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Wole Soyinka’s Odyssey

By Clementine Ewokolo Burnley


Critical confrontation with cultural failings can be a tightrope act for African writers. Over the long sweep of time, Africans have been looted of personhood by the European construct of race, and by the framing of colonisation as a civilising mission. One reaction is to be seen in the anti-colonial literary movement négritude, which introduced Caribbean writers like Aimé Césaire and African writers like Léopold Sédar Senghor to the texts of the Harlem Renaissance. Writers of négritude celebrated the beauty of African cultures as a reaction to colonial chauvinism, in what Wole Soyinka found to be a somewhat uncritical, one-sided way stressing the emotional over the rational. Soyinka, in opposing the romantic fallacies of négritude, has never shied away from the task of dissecting the societies in which he is located. Much of the body of work he has produced investigates the way in which the people who now run political, economic and social institutions in many African countries fail to manage collective resources in a way that serves the most vulnerable members of those societies.

In his novel Chronicles from the Land of the Happiest People on Earth, Soyinka details the myriad ways in which degenerate institutions carve apart the body of an unnamed state. It’s clear from early on in the book that something truly horrific is taking place behind the scenes. When the protagonist, Dr Kighare Menka, a talented surgeon, is invited to join a human resources venture, he suspects that the amputated limbs and other material by-products of his work have attracted the attention of a few ghouls from the criminal underworld. Until then he has largely avoided the complications of big-city life, but as his world begins to unravel, he reaches out to his old friend from college, Duyole Pitan-Payne. The youthful friendships between college students form one of several backstories to a whodunnit which unfolds over 444 pages. The narrative moves between a more innocent past and a bleak present in which the most powerful actors force everyone else to submit to their vices. All parts of society are caught up in cycles of violence. People enter the system and feed it, or are fed to it.

In one thread of the novel Duyole has become a successful engineer, owner of the Millennium Corporation and Nigeria’s nominee as representative to the United Nations. Despite having chosen divergent paths – Pitan-Payne is the son of an upper-crust Lagos family, whose members have earned their exalted place in society from involvement in human enslavement, while Menka operates on people mutilated by terrorists, criminals, employers and their own families – the two men have remained devoted to each other. The gentlest interactions take place between the ‘adopted twins’, Menka and Pitan-Payne. After Duyole dies abroad, the Pitan-Payne family’s extreme emotional coldness, Europhilia and profound disregard for their own cultural traditions culminate in a refusal to repatriate their son’s body – his birth family is determined to leave his body in the beautiful, orderly grounds of a Viennese cemetery. Menka goes to extraordinary efforts to ensure Duyole returns to Badagry. This friendship is one of the few tender spaces in an otherwise relentless unspooling of inhumane actions which would simply numb the reader were the writing less than mordantly funny.

Soyinka has been a literary gadfly to politicians since his debut play, A Dance of the Forests. Comparing two of the events held to celebrate Nigeria’s independence on 1 October 1960 shows Soyinka’s distinctive attitude. In London, student activists from the anti-colonial West African Students’ Union (WASU) were photographed outside Nigeria House. The men had dressed up in long white agbada gowns while the women wore woven adire cloth and elaborately arranged head ties. The students had come to celebrate Nigeria’s independence. It was a joyous scene. At the same time in Lagos, the theatre ensemble Soyinka had founded on his return from studying in Britain was sounding an unwelcome cautionary note to Nigerian audiences. A Dance of the Forests highlighted deeply immoral aspects of a mythic African past which if left unexamined might blight the new country’s future. The play introduced a discordant note to the otherwise delirious national celebration of Nigeria’s new place on the world stage. By bringing the dead to prophesy a less than optimistic future, Soyinka managed to earn the ire of politicians. Many other Nigerians were incensed as well.

The problem for the individual in Wole Soyinka’s novels is other Africans, the polity itself, its public institutions, and corporations. For citizens of the newly independent West African states in the 1960s, self-government held the allure of freedom from colonial oppression and prosperity. Instead, the violence wrought on the colonised was embraced and continued by regimes which became more neo-colonial than postcolonial.

In his first novel, The Interpreters (1965), Soyinka maintains both a grounding in myth and an emphasis on unpleasant truths which have been consistent throughout his career. Set in the 1960s, The Interpreters follows five young western-educated men through the first years of Nigerian self-government as they confront materialism, corruption and violence, while trying to find their own purpose as leaders. Like the country in which they live, the protagonists are in transition, away from an oppressive colonial past towards what they hope will be a prosperous democratic future.

From the outset, Chronicles from the Land of the Happiest People on Earth is more heavily satirical than both The Interpreters and Soyinka’s second novel, Season of Anomy (1973), which was written after the Biafra civil war and has an understandably despairing tone. The book functions as a fast-paced carnivalesque pageant of horrors, largely unleavened by hope. Chiefs, elite politicians, businessmen and the media conspire with the clergy against the commoners of the city and village. Prayers are used to filibuster political debate. The villains exude boundless resilience throughout the explosions, murders, mutilations, rapes and betrayals which punctuate the book, with somewhat numbing regularity. The victims are either remarkably matter-of-fact, or too traumatised to speak, or dead.

The novel tells of a deliberately broken system in which citizens have become products. The business of the state is to manage the acquisition, storage and sale of its citizens. The society functions according to a logic of unrestricted greed, while democracy and economic prosperity seem to recede, mirage-like, from the grasp of most people who live in the land of happiness. People are exchangeable, tradable, and mutually interchangeable. The title forces the question of how people can be happy in a country where competition for advancement is so murderous that its leaders monetise the electorate as a source of body parts for those seeking supernatural powers. Anyone who stands in the way when powerful people want wealth and status gets smashed.

In much of Soyinka’s work he has grappled with themes of trust and social collectives betrayed by corrupt actors. Over fifty years after The Interpreters, the high aspirations of its protagonists at independence are mired in abuses of power which are common to most of the countries from which the student activists in the West African Students’ Union had come. Soyinka’s unwavering focus on the failings of Nigeria’s leaders to achieve transition from postcolonial autocracy to democratic forms of governance has earned him few rewards from the country’s politicians. To be fair, the concerns of Soyinka’s work have always been continental, even global in scope. The unnamed country in Chronicles from the Land of the Happiest People on Earth seems to spill over undefined borders to include Nigeria’s neighbours.

In his essays, Wole Soyinka has directed the same urgent criticisms at political regimes across the continent, from the Republic of Sudan to Liberia. This is consistent with the pan-Africanist scope of WASU’s ambitions. Just as West African Students from Nigeria, the Cameroons, the Gold Coast and Sierra Leone worked together for independence in their home countries, Soyinka sees the challenges for Africans as entwined. In a sense, Nigeria often stands for the continent: one out of every four sub-Saharan Africans is Nigerian; whatever happens in Nigeria happens in many other countries on the continent. With the old colonial masters gone, independence struggle as a grand narrative has been replaced by a series of internal betrayals of African societies.

In the face of being declared a continent without history and without culture, artists of the négritude movement tried to write a civilisational identity for Africans in the minds of readers. Wole Soyinka’s point of departure has always been different. He has never subscribed to the idea that people should not talk about the failings of any culture or society or system of government for fear of stigmatising its members. Confidently grounded in his knowledge of the culture within which he is located, he refuses to ‘deodorise’ a sometimes cruel history.