Wole Soyinka at the 2021 PEN America Literary Gala in New York City. Picture: Arturo Holmes/Getty Images
Akinwande Oluwole Babatunde Soyinka, known as Wole Soyinka, led an extraordinary life and he brought this lifetime of experience to his crafting of Chronicles From the Land of the Happiest People on Earth.
Born into a British colonial Nigeria in Abeokuta (about 48 miles north of Lagos) in 1934, he had a solid local education where his talent as a writer was recognised early. At the age of 18 he graduated college and at age 20 he moved to the UK to study at the University of Leeds. While attending university he became a literary figure in his own right and helped progress the West African voice in English literature through the production of several important plays.
When he returned to Nigeria in the early sixties he established an acting community and used his professorship at Obafemi Awolowo University as a platform to challenge the government of a newly independent Nigeria on several policies, the most notable of which was censorship. In the mid-sixties his protests became active, culminating with his imprisonment for nearly two years for allegedly supporting the rebellion in the Biafran civil war. Although he was refused writing utensils, it is believed that he was still able to write several works critical of the Nigerian government while in prison.
In 1994 he made a dramatic escape from the regime of General Abacha on the back of a motorcycle, expatriating himself first to Paris and later to the United States, where he became Professor of African Studies and Theatre at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. After Abacha’s death in 1998 Soyinka returned to Nigeria. True to his critical history, when Trump won the US election in 2016 Soyinka burned his green card.
When the pandemic imposed isolation Soyinka decided to write his first novel in nearly 50 years. He sequestered himself away in a seaside cottage in Senegal and then in the hills of Aburi, outside of Accra in Ghana. This reviewer read the novel in the shadow of those Aburi hills, taking in the same environment as the author.
The pseudo-fictionalised Nigeria that Soyinka constructs appears hyperbolic, with an influx of oil wealth allowing rampant excess and materialism to become the canvas on which critical themes play out. However, extremes in the condition and circumstances of the West African nation are closer to reality than many may think. Tremendous wealth and abject poverty are clearly visible side by side and sidewalk preachers can be seen busking sermons outside megachurches. Soyinka also reveals the dichotomies between north and south, desert and forest, purity and corruption, fame and infamy. What appears as exaggerated sarcasm is, to a large degree, just holding up a mirror to Nigerian society. Rather than a satirical caricature, the work is a chronicle as the title denotes.
There are several major plotlines in the novel. It is the story of a group of four school friends who vow from humble beginnings to stay connected and united in an effort to do at least one good thing for one rural village. They take the name, ‘The Gong of Four’ referencing a traditional four-headed sculpted bell / gong used to call for attention in Benin. There is clearly a reference to the Chinese ‘Gang of Four’, indicating that this small group of friends is a cabal that will work toward its goal surreptitiously if necessary.
Kighare Menka is one of the four and it is his village of Gumchi that the Gang commits to aid by building a hospital. Menka is a medical student who becomes a renowned surgeon. Duyole Pitan-Payne is a mixed race member of the Gang who becomes a celebrated and wealthy engineer and entrepreneur. These two have a bond that persists while the status and whereabouts of the other members remains mysterious.
The novel opens with the introduction of a religious figure called Papa Divina, showing his movements throughout West Africa and the United States, and showing the evolution of his showmanship from small theatres to adviser to the Nigerian elite. Soyinka makes it clear that there is no real fervour or piety driving Papa Davina. Power and influence have been his goal from his beginnings. His character is clarified when vulnerable women come to him for assistance and he pimps them out to the leader of the country, Sir Godfrey Danfere. apa Davina’s breakthrough is to embrace Unitarianism, but by celebrating the rituals and feasts of all major religions. In this way he can appeal to both Christians and Muslims. His real service is to provide them the pre-colonial animist charms they really want to aid them in their pursuit of wealth.
Dr Menka is approached by shadowy figures and asked to provide them with human body parts for animist rituals. Dr Menka tells his friend Payne about this just as Payne is preparing to accept an assignment with the United Nations in New York. Menka and Payne begin to investigate and they uncover a secret code used in the accounting for the elicit trade, ghoulishly referred to as ‘Human Resources’. Once the investigation gains ground Payne is blown up by a bomb placed in his study. He is
gravely injured and flown to Austria for medical treatment, where his family has extensive business connections. Payne dies in Austria and his family insists on burying him there, against his tradition. Menka pushes to have Payne’s body repatriated but he is stonewalled by the family. Eventually, the body is returned, the code is broken and without a meting out of justice there is a return to dysfunctional normalcy.
Soyinka won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1986 for his poetry, plays and prosaic essays. Chronicles reads like a novel written by a poet. The reader encounters the crafted language as a work of art, with the cadence, diction and imagery creating an immediate sensory experience. When describing the decision to turn off Payne’s life support, for example, Soyinka writes: “What was beyond question, however, was the compulsive attribution of uniqueness, the garb of revelatory import draped around an eerie utterance that contested the last such in the stakes for the oddest taste in the mouth.”
As with reading Faulkner or Joyce, the reading is its own reward. Unlike Faulkner or Joyce, though, the prosaic style acts as an impediment to the storytelling. It is not always clear what the action in a passage is, or how it is relevant to the progress of the plotlines.
There are several lines of developed action that seem tangential to the plot or central themes. For example, the village of Gumchi becomes a target of acquisition by Papa Davina for a religious site. Out of the blue the nation’s leader learns that Gumchi sits on a significant gold deposit and he begins to scheme to acquire it.
This happens very near the end of the novel and it never resolves. Similarly, after Payne’s death in Austria his family’s vehement opposition to repatriating the body received pages and pages of the author’s attention but there did not appear to be a purpose for it as far as the storyline was concerned. Another example is the last-minute reveal of an identity as a ‘twist’ at the end of the book; it is unclear what this contributes to the story.
This work of art may be better appreciated as a collection of illustrative vignettes rather than as a linear story. When viewed from different angles the artist’s themes become clearer. There are references and descriptions of violence against the citizenry by terrorists and by police and military authorities. This shows Soyinka’s concern and serves to chastise those in positions of influence. There are depictions of financial and spiritual corruption in the highest echelons of business and government and also in petty transactions in the street.
Representations and perceptions of happiness and its measure are referenced alongside meaningless accolades and portrayals of political absurdity. While this may not be his greatest literary work, with the publication of Chronicles Soyinka dutifully carries out his unofficial role as conscience of the nation, both casting his critical eye on and drawing attention to concerns in contemporary Nigeria.
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