Femi Osofisan’s Cordelia: A Short Fiction of Fused Literary Genres
By Toyin Falola
On November 5th, 2021, at 8 pm, Tunde Kelani will premiere his latest movie. This is a rare world premiere to be integrated with a live symphony by the University of Delaware. Global personalities, such as Wole Soyinka and Olusegun Obasanjo, are expected to attend (https://events.udel.edu/event/cultrual_fusion_initiative_world_premiere_cordelia). It has been my pleasure to discuss with TK or TKO, as he is fondly called, about the various aspects of the production, including the challenges.
In this three-part essay, I start with the story on which the movie is based, Cordelia, a short story written by Femi Osofisan, a master of literary genres. Declaring Osofisan a master of literary genres is not particularly news because anyone familiar with Osofisan’s writing antecedent and who has read Cordelia is sure to exclaim, “Femi Osofisan is truly the master of literary genres!” And in so claiming, they would not be wrong. Cordelia is a short fiction of fewer than 70 pages, yet, Osofisan proves his talent and mastery through the scintillating and vivid pages of the book. He takes to a first-person narrative technique that would make readers almost conclude at the start of the book that it is the life story of someone known, or close, to the author. Also, anyone who has been to the University of Ibadan would relate to the vivid and robust imageries that Osofisan painted throughout the book, right from the first page.
To many ardent followers and readers of Osofisan’s works, the literary icon is a dramatist. That would not be a wrong way to describe him, as he has written several successful plays, from Women of Owu to Morountodun, No More the Wasted Breed, Another Raft, Tegonni, amidst others. There is no doubt that drama is at the heart of his literary fame, awards, and critiques. For one, he has carved a niche for himself as an adapter of plays to suit the African setting and through the furtherance of plays from fellow African literary icons. Femi Osofisan, known as Okinba Launko in the poetic quarters, enjoys prominence with poetry too. Okinba Launko is a household name for captivating, Africa-themed, and strongly conceptual poems, and only those who do not know literature would make light of the name. His poetry books include Dream Seeker on Divining Chain and Minted Coins. While his forte may not be in novels and prose, Osofisan has proven his mastery and why he towers among the highest in the ranking of African literary icons.
Cordelia is a short fiction written under the Okinba Launko pseudonym. In this book, Osofisan deploys the three genres of literature to give readers a wholesome read of the renowned Osofisan. There are many aspects of discourse in Cordelia. The first noticeable one is the symbolic use of trees, which the reader comes in contact with from the first paragraph, and they do not cease to surface till the very end. From the outset, Osofisan draws a striking contrast between the trees and humans, telling of the complexity of human life and the desirability and continual search for simplicity. Osofisan deploys personification in the description of the trees, and through this, he draws a contrast between the narrator and the trees. We immediately see the observant nature of the narrator, whose name we will never find out–one more reason that may reinforce readers’ suspicion that the story is a biography. The use of poetic devices is also quickly brought to the fore in the first paragraph, as the narrator draws a comparison between the trees’ state that morning and angry and protesting students.
Readers are soon introduced to the narrator’s marital problems. This is not intentionally done to tell them of the narrator’s woes, but as a topic without conscious thoughts. It reminds us of how the mouth speaks out of the abundance of the heart and how difficult it is to have challenges or troubles on one’s mind and not speak about them, intentionally or not. Osofisan’s narrative technique gives readers insights into the narrator’s thoughts and thought patterns. First, we know that the hidden figure is someone keen on nature. Then, one can tell from the outset that the main character cannot talk and argue for long. Picture a man who would rather nurse negative perceptions of their spouse, brood on such perceptions, and appreciate trees rather than confront their marital problems.
The personality of the narrator is further revealed in the succeeding paragraphs. Indeed, he is not the aggressive type. He confesses that when things get tense and are on the verge of getting out of hand, he would “grab his bag finally and flee from the house without his breakfast.” Osofisan further appeals to the imagination of readers through descriptive imagery, thereby creating a clear picture of the narrator’s encounter every time he arrives at the faculty. Yet another contrast is drawn as the narrator reveals that the habitual calmness that the trees bring him every morning is missing on the day when readers have their encounter with him. One remarkable thing that we must draw attention to is how the author infuses the past into the present in Cordelia. It is almost impossible for the reader to discern one from the other until the narrator discloses it. The opening paragraphs of the book are written in such a way that one would not be able to tell that they are not fully set in the present–that while the narrator tells us about his arrival at the faculty, his opening thoughts on the trees and the calmness they bring him are no more than reminiscences.
