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One Man, One Matchet


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Title: One Man, One Matchet
Author: T.M.Aluko
Genre: Novel
Written: 1964
Length: 197 pages
Availability: One Man, One Matchet - US
One Man, One Matchet - UK
One Man, One Matchet - Canada

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Our Assessment:

B+ : solid, well-written novel of Nigeria around 1950

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
TLS A 12/11/1964 .

  From the Reviews:
  • "(A)n enchanting story of a cocoa community in Western Nigeria where the country's shift from colony to independent nation is acted out in terms of a serious-farcial conflict." - Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       One Man, One Matchet is set in Western Nigeria in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Nigeria is a country in transition. British colonial rule is slowly loosening its grip.
       Ipaja, the focus of the action, is a backwater. There are few worldly figures here. The ways of the still-distant modern world are largely a mystery. Native wisdom still rules, and the local chiefs are often still illiterate.
       Some native sons, however, have gotten an education -- some even abroad. They have lived with the White Man, have learned his language and his ways. It is a double-edged distinction, however, as most everything the White Man does is looked upon with suspicion -- a taint that can also extend to the blacks who may have become corrupted by the White Man's ways. The suspicion is a mix of innocence and ignorance: the state apparatus, the notion of democracy, the role of the hated tax collector, for example, are all not clearly understood. The White Man's ways seem largely arbitrary, serving only to keep the locals down.
       The book begins with a crisis. A disease is destroying cocoa plants. Nothing can be done for afflicted trees. "Prevention was the only cure." In this region, dependent on the cocoa crop, the danger is great.
       The British administrators come to the region to explain the problem and what needs to be done. They do not speak the local language, and only a few of the locals speak English. It is a complete clash of very disparate cultures. The message of the administrators -- that any tree showing signs of the disease must be cut down -- is greeted with disbelief. The locals see it only as another of the White Man's mad conspiracies. (Their lack of comprehension regarding the nature of communicable diseases and the simplest matters of disease prevention eerily prefigure the early attitudes towards AIDS, both in Africa and elsewhere.)
       There are other complications: there is a simmering land dispute regarding a small piece of territory called Igbodudu, now under the control the Apenos, but on which the Ipajas believe they have a claim. And two educated blacks, returning from abroad, figure prominently. One is Udo Akpan, newly appointed District Officer for the region. The other is Benjamin Benjamin, nominally working as a journalist but also pursuing a much grander agenda.
       Udo Akpan, working in the civil service, supporting the British policies, is readily cast in the role of "black White Man". Benjamin Benjamin is "a member of the African intelligentsia". He is fighting for local independence, fomenting dissent, positioning himself as a leader of the future.
       Aluko's novel isn't a simple tale of black and white morality, however. Indeed, it is a tale filled with ambiguity. A civil servant himself when he wrote the book, his sympathies clearly lie with Akpan, who wants only the best for his people and his country. But doing the best is a difficult proposition, as Akpan finds himself undermined both by the British (who fail to get him vital information about the cocoa disease, for example) as well as other educated Africans -- notably Benjamin (who gets the information before Akpan and is able to use it to his own ends).
       The victims are the locals, unable to differentiate between the educated men. As the Oba of Ipaja tells one of the few other educated men, the local reverend, Josiah Olaiya:

You read the same books. But you confuse us who are not educated. You tell us different things. Yet you read the same books. Why then do you read different things from the same books ?
       The locals -- even the wise chiefs -- are without the necessary information to understand that they are being manipulated by Benjamin. Playing on their emotions, and distorting truth Benjamin manages to get the support (and the money) of most of the Ipajas.
       Aluko goes in for some sharp satire, as well. Benjamin is an outlandish figure, his ambitions, crimes, and lies increasingly outrageous. But he is an effective speaker, a mobilizing figure. Unfortunately, he uses his talents only to advance his own goals and to enrich himself (getting the people of Ipaja to donate more to a fund to (supposedly) litigate for the return of the disputed land than the land is even worth, for example).
       A sometime journalist, Benjamin uses his forum effectively. Ultimately, he does miscalculate, pushing too far. There is tragedy and bloodshed. Order is only restored when Benjamin is out of the picture.
       Aluko's book warns of many dangers. The civil service orders are largely wise: taxes need to be collected, the cocoa blight needs to be controlled, a safe water supply will (slowly) be built. But the civil service is not effective in communicating the necessity of its policies, which often look unfair on the surface. It is the government that must be trusted, Aluko implies. It is an overly-optimistic belief in a promising tomorrow that was, perhaps, still plausible in 1964, when Aluko published this novel. Now, with corruption endemic in Nigeria, a nation that has been ruled for decades by Benjamins (and generals who think like Benjamin), the message rings less convincing.
       The wily, charismatic Benjamin is a figure familiar throughout sub-Saharan Africa. Not always as well-educated, these self-serving manipulators have caused untold damage. Aluko offers no suggestion as to how they can be dealt with -- indeed, his sending Benjamin from the stage, though fairly effectively done, seems also a desperate act. In real life the Benjamins of Africa were not so easily dealt with.
       Aluko does make a few specific suggestions: that those employed in the civil service also be allowed to be politically active, that African lawyers truly "think of themselves first as Africans and only next as lawyers" (and stop wasting valuable resources on senseless (though remunerative) legalistic pursuits when the priority must be nation-building).
       Ultimately, however, Aluko can do little more than show some of the dangers. This he does, well and entertainingly. Aluko writes well, and he presents a complex story with many threads with little confusion. One hopes that his message reached its intended, often still largely illiterate, audience. One suspects that (bad) experience reached them first.
       Aluko's book is often generous and rarely cynical (beyond Benjamin's manipulations). There is a sense of optimism, of hope, and the book closes with a world set quite firmly right again. One wonders whether Aluko himself believed it, given the abuses he describes here.
       An interesting document of the times, and well written. It is filled with warm humour (making the darker turns all the more effective), and provides a convincing picture of this world at this time. One Man, One Matchet is no remarkable literary work, but it is a solid, worthwhile novel.

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Other books by T.M.Aluko under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Nigerian author Timothy Mofolorunso Aluko was born 14 June 1918. He studied at the universities of Lagos and London, and held numerous administrative positions in Nigeria. He has written several novels.

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