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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


The Trial of Christopher Okigbo

Ali A. Mazrui

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To purchase The Trial of Christopher Okigbo

Title: The Trial of Christopher Okigbo
Author: Ali A. Mazrui
Genre: Novel
Written: 1971
Length: 145 pages
Availability: The Trial of Christopher Okigbo - US
The Trial of Christopher Okigbo - UK
The Trial of Christopher Okigbo - Canada

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Our Assessment:

B : occasionally heavy-handed but fairly clever allegory

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Nation . 21/8/1972 Peter Dreyer
New Statesman . 28/4/1972 Angus Calder
The NY Times Book Rev. A- 17/9/1972 George Davis

  From the Reviews:
  • "Despite the seriousness of the questions there is something detached and playful about the novel. The story never gets bogged down in its arguments. It becomes its own best proof that important political questioning and art are not mutually exclusive. The Trial of Christopher Okigbo is a fine and unusual piece of fiction." - George Davis, The New York Times Book Review

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:

       Christopher Okigbo's collected poems makes for only a slim volume (published as Labyrinths; see our review). Still, he enjoyed great renown during his lifetime and is still considered one of the greatest poets Africa has produced.
       In 1978 Chinua Achebe wrote:

He was not only the finest Nigerian poet of his generation but I believe that as his work becomes better and more widely known in the world he will also be recognized as one of the most remarkable anywhere in our time.
       Paul Theroux wrote of his "impeccable craft coupled with a soaring imagination" and saw him as "poet, prophet, prodigal" (in Transition (22, 1965)). (In the acknowledgements to Labyrinths Okigbo thanks, among others, "poet Paul Theroux" -- ah, those were the days !)
       Okigbo was -- or wanted to be -- a poet's poet, believing the audience that would be interested in his work would, in any case (and specifically in Nigeria), be limited. He told Lewis Nkosi in a 1962 interview:
Somehow, I believe I am writing for other poets all over the world to read and see whether they can share in my experience.
       Okigbo saw his role as poet primarily in purely artistic terms. He stayed away from social engagement and ideological commitment in his writing. In a 1965 interview with Marjory Whitelaw (published in 1970 in the Journal of Commonwealth Literature) Okigbo said:
I have no function as a writer; I think I merely express myself and the public can use these things for anything they like. (...) I don't think the fact that he's a writer should entitle him to assume a particular role as an educator. If he wants to educate people he should write text books. If he wants to preach a gospel he should write religious tracts. If he wants to propound a certain ideology he should write political tracts.
       Which makes one wonder what Okigbo would have had to say about Ali Mazrui's programmatic novel. (Mazrui has written many scholarly works, but The Trial of Christopher Okigbo remains his only work of fiction).
       Okigbo separated art and politics -- but he was active in both. Nigeria was torn by civil war in 1967, and Okigbo volunteered for service. He was killed on the front, only 35 years old.
       The dichotomous figure of Okigbo is an ideal one for Mazrui's unusual fiction. One half abstract poet (and acknowledged as a true and great artist), the other half committed fighter (willing to sacrifice his life for his political convictions), Okigbo personifies questions that have been popular for ages, particularly regarding the responsibilities and duties of the artist in society.
       Okigbo -- a legendary, larger than life figure -- makes for a neat hook for a novel, but Mazrui wisely chooses to go only so far: Okigbo, though at the center of events, is barely a presence in the novel. Okigbo is on trial, but it is Okigbo as abstraction, hardly the flesh and blood figure. Others argue for and against him, others recount the events at issue. Okigbo himself remains far in the background.
       In fact, there are few figures that are flesh and blood in the novel -- at least in the literal sense. The Trial of Christopher Okigbo is set in After-Africa, an afterworld populated by the deceased of Africa. And rather than Okigbo, the central character is the recently deceased Hamisi, a Kenyan Muslim.
       The novel begins with Hamisi finding himself in After-Africa, an invention Mazrui spins out, adding and embellishing, throughout the novel. It is a pleasant enough sort of place, and quite remarkable in a number of ways. Science fiction is not exactly Mazrui's forte, but his alternate reality has a certain charm and wonder to it, and certainly serves his purposes.
       News comes that Okigbo has arrived in After-Africa soon after Hamisi's arrival -- and more: that Okigbo has been arrested, "on a high charge." It is the talk of this other-world. Hamisi, meanwhile, learns that he hasn't completely crossed over into the hereafter yet:
Hamisi was still no more than a person deceased. A rite de passage was needed to enable him to be promoted from the status of the merely dead to the status of the immortal.
       The test can come in any form -- but Hamisi's is quite a challenge: he is to defend Christopher Okigbo at his trial. And what exactly is Okigbo accused of ?
He is to be charged with the offence of putting society before art in his scale of values. (...) No great artist has a right to carry patriotism to the extent of destroying his creative potential.
       Hamisi -- not a trained lawyer -- is of course in way over his head. But that allows Mazrui to follow him as he explores the issues underlying the case, first in preparing for the case and then at the trial itself.
       The trial is the centrepiece of the novel. It is held in the Grand Stadium which, unsurprisingly, has a capacity of millions. "The varying features of Africa's humanity through all the ages were fully represented."
       Mazrui does the trial quite well. Hamisi has an accomplished counterpart, Kwame Apolo-Gyamfi, who acts as Counsel for Damnation. The two counsels introduce some surprising witnesses offering wide-ranging testimony -- including some from the Herebefore.
       Hamisi's own past also comes to haunt him, in a surprise twist -- but that is because he and Apolo-Gyamfi are also on trial. Apolo-Gyamfi -- "one of the most brilliant Africans produced by the twentieth century" -- died in "an act of tragic impatience" while studying at Oxford. He, too, is being tested. Each, with their weaknesses, is a stand-in for an aspect of the catastrophe of Biafra.
       Finally, all the pieces of Mazrui's allegory fall into place. Early in the novel he suggests that;
... the Nigerian Civil War and all its ramified implications compressed in the single poetic tragedy of the death of Christopher Okigbo.
       And so it is. The novel is about Africa itself, and the civil war centered around Biafra in particular (as well as about the role of the artist in society -- and especially in Africa). The final verdicts -- there are three, one for each counsel and one for Okigbo -- explain Mazrui's didactic intent. His conclusions don't necessarily convince, but he has brought them about quite artfully.

       The Trial of Christopher Okigbo is a programmatic novel, but it is not without charm. Mazrui invents odd details for his afterworld, and though most everything has a purpose -- each bit explains something that comes up later -- his inventions also succeed quite well in their own right. Okigbo and his poetry are well-used, and as far as programmatic literature goes it is certainly a success.
       The writing is often a bit clumsy, and the points made somewhat heavy-handedly, but Mazrui moves along at a brisk pace and springs the unexpected on the reader often enough to hold one's interest. Without its message the story has little purpose, but the issues addressed here are significant ones, and Mazrui addresses them quite well. Certainly worthwhile.

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Christopher Okigbo: Ali A. Mazrui: Other books of interest under review:
  • Christopher Okigbo's collected poems, Labyrinths
  • See the Index of books relating to Africa

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About the Author:

       Ali A. Mazrui was born in Kenya in 1933 and studied at Manchester, Columbia, and Oxford Universities. He has written many scholarly works, and one novel, The Trial of Christopher Okigbo. He died in 2014.

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