Unlike Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart (1958) and Arrow of God (1964), which infuse the elements of the tragic into the themes of the impact of colonialism on traditional African cultures, Elechi Amadi’s lesser-known The Concubine focuses on the private, the social, and the supernatural. Notably lacking the fanfare of color, ritual, rhetoric, and ceremony characteristic of many West African novels of the 1960’s, Amadi’s novel concerns the notion of cosmic totality, the precarious nature of man’s relationship to the supernatural—a relationship in which unseen forces manipulate human life and control human thought and action in the painful and tragic human drama. From its opening chapters to the end, the novel teems with omens, its pages pervaded by fatalism. Divine authority predominates; the presence of the gods is felt long before the story of Ihuoma’s status begins to unfold. Its plot and structure are controlled by supernatural forces. The remarkably simple plot describes a complex situation in which the fortunes and misfortunes of four key characters are set against a background of communal peace and harmony, an idyllic setting governed by a traditional propriety. Good behavior is applauded, excessive and fanatical feelings are frowned upon, and personal feelings are controlled almost to a fault. Except for Madume, the quarrelsome and greedy land grabber, the generous villagers of Omokachi live peacefully with one another. The good-natured humor, the constant bantering, and the profuse singing and dancing that characterize this seemingly perfect community is disrupted by implacable gods. In their hands it appears humans are like puppets, goaded by fate into the gods’ wily snares.
The tragedy of The Concubine is centered on the dual character of Ihuoma, the almost flawless embodiment of Omokachi’s ideal of propriety, a goddess-human who, unbeknown to her and the villagers, is fated to be the wife of the Sea-King even before birth. Reincarnated into the Omokachi community, Ihuoma becomes a death-snare for men, the bait to lure those with amorous intentions to a deadly rivalry with the Sea-King. Given this femme fatale’s winning personality and looks, it is not surprising that the cream of the village manhood is attracted to her. While the villagers readily give plausible explanations for Emenike’s and Madume’s deaths (“lock chest” and “big eyes” respectively), they are particularly stunned by the cruel and mysterious circumstances of Ekwueme’s death on the eve of his impending marriage to Ihuoma and on the day that his life is especially sweet.
When the two rival diviners—Anyika and Agwoturumbe—enter the scene, each with his own explanation and vision of the potency of the superior power at work and how to “bind” it, the action of the tragedy shifts to a blatant contention between man and god on two counts: Ekwueme’s unequivocal, often-repeated love for Ihuoma and his intentions to marry her, and Agwoturumbe’s presumptuous claim to power and knowledge strong enough to fetter the Sea-King. Moreover, Ekwueme’s well-intentioned but proud quip that “if Ihuoma was a sea-goddess, then he could very well be a sea-god himself,” combined with Agwoturumbe’s equally boastful reassurance that all will be well, even if it means making a journey to the bottom of the river himself, inevitably hasten the tragic denouement of the story.
The role of mystery, though downplayed through twenty-eight of the novel’s thirty chapters, is crucial in sustaining the plot and structure of the story. For example, even the most discerning reader, though vaguely suspicious of Emenike’s and Madume’s sudden...
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