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Dr. Kunle Mamudu, a lecturer at University of Benin, reviews Aoiri Obaigbo’s 319-page novel, The Wretched Billionaire, which begins in the air and ends in the air. It was published early this year
The novel masterfully draws from the rich resources of literature, the peculiarities of prose and the genre of the novel to present a cross breed of the thriller and the canon. In the novel, Obaigbo is able to include elements from the various types of the novel—ranging from the romance, the picaresque, incident, character, manners, sensibility, psychological, historical to the sociological—in this one bomb of a novel that explodes many times over in the face of the reader.Delightful explosions.
Aoiri’s detailed presentations of incidents, character depth and mastery of the English language, his determination to examine the grey areas of life in expert discussions not only leave him as a writer who sets out to instruct, entertain and inform his reader, but also a chronicler of his age who garnishes irresistible socio-political substance with a peculiar artistic flavour in linguistic presentations of measured accuracy.
Aoiri Obaigbo’s The Wretched Billionaire is a rich 24-chapter capture of a refreshingly told narrative that begins in the air and ends in the air. It opens with a war-like situation when a power drunk retired military officer—General Seriki Kura Dialo, stupendously wealthy and powerful—orders his private pilot to fly low over Liberty University with the lights of the aircraft turned off. This dramatic opening is symbolic of the siege laid to the universities by the rich and powerful as they ravage the young girls in satisfaction of their sexual appetites.
Dialo, himself, says to his pilot: “Fly at 100 feet over Liberty University. This was our grazing ground when I was commandant of the brigade in this city. We were young rampant officers in those days.”
This war-like action of the pilot over the campus marks the university out as a battle ground and hence, foreshadows the tragic events that follow later in the novel caused by this same General Dialo, the wretched billionaire. But in the denseness of this novel, in this close-knit artistic foliage emerges its major story, the tragedy of innocent love between Faith and Ibadan that is soon destroyed, first by poverty and then sacrificed to sustain the ego of the power drunk billionaire, General Dialo, whose genitals were blown off by a grenade during the civil war.
Set in LibertyUniversity, which clearly bears closeness to the university of Benin, by the mention of real places like Hall One, Dot, Ekosodin, etc, the story begins with a frustrated and bereaved female character, Faith weeping profusely and bemoaning her abject state of poverty. A mysterious lady soon emerges from a sleek car and takes Faith to her house, where she promises to fend for her and her family. This benefactor turns out to be Eve, a wealthy law student living in a sprawling mansion outside the campus. She admits she is a big time prostitute who has enormous wealth as a result of her association with the rich and powerful. She teaches Faith to jettison her age-long beliefs, some of which are her traditional views on the sanctity of marriage, submission to men and morality. Eve takes Faith to a gallery in the mansion that is filled with paintings of women. Like W.H. Auden’s “Musee Des Beaux Arts,” she comments on the human condition, but in this case, she extols the virtues of all the women who have one thing in common–an unfailing ability to control men—from the corners of the earth. Eve gives detailed and convincing talks of these women who have affected human history by their deployment of female sexuality to spin men at their finger tips and get what they want.
Faith soon begins to lose her commitment to Ibadan, her new boyfriend who once rescued her from a near death situation and from the clutches of her lesbian-lover Joe Macho. She rejects Eve’s financial offers and decides to earn her own money. Almost immediately, Dialo shows interest in her and the medical student finds herself in the midst of affluence. SKD, the general hires an expensive hotel room for her and buys a car for her. But Ibadan would not give up on his love, as he continues to declare his love for her and attempts to visit her in the hotel. Believing he has lost his love to Eve and her lesbian lover, Ibadan finds escape through weed consumption and soon finds himself an addict of the anti depressant.
For a while, he makes a turn- around from the scholar and introvert that he is to an outlaw, mixing with those he had earlier shunned for their unserious lifestyles. Faith does not, however, break up clean with Ibadan, but continues to show love to him. The test of Ibadan’s love for her comes when she is kidnapped by cult members. The detective in Ibadan is brought to the fore, sharpened by his undying love for Faith. With help from his friend, Dawn, he is able to effect her safe release. Faith’s love for Ibadan is rekindled and they seemingly get back.
