By Oluwatoyin Adepoju
Aoiri Obaigbo’s The Virgin Widow boldly synthesizes the realist, the magical, the spiritual and the historical through the story of a man who chases an attractive woman only to find himself lured into a mystery which has been gathering momentum for centuries.
The beauty of family life is subtly interwoven with the corrosive and ultimately fatal effects of human evil, even as this evil is demonstrated as arising from aborted love reverberating across the centuries.
The core of this novel is the story of Aziza, a mythic personality whom Obaigbo has transformed into a credible character, further transposing this mythic character made flesh in terms of a contemporary personality, his descendant of centuries, experiencing the repercussions of his ancestor’s life.
Aziza is known in Edo folklore as a spirit that manifests as a whirlwind, carrying people into the forest, where they are trained in the magical and healing powers of herbs, after which they return to their communities to use their knowledge. This folkloristic identity merges with Obaigbo’s family history in the story of his great grandfather as having been carried away by a whirlwind but returning to his community with great wealth.
The writer unifies the folkloristic and the familial in the character of Aziza, thereby creating a fully three-dimensional character, mythic yet human, supernaturally endowed yet shaped by human passions.
How can such a persona and his unique history be understood in relation to the technologized present, the world of mobile phones and automobiles? That is a narrative burden of the story, as the author conjoins the world of pre-colonial Edo myth and the twenty first century, from the fall of Benin to the present, as consequences of love and hate, passion and cunning, reverberate across the centuries.
A space that sustains biological functions without any action from a person, a snail that aids suspended animation, a creature who is both a leopard and a ravishing woman, another woman who can assume the identities of others, these elements of the fantastic converge with the pain of a father’s love, the love of friends and the visionary powers of Christian faith.
Obaigbo’s powers of synergy between different realities, his ability to correlate the fantastic and the realistic, suggests greater possibilities on the horizon of his art. I hope that, with further work, he will more smoothly integrate the various dimensions of his narrative.
With reference to this novel, however, his animation of Edo folklore is his decisive achievement, blending the magical and the humanistic through an imaginative alchemy ignited by his identification with the folkloristic Aziza motif as mediated by his family and personal history in creating a story worthy of standing among the memorable narratives of world literature, a piece that could be published on its own and which the author could explore the possibility of expanding, since I understand he has more material along such lines.
Even though I perceive the Aziza sequence as the creative heart of this novel, it’s most accomplished expression, along with the explicit fact of it’s being the structural heart of this work, I also found memorable the life of the other central character, Nosa, Aziza’s descendant.
A man whose life is distorted by forces beyond his understanding and control, yet whose humanity remains aflame within these cruel twists of fortune, reverberating to the rhythms of love and friendship, his only anchor in the maelstrom that has destroyed his life, leaving it a wreckage of what might have been and what can never be, but from which flowers bloom of what may be, opportunities he is able to hold on to and cultivate in the face of near despair.
This portrayal of personality in the midst of catastrophe is a reality I can identify with through the lens of time looking into the past, as others might also be able to do, gazing at the past or the future, mapping twists of fortune in which one takes one road, or series of roads, instead of others, as Nosa did on the fateful day when he sighted the ravishing form of the woman he would come to know as the Virgin Widow.
These choices take one into a space in which some strategic creative possibilities are closed off within the prison of time, escape uncertain, re-entry into the former stream of life eventually arriving in ways that baffle the person involved in this transformation of possibilities. Parallels with the story of Nosa could also emerge from looking into the future to grasp its twists and turns, its dynamisms, anticipated and unanticipated, planned and fortuitous, over which hang the uncertainty of the unknown that shapes human life.