The Doyen of Nigerian Letters Returns with a New Novel after 48 Years


At the mature old age of 87, Nigerian novelist Wole Soyinka must be the most senior author to write a new novel after a 48 year hiatus. Most famous novelists attain their professional pinnacle by the age of 50 or 60. Not so with Soyinka whose life story itself might be a long novel running into hundreds if not thousands of pages. Soyinka has seen and lived everything in the long and tortuous history of his native Nigeria. Soyinka also witnessed the defining moments of Nigeria as it was torn in the Biafra civil war, rebellions in the Delta region where some of its most prominent environmental activists like Ken Saro Wiwa gave their lives for the cause. He also witnessed to rise and demise of military dictatorships under the exceptionally corrupt Sani Abacha regime that sent him into exile while the tyrantdied in his palace of a heart attack.

No force could silence Soyinka who always defied tyrannical regimes, upheld the cause of this people whether they are from this or that tribe or ethnic group. He championed Africa’s cause of liberation from colonialism, neocolonialism and Apartheid, and celebrated the release of Nelson Mandela with poetic inspiration expressed in the following lines:

Your bounty threatens me, Mandela, that taut Drumskin of your heart on which our millions Dance. I fear we latch, fat leeches on your veins.

Soyinka was critical of the Nigerian political elites who came to power right after independence and he continued to deal with the theme of corruption starting with his debut novel entitled: The Interpreters and now in a new novel that reads like the continuation of the first one by another means or in another historical context.

Wole Soyinka is not basically a novelist and wrote only two novels in his entire career. He is however a prolific playwright with tremendous talent and a poet of epic proportions. He is also gifted in writing non-fiction books highlighting his ideas of Nigeria as well as fighting the corrupt elites of his country who abused the oil wealth of Nigeria to line their pockets while tens of millions of his countrymen suffered from neglect and were denied the basic means of survival or the freedom to choose their rulers.

Soyinka is also an activist who spoke against the detention of dissident writers anywhere in the world as he was also detained under military rule for criticizing dictatorship and the oil oligarchy within Nigeria.

While writer like Ken Saro Wiwa were arrested and sentenced to death, Soyinka escaped death by going into self- exile and spending many years in the United States shooting critical salvoes at the dictators who forced him to live in a foreign country at time he was most needed in his native Nigeria.

And now at the age when most people languish in retirement or speculate about the afterlife, or simply live in idle luxury, Soyinka has come up with a new novel that baffled critics who still struggle to capture his message in the celebrated, “Chronicles From the Land of the Happiest People on Earth”. The land he refers to is no other than Nigeria to whose welfare Soyinka labored all his life. The happiest people on earth are Nigerians, according to Soyinka’s bitingly satirical title to his new novel. To show how Nigerians are not the happiest people on earth is the true purpose of the book and Soyinka dedicates more than 400 pages to demonstrate how they are not happy. As many critics agree, “Chronicles” is therefore a portrait of Nigerians and, “at once a political satire and murder mystery, and a lament for the spirit of his native Nigeria.”

Juan Gabriel Vásquez, a reviewer of Soyinka’s new novel writes that, “Chronicles” is many things at once: a caustic political satire, a murder mystery, a conspiracy story and a deeply felt lament for the spirit of a nation. The plot — convoluted, obscure at times, often tying itself in too many knots — turns on the aptly named Human Resources, a sinister online business that sells human body parts for private use in rituals and superstitions.

As often happens in satire, the outrageousness of the fictional premise comes from its proximity to the truth: The belief that human organs have magical properties, leading to business success and political power, has been known to lead to ritual murders in Nigeria, and Soyinka even quotes a real-life national headline verbatim in the text: “Thirteen-Member Rituals Gang Broken Up.”

Soyinka has not written a fictionalized form of real life story like Gabriel Garcia Marquez did before him in “News of a Kidnapping” which is the realistic account of the kidnapping, imprisonment, and eventual release of a handful of prominent figures in Colombia in the early 1990s by the Medellín Cartel, a drug cartel founded and operated by Pablo Escobar. The book was written in a journalistic format and the characters are taken from real life events while the author used journalistic techniques combined with magical realistic descriptions that were enduring trademarks of the Colombian author.

In “Chronicles”, Wole Soyinka uses realistic narrative techniques sprinkled with newspaper formats of storytelling that gives force and authenticity to his narratives. Thus, Soyinka’s new novel can be read as a symbolic description of Nigeria’s “dismemberment and sequestration” by the political elites that have been selling its resources to multinational oil corporations and Western monopolies to line their pockets while the Nigerian people lived in utter poverty and suffered from military dictatorship. In the new novel, the people are satirically described as “the happiest people on earth” as the book title suggests.