But Faith had gone too far to be allowed to leave the general. Her greatest undoing is when she opens the door into SKD’s bathroom without warning, only to stumble on the secret that the generally feared, respected and powerful General-turned-billionaire has no genitals. The general makes him his fifth wife to ensure that the secret of his lost genitals is never revealed. Eventually, Faith has a baby for Ibadan having been earlier encouraged to continue the affair by SKD. She is condemned to wearing chastity belts to ensure no man or woman is ever able to make love to her.
The pain in the story develops further into the tragedy of the death of Aurora, the female evangelist who attempts to convert Ibadan to Christianity and promptly foretells of Faith’s pregnancy for him. She also predicts adequately the kidnap of Faith and of an eagle that would bear him a message, which turns out to be the ancient pendant bearing the image of an eagle from Timbuktu that is yanked off Faith’s neck during the kidnap.
Aurora is that sinless, innocent character like Ikemefuna who gets killed unjustly in TheWretched Billionaire. Her evangelical commitments and conquests are a thorn in the flesh of evil minds, in the likes of the Reformed Suckling Order, a secret cult patronised even by lecturers. Ibadan is missing after years and cannot be found. Faith is convinced that her husband, SKD is responsible for Ibadan’s disappearance. When she confronts him, she is promptly advised to be careful as “the smile of a serpent is not a sign of repentance.” But the certainty is that Aurora is killed by the agents of the Reformed Suckling Order and Faith is enslaved by SKD. The death of Aurora and the disappearance of Ibadan draw a link in characterisation between the writings of Achebe and Obaigbo. The tragic end that attends would-be heroes in their writings is evident in the likes of Okonkwo, Ezeulu, Obi in the case of Achebe and of Ibadan and Aurora in Obaigbo’s Novel.
This love story is what holds the novel together. Between the encounters of the lovers, Obaigbo holds the reader’s attention quite firmly with other historical, socio-political sub-plots and anecdotes. His concern for verisimilitude and a better society shows him opening into the diary of time in the history of Nigeria and making authorial comments that tend to explain a common past. His narrative style is detailed, as he does not leave out any gaps. Obaigbo does not let a fly wing across the table without capturing it in its full colour, size, speed, likely age and destination. He commits time to actualise his images into cinematographic pictures like in a movie.
For instance, he says “The Rider banked steeply and weaved recklessly through the evening traffic of lovers racing towards their Valentines.He built up speed and performed three breathtaking wheelies before banking right into the campus.”
Elsewhere, he describes Ibadan’s experience as “Ibadan kept running in the rain, tearing through the jungle and getting his clothes and skin rent by the creepers and thorns in his way.”
His use of sound and sense runs through the entire novel, where he is able to connect very minute details in far –flung parts of the novel to create a rare kind of unity.In narrating his story, Obaigbo easily turns philosophical to drive home his point. While hinting at the tragedy that is soon to befall Ibadan, he turns a philosopher when he says “Anyway, its a great joke giving men eyes. Eyes that indulge us in the grand delusion of knowing where we are going. We cannot see beyond our eye-balls. If only the man who is happy today can see ahead the factors that would ruin that happiness. We grope in the blackness of time, simply hoping that we don’t fall into some gap in the ground. Obaigbo’s rhetorical renditions form a major part of his narrative technique. He says in page 198 for instance, “Why does love not just dry up like last year’s Valentine’s day flowers? Why is it stubborn like the reed in the wind,bending but not breaking in spite of stark reality? Bending low like a praying saint but coming up to breathe when the wind relents? Why is love unreasonable like testosterone on the thirteenth day of a woman’s circle?”
Most of the characters in the novel are shrouded in mystery. Eve is presented as unknowable. Ibadan springs from deep African traditions. He hasdreadlocks at birth, is introverted and always having dreams that are complex. In the end he is declared missing. He simply disappears, never to be found.
A few typographical errors and other very few graphological mistakes rear their heads in this novel. A revised edition will certainly rid this masterpiece of these avoidable pests.