Culture and Lifestyle

Vaulting the Shame Away

 A Review of Olukorede Yishau’s Vaults of Secrets

 Title: Vaults of Secrets

Author: Olukorede S. Yishau

Publisher: Parrésia Publishers

Number of pages: 118

Year of publication: 2020

Category: Fiction

Amongst the peculiar things about the human nature, one thing that is inherent in every person is clear – secrets. No matter how big or trivial it may be, it is very likely we all keep some sorts of secrets. This happens when we try to hide our absurdity, shame, fault, even awkwardness from others. Some complications arise from the unveiling of secrets when others are accidentally let in on them. Olukorede Yishau’s new collection of short stories aptly titled Vaults of Secrets creatively bring to the fore a psychopathological understanding of our shared humanity. The book invites the reader into the recesses of the characters that populate it, and by extension, into the pit of the human mind. The novel also explores Nigeria’s social realism. We bear witness to the flaws and shame of these characters in a unique way that sometimes draws the reader in as a co-conspirator or accomplice in keeping oftentimes dirty secrets.

The thematic excursion of the stories ranges as they unfold seamlessly, ranging from betrayal, infidelity, gender inequality and violence amongst others, against the motif of secret. In the story titled, ‘The Special Gift’ the themes of betrayal and conjugal violation are discernible, for instance. But what is really absorbing about this story is the narrative voice – at best the voice is both comic and creepy.

The reader encounters a man who has an uncanny way of being in a wrong place at the wrong time and thus happens in on other people’s secret. He is named Emmanuel meaning ‘God with us’, a somewhat cheeky interposing, which is also a subtle reference to the conscience that constantly abide in us all. Emmanuel happens upon people at their most vulnerable moment like their conscience. Emmanuel is that quirky character that you can tell enjoys seeing and knowing things.

He happens on his perfidious neighbour and his neighbour’s house help making out. The lackadaisical attitude he treats the affair when his neighbour, Mr Essien, begs him not to breach his secret shows that he is really a vault of secrets.  He claims and confides to the reader that he has seen worse and deftly narrates some of the weird things he has seen like catching his brother in unwholesome situation:

Mr Essien's misadventure brought a brother to my mind. This brother is not a friend who I call a brother, not a Christian brother from church, but my brother who has known me my entire life and knows more about me than any other person. My brother did not tell me any secret, I chanced on it (p 13).

As secrets can make or mar anyone depending on its magnitude and the person set to reveal it or keep it. Knowing these damaging things about people burdens him as he becomes a hostage to secrets he dare not reveal for the fear of losing his job and friendship: ‘I remember another secret I regret keeping, to this day’ (p 14). This is the price he pays for his so-called gift.

Apart from happening on people, Emmanuel also spies on landscapes. On his way to meet his boss in the ultra rich Banana Island, Lagos, he can’t help but notice the social injustice in the opulence of the privileged few, where the Lagos elites enjoy. He can only bridge his understanding with an imagination of what belongs to who:

The Island reeked of wealth: well-laid out road network, well-mowed lawn, perfumed air, well-built and glossed mansions and an ambience comparable to Seventh Arrondissement in Paris, La Jolla in San Diego and Tokyo's Shibuya and Roppongi (p 17).
As I drove around, I wondered which house was Mike Adenuga's and which was Sayyu Dantata’s [...] In the house opposite Nonso's place, the garage boasted a Rolls Royce Phantom, Bentley Continental, a Ferrari, Range Rover and Porsche 911. I wondered who owned the house and why he needed all these luxury cars. (p 18).

With a gossipy curiosity, he gapes at the secret affluence of the rich neighbourhood only comparable to such dazzling city centres around the world. He finds it almost impossible that such a place could exist amidst the squalor and impoverished neighbourhoods around, and contrasts it against his middle-class apartment in Lagos Mainland. This flâneurism of the urban city centre, a Flaubertian innovation as the critic James Wood calls it, does not only inventorise the surroundings just for its sake. The details recorded through the eyes of the narrator is a conscious effort by the author to make us better readers of the life around us that is full of so many contradictory details.  

But this is not so in another story in the collection titled ‘My Mother’s Father is My Father’. The author crams unnecessary details into the story that neither moves the plot forward nor advances the character. This unnecessary digression where the narrator launches into telling about his time in England, naming streets in England, running to three pages long, that contribute absolutely nothing to the story, at best, could have been compressed to a paragraph. If it was to point to the fact the character can be happy or lead a normal life, it went too far.

‘My Mother’s Father is My Father’ is an already revealing title that cast light on incestuous relationship between father and daughter, such immoral happenings that now make bizarre news in the society through the eyes of someone who bears most of the burden of the secret. For the narrator, it is a secret that must not be let out at all cost and so he confesses it to his diary:

Apart from me, no one else alive knows. I am happy that my secret is guarded and I hope to keep it so till I breathe my last. I am only recording it here for posterity's sake (p 26).

This secret is the source of his frequent nightmares that threatens his conjugal bliss. His confession to his dairy is more like a confession to self or admittance of a heavy fact. He is not willing to confess to anybody for the shame is too great. But his healing can only be completed when he finds someone whom he can share his shame with it. This is mostly true for every occasion, before the burden becomes too heavy. The character may contemplate suicide to be the safest way out.

Which is the focal theme in ‘Otapiapia’, another story of infidelity in the collection. A married woman who cheats is caught in the act by a supposed role model.

She knocked on the door and waited a few seconds before she turned the knob. The door creaked open only for her to behold a man and a woman scrambling to cover their nakedness. The woman was her precious Aunty Rebecca, her breasts jiggling like a bell. The man was not Uncle Solagbade, Aunty Rebecca’s husband; it was a man who Idera knew way back as a molue driver.

Even though she still maintains a straight face when caught in this act, perhaps because the magnitude of her shame can still be contained as she swears her sister into secrecy, when her secret is finally let open to the public, including her husband, with a terminal STD, she considers suicide a better option to evade her shame. To her, death is way much preferable to shame. This brings to attention the gender injustice and moral obligations expected of women. Even though the story has its moral complications, as we later learn that her husband also cheats, It is absolutely unfair that it is the woman who bears all the shame.

Which also calls for a close scrutiny of the above excerpt. The author too unconsciously falls into this gender trappings. He heightens the shame of the woman by his brief description of her breasts ‘her breasts jiggling like a bell’, but what of, say, the man’s phallus too, what of his buttocks or scrotal sac which surely will evoke a comic effect desired? Therefore, it is an unconscious, unbalanced allotment of shame.

All in all, Vaults of Secrets by Olukorede Yishau is a good read comprising of ten short stories around many themes such as corruption, infidelity, juvenile infatuation with the motif of secret linking all the stories. The stories are narrated with varied voices, even a ‘it’, the human conscience, as seen in the story ‘Open Wound’. Through the many characters encountered in the book, we get to perform a psychoanalysis on them and thus understand more the phenomenon of shame.

   Tọ́pẹ́ Salaudeen-Adégòkè is an editor, literary critic and poet from Ibadan, Nigeria. Tọ́pẹ́ is the administrator of the Kofi Awoonor Memorial Library in Ibadan.

Categories: Culture and Lifestyle

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