We may even stretch Soyinka’s story to a kind of ‘state of Africa novel’ whereby the author might suggest, though indirectly, that the dismemberment and sequestration of human parts that are offered for sale to all kinds of clients might be interpreted as something happening all over Africa, symbolically as well realistically.

By writing about the state of Nigeria novel, Soyinka might have been suggesting the state of Africa where criminal human traffickers who are conniving to sell and buy African body parts like kidneys from refugees desperate to finance their journey across the Arabian seas or to Europe. The body parts are often used for use in Western medical establishments as replacements to wealthy patients. This is a story often making the headlines in many African countries. And Soyinka might be inspired by these events to write his Nigerian novel that is both funny and macabre.

Wole Soyinka’s novel was received with critical acclaims from publishers and the literates as well as international literary reviews. The Times Literary Supplement wrote among other things that, “There are masters of precision and masters of showmanship. Wole Soyinka has always been in the second camp and, with Chronicles from the Land of the Happiest People on Earth – his first novel in half a century – he employs characteristically flamboyant language in a devastatingly detailed examination of Nigerian society.”

In the Kirkus review, the reviewer of Chronicles says that, “It’s painful to suggest that Soyinka’s new novel might be anything less than a work of art — after all, he has been percolating on the idea for quite some time. But Chronicles is largely inaccessible to people who are not intellectuals, and florid beyond reason at times.

More than that, the story’s complexity makes it easy for readers to disengage if they’re not intimately familiar with the inner workings of Nigerian politics.

“Chronicles seems effortful; it reads like a novel with something to prove. And perhaps, after all these years maybe the incomparable author does. Nevertheless, though he is a great writer, this book does not reflect the brilliant canon of work Soyinka is known for.”

The Wall Street Journal had a different opinion of Soyinka’s novel. It said among other things that, “Chronicles from the Land of the Happiest People on Earth”—the title itself is a dark joke—reads like a compendium of everything that is wrong with modern-day Nigeria. Mr. Soyinka, now 87, reportedly wrote it during the Covid-19 lockdown, and references to “Fake News,” hand sanitizer and thermometer guns support that idea. Though the work of a great writer, this is not a great book.”

The Los Angeles Times published an interview with Wole Soyinka right after the publication of his novel. A very brief excerpt of the interview follows:

Los Angeles Times: I’m curious how long this book has been germinating and what about this story demanded the form of a novel.

Soyinka: Quite a while, certainly close to two decades. However, the themes found release in other forms, mostly polemical. Let’s say it found temporary outlet in my local interventions, both literary and political. So it had been building up in the mind. With that kind of pressure — rather like a flood behind a retaining wall — only the prose cascade seemed empowered to bear the burden of release.

Los Angeles Times: Were there unexpected challenges in writing a novel again after so long?

Soyinka: Mostly technical. I work — like most — directly from my laptop. I am not a sequential writer, so each session does not necessarily take up the story where it left off. Now, imagine resuming work where you thought you had left your characters. The oftener you click that “save” button, the deeper you dig yourself into a hole — no, into several tunnels.

Los Angeles Times: You started writing during the early days of the pandemic, outside your home in Nigeria. Was that out of necessity or preference?

Soyinka: No, I started work just before the pandemic. I needed to physically distance myself from the provoking environment to be able to address it, and in full isolation. Two sessions of about eight days each — one in Dakar, the other in Ghana — I needed those, to even begin. Then the pandemic locked me down in my own forested home, with just my characters for company. The heavy stuff took over, for some three or four months. Not a recommended regimen.

We can perhaps draw a couple of lessons from Soyinka’s daily life and struggles to write his new novel. The fact that he wrote such a long novel (more than 400 pages-long) at such a late age can inspire other writers in Africa who tire so easily and abandon their craft with despair: it is never too late to write a big book provided that they have the material, inspiration and dedication. In most African countries, including in Ethiopia, writers stop working suddenly and disappear from the literary scene quite silently. On the contrary, they should rather be tenacious and hard working as Soyinka proved it even under the most difficult conditions.

Secondly, Soyinka’s novel proved that Africa is replete with events both tragic and dramatic that could be used as materials for books, fiction or non-fiction, and that the only thing that writers need is to have the curiosity and engagement to make these events come to life through compelling stories. Let us hope that Soyinka, the grandfather of Nigerian literature, has set the rules so that younger writers in Africa are going to follow and prove him right.

The March 6/2022

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