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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


The Voice

Gabriel Okara

general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase The Voice

Title: The Voice
Author: Gabriel Okara
Genre: Novel
Written: 1964
Length: 127 pages
Availability: The Voice - US
The Voice - UK
The Voice - Canada
La voix - France
Die Stimme - Deutschland
La voce - Italia
  • With an Introduction by Arthur Ravenscroft

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Our Assessment:

B+ : an interesting product of its times and circumstances

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
TLS . 17/9/1964 Thomas Hinde

  From the Reviews:
  • "(A) morality tale rather than a novel, and its characters have the flatness of symbols. (...) Mr. Okara writes in a simple, folklore style (...) and this proves an effective vehicle for his tale." - Thomas Hinde, 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:

       The Voice is set in an African country that recently gained independence, a stand-in for any of the countries that were part of the huge (and long overdue) wave of decolonization of the 1950s and 1960s. Ostensibly, there has been great change with the shift to self-rule, but the way Chief Izongo of the town of Amatu frames it, imperialism has only been replaced by blind fealty to a strongman, the Big One of Sologa, the nation's capital:

'What could you have been without our leader ? Some of you were fishermen, palm cutter and some of you were nothing in the days of the imperialists. But now all of you are Elders and we are managing our own affairs and destinies. So you and I know what is expected of us, and that is, we must toe the party line. We must have discipline and self-sacrifice in order to see this fight through to its logical conclusion.
     'Our duty, therefore, is clear. We must support our most honourable leader. And on my part, I here and now declare my most loyal and unswerving support and pledge my very blood to the cause.
       Okolo, who has returned to his native village, after receiving an education, stands out and apart as someone who is not on board with the programme. The Voice is about his search for it -- a never more closely defined questioning of the newly received wisdom. He is unconvinced by the supposed great change that has taken place, and uncomfortable with a new order that is only superficially different -- and ignores true local tradition. As he puts it at one point:
     If you put a black paint over a white paint, does it mean there is no white paint ? Under the black paint the white paint is still there and it will show when the black paint is rubbed off. That's the thing I am doing -- trying to rub off the black paint. Our fathers' insides always contained things straight. They did straight things. Our insides were also clean and we did the straight things until the new time came. We can still sweep the dirt out of our houses every morning.
       Needless to say, the locals -- following the chief's lead and direction -- see Okolo as a threat to the new order. Izongo complains about Okolo: "Always asking questions. Questions will take you nowhere". The chief can not allow for doubt and criticism -- as they would uncover and reveal the weaknesses, flaws, and errors of the new order (and undermine his position of power) --; blind acceptance is all that can be tolerated.
       A neat scene presages what awaits Okolo:
     Okolo left the window and went to his table. He opened a book and read. He read the book without being aware of passing time until night fell and closed the eye of the sky. To the window he went out once more and looked at the night. The moon was an about-to-break moon. A vague circle of light surrounded it, telling a dance that was going on up or down the river. Larger and darker clouds, some to frowning faces, grimacing faces changing, were skulking past without the moon's ring, suffocating the stars until they too lost themselves in the threatening conformity of the dark cloud beyond.
       Okolo is seen as an outsider, eventually chased and hunted. Only one local woman -- herself an outsider, branded as a witch -- offers support, but eventually Okolo faces the masses. Izongo can not accept this cancer in their midst. As he explains:
     'Keeping your thoughts in your inside alone will not do,' Chief Izongo said grinning. 'Your hands will only be untied if you agree to be one of us.'
       Okolo, however, can not stop being true to his cause and the more fundamental truth he seeks. As he earlier told the witch Tuere:
     'I cannot stop,' Okolo with whisper whisper spoke. 'I cannot stop this thing. I must find it. It is there. I am the voice from the locked up insides which the Elders, not wanting the people to hear, want to stop me. Their insides are smelling bad and hard at me ...'
