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Soyinka at his searing best

Book Review

Soyinka at his searing best

In Chronicles from the Land of the Happiest People on Earth, his first novel in 47 years, Wole Soyinka is back to his unique style, with an unflinching look at the often absurd complexities of life in Nigeria that is also a rollicking whodunit.

This third novel from the masterful pen of Wole Soyinka is not a book for the masses but will be saluted by the intellectual literati and those with more than just a passing interest in the corruption behind politics, religion, and the accompanying media delirium, on the African continent.

A brutally satirical work, his latest book plunges a sharpened blade into Nigeria’s oft-criticised systems. Decades of thoughts and observations surge from the author, filtered through an epic main plot, many sub-plots and a set of characters who expose the follies and farces of life inside the elite political circles and the dangers to those who do not follow their agenda.

Central to the story are the “Gong o’ Four”, a group of friends who meet at university in England 40 years before the story begins, and with all the zeal and innocence of the young, form a pact to return home and give back to their country.

As often happens in real life, this pact does not always go to plan. The natural leader of the group is Duyole Pitan-Payne – an engineer who has been bluntly critical of the government’s administration of electrical power, or rather lack of, and now faces hidden and hazardous hurdles to take on a role offered by the UN. His views of his country are made plain when he comments to his closest friend and member of the group, Dr Kighare Menka: “Something is broken. Beyond race. Outside colour or history. Something has cracked. Can’t be put back together.”

Dr Menka is a high-ranking physician, known as ‘Dr Bedside Manners’ at his refined, ex-colonial Hilltop Mansion Members Club; he discovers a macabre but apparently sanctioned underworld involving the sale of body parts and calls upon Pitan-Payne for help. He lives in a world where his intrinsic beliefs and actions collide horribly.“Doctors are not supposed to chop off a healthy, serviceable part of the human anatomy. Yet it happens. It’s happened here, and the law prescribes it.”

The third member of the “Gong o’ four” is the now redundant Prince Badetona. Having had his accounting skills used for extortion and money laundering (inadvertently or not, assisting a corrupt government), when his usefulness is over, he is imprisoned and mentally tortured. When released, he is a broken, inarticulate shadow of the man he once was, exposing a judicial system where money speaks louder than proof or victims or witnesses.

The heroes of the piece are countered by the villains and the story quickly introduces us to Dennis Tibidje who reinvents himself with apparent ease from scurrilous swindler into a prophet-like figure – Papa Divina, using the sanctuary of God to not mend his ways.

Sir Goddie Danfere – ‘The People’s Steward’ – is the country’s ruler. Surrounded by yes-men and those looking out ultimately for themselves, he spends more time plotting against his opponents and spin-doctoring himself than performing any duties for the good of his nation.

In this, his first novel in 47 years, Soyinka is back to his unique style, a mesmerising, galloping and sometimes bewildering cascade of images, emotions, thoughts, ironies and reflections, carried along by a mastery of the language that few can match.

His characters, playing out the often absurd complexities of life in Nigeria, are always on the verge of fantasy yet, somehow, remain rooted in reality. It is an unflinching look and many, especially Nigerians, might be tempted to shy away from it and Soyinka perhaps sugars the pill somewhat with his acerbic wit.

After finishing reading this book, there is no doubt in my mind that Soyinka is a dedicated champion against injustice and tyranny, but I couldn’t help feeling that, in places, the narrative was unnecessarily protracted and that a little less could have been a little more. No doubt, there are many references there that will make sense to readers in Nigeria and West Africa but are perhaps lost on a more general international readership. Nevertheless, it remains a great addition to the best contemporary literature of the world.

My final comment is to ask what happened to the fourth member of the “Gong o’ Four”? Well, it is up to you to discover the shocking truth! Chronicles from the Land of the Happiest People on Earth is also a rollicking whodunit.

About the author

Wole Soyinka is a distinguished Nigerian playwright, poet, author, teacher and political activist, who with his words has rocked government oppression and the mismanagement of Nigeria and indeed the whole continent, since the 1950s.

Born in July 1934 in Abeokuta in southwestern Nigeria, he spent his childhood years living in a mission compound with his Anglican minister and teacher father, Samuel, and mother, Grace, who was a shopkeeper and local activist. He was known as the child “who will kill you with questions”.

In 1954 he left Nigeria and went to England to continue his studies at the University of Leeds, where he became editor of the university magazine, The Eagle, graduated with a bachelor’s degree in English Literature and met his first wife.

He initially garnered critical acclaim for his plays. His first major one was The Swamp Dwellers which traversed the lives of rural, southern Nigerian people in the 1950s, comparing their struggles with survival  from nature versus the money-orientated town-dwellers.

Since then, he has penned over 20 more plays, seven poetry collections, essays and three novels as well as numerous articles for a variety of publications.

On receipt of a Rockefeller Research Fellowship from his alma mater University College in Ibadan for research on African Theatre, he returned to Nigeria. Over the next few years, he wrote plays, released his first feature-length film, and wrote his first novel, The Interpreters.

In 1967 he was arrested following an appeal in an article he wrote for a ceasefire during the Biafran war. The federal government of General Yakubu Gowon, whilst never formally charging him, did not take kindly to his words – branding him a Biafra rebel conspirator. He was held as a political prisoner until 1969, often in solitary confinement.

Undaunted, he wrote a collection of poems – A Shuttle in the Crypt – whilst interned, using anything he could find to write on, including toilet paper and empty cigarette packets, together with contraband pencils or homemade ink.

He was released in 1969 but due to a worsening political landscape was back in exile by 1971. In 1975 he returned to his homeland following the demise of Gowon’s military regime. Nineteen years later he was forced to flee again, crossing the border to Benin and then going on to the US. Three years later the Nigerian government charged him with treason, leaving the route home an unfeasible dream.

In 1986 he became the first African to win the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Although much of his writing has been an exposure of tyranny and injustice in Nigeria, he is not sparing of any African government that has used military dictatorship or political tyranny to rule
their countries and has never shied away from speaking or writing out against social corruption across the world.

He has been married three times. His first wife was Barbara Dixon, the late British writer. Following their divorce he met and married his second wife, Olaide Idowu, a Nigerian librarian, in 1963. His subsequent imprisonment took its toll on the marriage and led to a second divorce. In 1989 he married Folake Doherty who he first met at the University of Ife where she was studying. Over the three marriages he has had eight children.

During the 2020 pandemic lockdown, the 86-year-old Soyinka once again proved he was an inexhaustible man of the word, producing a new novel 47 years after his last. Chronicles from the Land of the Happiest People on Earth has already been published by Bookcraft Publishers in Nigeria and has recently been released in the US (Pantheon) and UK (Bloomsbury Circus).

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