IKHIDE R. IKHELOA
The writer Adewale Maja-Pearce’s just published a sloppy biography of the literary icon John Pepper Clark Bekederemo titled, ‘A Peculiar Tragedy: J.P. Clark – Bekederemo and the Beginning of Modern Nigerian Literature in English.’ Apparently Maja-Pearce dreamed up a proposal to write Clark’s biography and applied somewhere for a $63,000 grant to fund the project. When he did not get the grant, he approached Clark to foot the bill, Clark agrees to the proposal and pays Maja-Pearce one million naira, with more funding to come later. Maja-Pearce gets free access to Clark’s records, house and wine bar. Soon, things go wrong; Clark does not like the manuscript and balks at the use of a certain letter in which Maja-Pearce sought to represent that Clark “benefitted from an oil contract for services rendered to the nation following his support for the federal side during the civil war.” Actually, the letter gives no such impression. Clark was simply being a business man. I think it was irresponsible journalism on Maja-Pearce’s part to make such an insinuation. Anyhow, Maja-Pearce is unceremoniously ejected from Bekederemo’s world and he goes off in a huff, armed with a half-empty bottle of Clark’s wine to write a tell-all tale about the man.
We remember John Pepper Clark-Bekederemo’s epic and accessible poems like ‘Ibadan’, ‘Abiku’ and ‘Night Rain’. J.P Clark, as the world truly knows him, is a great postcolonial Nigerian playwright, poet and enigma who famously wrote the book, ‘America, Their America’, an analog blog about his experience in the America of the turbulent sixties. It is an angry book from cover to cover, written by a gifted young man railing against the alienation and sense of loss he felt upon turning the corner and seeing the nightmare that was their America. In the end he was unceremoniously ejected from America for being a prickly nonconformist. As a teenager, I was awed by the audacity of this warrior that went to America, hated the place and her patronising attitude, and spat at her faux generosity.
For one thing, Maja- Pearce’s analysis of the works of Soyinka, Okigbo and Clark is inchoate. He admits that he knows little about Okigbo’s poetry; however he only did some work on it because it “was just a job with a modest fee at the end of it.”
There is a nobler precedent for this alleged biography. Decades ago, Paul Theroux befriended the writer VS Naipaul. The latter abruptly ended this friendship of three decades. Theroux did not take being dumped well; he wrote a caustic but important biography of Naipaul. Neither biography demanded a fee from Naipaul. Maja-Pearce’s attempt to recreate a Theroux-Naipaul drama falls short. There is no chemistry between the two men and Maja- Pearce is too eager to make a quick buck to establish a rapport with a clearly more complex thinker.
Grammatical issues plague the book and careless statements are paraded as facts. ‘A Peculiar Tragedy’ is a dizzy harvest of tipsy thoughts struggling to pass the sobriety test. Loopy drunken sentences drip with undeserved condescension. He quotes myriad sources but there is ample evidence that he did not read them thoroughly. Maja- Pearce’s analysis of Clark’s role during the Nigerian civil war is particularly offensive. The book lacks an appreciation for the complicated relationship minorities had among the major ethnic groups leading to, and even after, the Nigerian Civil war. There is scant evidence that he personally interviewed Soyinka, Achebe, Chukwuemeka Ike, etc. Missing were the insights of the female writers of the time, like Flora Nwapa, and Buchi Emecheta who are still alive. The chapter on how to win the Nobel Prize is a long, tasteless riff about Soyinka and the laureateship. It is also a dated look at Nigerian literature; Maja-Pearce needs to spend some time reading the new works of writers to get a sense of the range of contemporary Nigerian literature in print and online.
The disrespect shown Okigbo, Soyinka, Achebe, Clark and even Odia Ofeimun is particularly troubling. There is no compassion for the bravery, intellect and erudition of these men who wrote and taught several generations of youth even as they were youths themselves. Despite their flaws, these men deserve our gratitude, not ridicule.
Despite my misgivings, I would still recommend this overpriced, disorganised book. Maja-Pearce spent a lot of time developing and accessing numerous sources. The cited sources alone are worth the steep cost of the book. It is a gossipy, fairly entertaining and engaging book written in an accessible style. He provides several useful insights about the lives of Clark, Achebe, Soyinka and Okigbo. Maja- Pearce is more at home with plays. In the book, he deploys intellectual muscle and rigour to the analysis of plays. The book provides some good history, showing Clark as a visionary when it comes to promoting our literature through literary journals (Mbari, Black Orpheus, etc).
However, Maja- Pearce manages to diminish Clark’s contributions by ascribing significant credit to Ulli Beier. The author seems incapable of giving unqualified praise. I salute Professor John Pepper Clark- Bekederemo.