Soon after, readers know the cause of the absence of the calmness nature brings to our narrator. And that is his marital woes with Remi, his wife. The narrator’s mind is preoccupied, suggesting that his marital woes are worse than they used to be. His inability to concentrate in teaching his class further confirms this suspicion. His mind is preoccupied, so much so that even though he is taking one of his favorite classes, he has problems concentrating. The narrator is not himself in the classroom, which leads him to abruptly end the class and return to his office for some brooding and me-time.
During his me-time, we meet the trees yet again. They are shaking off the dust this time as the narrator also attempts to shake off the dust that clouded his mind. At this point, the reader meets Stella and Cordelia, two friends who are the narrator’s students. One is a known student, and the other is a new student. Through well-structured dialogues that hint more at their personalities, we get to know about the two women. Also, Stella confirms readers’ suspicion that the narrator’s preoccupying thoughts of his marital woes must have severely impacted his ability to successfully handle his class that morning.
The students’ presence and worry-free chats with the narrator do some good for him, as he slightly loosens up, while doing his best to avoid any casual familiarity. As the students leave, we meet the trees once again. The multi-layered functions of the trees in Cordelia become apparent as one progresses in the reading of the book, or one would notice it during a second reading. They serve as pointers to what is to come, similar to the book’s silent narrator.
Osofisan is famous for the use of narrators. One that readily comes to mind is the narrator in Women of Owu, who reveals situations to readers, sometimes before they occur in the play’s setting. Although the narrator now feels lighter, he threads cautiously, as the mood and mien of the trees pass an ominous message. As if on cue, the announcement of a coup, masterminded by Cordelia’s father, comes over the radio. And so starts an unplanned and unprepared-for adventure. Soon, students start their demonstration.
There is yet another lesson for contemporary student unionists. Activism was bred and thrived on Nigerian campuses in the past. Students spearheaded protests and shows of dissatisfaction. They were fearless and bold in their actions. In contemporary Nigeria, the situation is starkly different. The focus of student unionism has shifted to being a money-making means, liaison with mainstream politicians, and a means for students to launch their political careers. As the narrator broods on the consequences of the new coup in the nation, and as students’ voices rise in the demonstration, his wife, Remi, appears and demands to use his car. As he tells her of the danger and tries to dissuade her from driving during a demonstration, Stella enters and confirms the narrator’s fears: Cordelia’s life is in danger.
In real-time, Osofisan takes us through the bravery and chivalry of the narrator: How he goes against the will of his wife to help save Cordelia’s life. He does not hesitate to lock his wife in his office just to save Cordelia. We see how he subjects himself to conditions beneath a distinguished member of the faculty in a bid to save the young girl’s life. We see how he braves confrontation, time and time again, from dissatisfied and angered students. There is also the case of the breaking into his car and how he was injured. One of the most decisive consequences of his decision to help Cordelia is the total disruption of the order in his office. His wife rips apart his precious books and tears up his research documents. This leaves the narrator in an abject mood, further compounded by the military invasion he meets at home.
His inexperience with the military leads him to make the grave mistake of handing over Cordelia to Kawale, a wolf in sheep’s clothing. He realizes his mistake at the arrival of Colonel Nwanze-Peters’ troops. He is whisked away and tortured till the Colonel finally frees him. The situation becomes more precise, and the narrator discovers that the coup was masterminded by Kawale, using Nwanze-Peters’ name and voice, and that the coup was foiled. The narrator embarks on the brave mission of delivering a letter to the Kawale camp. On this mission, he gets his first lesson on the need to double-check when dealing with the military. His second lesson with the military is learned when Colonel Nwanze-Peters does not fulfill his promises in his letter to Kawale.
Anyone who has read any of Osofisan’s poetry books will attest to his ability to captivate readers’ attention using poetic devices–imagery, metaphor, alliteration, and narration being chief of them, all of which he employs in Cordelia. Many things are striking about the nature, setting, and composition of the book, but the most striking of them all is how the author holds the reader’s breath from start to finish, using poetic devices to his advantage. In writing Cordelia, Osofisan donned his garment of Okinba, the poetic narrator, and I am convinced that the decision to use the pseudonym Okinba Launko as the author’s name is an intentional and message-laden move.
Cordelia is thematically rich and attention-grabbing, a sustaining short story that TK has successfully converted to a good movie. More so, Osofisan wrote it in a way that makes the book evergreen–like the trees that sit at the faculty quadrangle. And, wonderfully, Tunde Kelani and his production team have a movie on the book. Did TK follow the script? I will answer this question in the second part.