemed insane for choosing to live differently. Adhering to unconventional principles, history attests, could make anyone a candidate for moral stone-throwing. Slander and insinuations have been known to be hurled at even great minds like Socrates or revered personality like Jesus Christ.
But is this fictional character Nduka really mad? The author soon guides us into his past. He was once like anyone else in his community Ikenaano: settled to a sedentary lifestyle with a family of his own and at peace with himself and with the laws of the land. The scene opens on an idyllic moonlit night. Swilling palm wine from cow horns with his visitor Okoli, this character revels in the beauty of this night.
Deftly stringing words together, Onwuka conjures a picture of a typical homestead of that 15th century Igbo village. “The two friends were sitting inside Nduka’s ozo-obi. The ozo-obi was a hut where the owner of the house received his visitors. It was built outside the compound but into the front wall of the compound. The ozo-obi had no front wall. But it had a door behind through which the owner of the house and members of his family came into the ozo-obi. It was built close to the central gate of the compound. The owner of the house received his visitors, especially, the male ones, there. Except for special reasons like illness, birth or death, most male visitors stopped at the ozo-obi.” (Page 8)
This is a natural entrée to the untainted Igbo customs of that time, some of which have survived till date. Savour the frequent use of proverbs in conversations. Observe the habit of addressing adults by their monikers rather than by their given names. Then consider the Igbo traditional religion as well as the belief in the chi, whose nebulous meaning can be stretched to mean anything from a kind of guardian angel or even the incomprehensible divine power streaming through all that exists. Then there are the regulatory roles of the umunna (the extended family) and, of course, the umu okpu or umu ada (daughters of the umunna married outside the family).
It soon becomes clear to both Igbo and non-Igbo readers of the novel, Wings of the Night, that the author, Onwuka, has a well-above average grasp of the Igbo mores. Thus, his 145-page novel becomes one of the treasured research materials on this subject matter.
Let us return to his lead character, Nduka. He is blissfully oblivious of the fact that an ominous period of his earthly existence is lurking around the corner. This is a period that will plunge him into a purifying furnace of experiences. Before these looming experiences, his chi seems to have been shoved aside into irrelevance.
Perhaps, the character Nduka provided the threads through which the looms of the Supreme One, in accordance with the creation’s law of reciprocal action, has woven the garment which he is being compelled to wear. Yet, while Nature seems to mourn with him after the first tragedy struck him, his fellow men “wondered how such a thing could have been possible” (page 47). A wiseacre among them even is certain that Nduka has desecrated the earth; hence it is wrecking its vengeance.
It is tragic enough that Nduka lost his wife Onamma and baby boy Chima in Agu River during his return trip from consulting the priestess-herbalist Achalaugo. But it seems incomprehensible to this Job’s comforter that the river would also claim Iloka, known for his swimming expertise. Why would the gods be so unfair? It is obvious that the author of this beautiful novel – which by the way could use a better cover design – is discomfited by the practice of blaming a man’s adversities on his past misdeeds.
Hardly has Nduka put this tragedy behind him, than the next one strikes him with unrelenting ferocity. What is left of his family and his earthly possessions are wiped out in a freak fire incident. Could it be that his chi has forsaken him? True: there is nothing the eyes see that can make it bleed,” as the Igbo adage goes. Yet, it is incomprehensible that even his best friend Okoli would be behind this latest calamity.
This explains his turning his back on humanity and his choice to live as a solitary shepherd. His perception of his fellow men has now become distorted from the prism of his adversities. But then, that perception is challenged with his encounter of the young boy, Nkechi, and his supposed parents as well as by the intrusion of a leopard. He eventually kills the leopard but dies from the mortal wounds he sustained from the encounter. At his deathbed, he gets the confirmation of what he has intuitively known since his meeting with Nkechi: he is none other than his baby Chima who he believed was swept away by the Agu River.
Chima (or Nkechi) continues his lineage into the 21st century. Through him, he becomes the progenitor of the community we encounter at the book’s final pages, which has is known as Umunduka.
These final pages (136 to 138) would have been tidier as an epilogue. The unsuspecting reader is jolted by the revelation that the entire story in the novella is an account rendered by a 74-year-old retired principal Chief Moses Nzeako.
It is comforting, though, that the author includes an erratum in the last page to include a missing word on page 17. Other typos in the book are negligible and could easily be corrected for subsequent editions.