       Okolo is exiled, and undertakes the long journey to Sologa. On board the canoe he sits next to a young woman who is being brought to the capital by a mother for her son; covering her with his raincoat when it begins to pour there is then considerable debate and concern whether he touched her inappropriately when hidden from view like that -- though both the girl and he insist he didn't.
       From such an inauspicious beginning, Okolo's circumstances unsurprisingly do not improve in Sogala. Still obsessed, he is even less likely to find welcome in the already much more corrupted metropolis -- "Money is inside everything in Sologa", he quickly learns. As Izongo notes: "Only a mad man looks for it in this turned world" -- and it's hardly a surprise to find Okolo soon institutionalized in an asylum. Eventually freed with the assistance of the family of the girl from the canoe, he is again forced into exile from a place -- and returns to Amatu.
       His return was also preördained: as Tuere knew when he left: "his umbilical cord is in the ground of this town buried. So he will come back". His roots are literally so deep in Amatu that he can not stay away -- and The Voice is, of course, at its most fundamental a story of his search for his, and his countrymen's, roots.
       Okolo is, of course, not welcome, a threat to Izongo and the system now in place; his exile must be made permanent -- and so it is, the disruptive truth-seeker (in a world that doesn't want to see truths) removed, carried away in a canoe with Tuere down the river in a stark, abrupt conclusion.
       Okolo's quest is stymied by a world that wants to avoid the question:
     Why should Okolo look for it, they wondered. Things have changed, the world has turned and they are now the Elders. No one in the past has asked for it. Why should Okolo expect to find it now that they are the Elders ? No, he must stop his search. He must not spoil their pleasure.
       But Okolo senses the rot. He literally has a gut feeling -- there is much talk of the 'insides', a basic truth that the others turn away from as well. Izongo even admits the embrace of willful ignorance:
We know not what it is. We do not want to know. Let us be as we are. We do not want our insides to be stirred like soup in a pot.
       Okolo ultimately is resigned to his fate. He wonders about the meaning of life, finding satisfaction in his own conclusion, for himself determined to: "keep his inside clean as the sky". Yet he recognizes his purity is too great a threat for those who found -- or grasp for -- a meaning of life elsewhere:
     Yes, each one has a meaning of life to himself. And that is perhaps the root of the conflict. No one can enter another's inside. You try to enter and are kicked out the door. You allow another to enter your inside and see everything in it, you are regarded as one without a chest or as one who knows nothing ...
       The Voice is a kind of parable, and while Okolo's basic wisdom is not embraced here, it is heard; still, Okara seems to be suggesting it will take a while to sink in. Okolo's quest for it understandably aggravates everything around him, the lost ideal one that no one has time for in this changed world and its changed circumstances, where the colonial yoke has suddenly been thrown off -- and people have not yet grasped completely how illusory the resulting freedom is, and how a different domineering system has already been imposed. Okolo's it does not need to be more exactly defined. It is meant to be a vague concept, because it encompasses so much. As is, it is perhaps best defined by its absence: whatever the world Okolo moves in has lost, that is it .....
       The Voice is also notable for its use of language. Written in English, Okara nevertheless strongly draws on his native Ijaw (Ijo), often presenting expression or sentence structure to mirror Ijaw -- as if the English were a very literal translation. So, for example, age is expressed differently:
She must have killed sixteen years. If not, she must have less or little more years killed.
       Repetition is more common, and the word order sometimes differs -- e.g.:
Your nonsense words stop. These things have meaning no more. So stop talking words that create nothing.
       Meaning is nevertheless clear throughout (beyond, arguably, the elusive it), and the relatively simple if occasionally stilted-seeming expression is effective for a tale like this.
       The Voice may ultimately seem too simple, in its message and delivery, but it's an interesting poetic work, and though it hammers home that message fairly bluntly is, in a number of ways, an interesting variation on the early post-colonial novel, addressing (in part obliquely) significant issues that the post-imperialist transition brought to the fore.

- M.A.Orthofer, 5 October 2019

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Reviews: Gabriel Okara:
  • Q & A with Gabriel Okara
Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Nigerian author Gabriel Okara lived 1921 to 2019.

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© 2019 the complete review

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