Wole Soyinka, Chronicles from the Land of the Happiest People on Earth. New York: Pantheon, 2021. 464 pages.
For many years, I have known of Wole Soyinka, Nigeria’s most prominent literary figure, as a prolific writer of plays and poetry, plus a few novels. I knew that he had won the Nobel Prize for literature (long ago, in 1986). At age 87, he has published a new novel, a devastating satire on the failings of his homeland. I admit that Chronicles from the Land of the Happiest People on Earth is the first major work of Soyinka that I have read.
In his review in the Guardian (see accompanying article), Ben Okri, a Nigerian writer who fled his home country in the 1970s under death threats, characterizes Chronicles as “a vivid and wild romp through a political landscape riddled with corruption and opportunism and a spiritual landscape riddled with fraudulence and, even more disquietingly, state-sanctioned murder. This is a novel written at the end of an artist’s tether.” The key difference between Soyinka and many African writers is his insistence that, whatever the sins of colonialism, postcolonial African elites enjoy “agency” and writers should hold them accountable for the outcomes in the countries they govern.
With more than 200 million people, Nigeria has the largest population of any African country – nearly double that of the second, Ethiopia. Currently, both are enmeshed in civil war: the Tigray attempt to secede from Addis Ababa and the Boko Haram attempt to install a violent version of Salafist Islam across northern Nigeria and elsewhere in the Sahel. Like many African countries, Nigeria’s boundaries reflect colonial administration, not ethnic or tribal communities. Nigeria’s three major ethnic groups are the Muslim Hausa in the north, the Yoruba in the southwest and the Igbo in the southeast. Post-independence, citizens of Nigeria would probably have been, if not the happiest people in the world, at least happier had they been citizens of three sovereign countries, enabling each of the three major communities to construct a society compatible with its ethnic heritage. Probably, but not certainly – there is no certainty in such speculation.
The one event in Nigeria known by at least some Canadians (mostly those of my generation, the generation that came of age in the 1960s) is the fate of the Igbo-dominated breakaway republic of Biafra, which lasted from May 1967 to January 1970. It ended after the Yoruba- and Hausa-dominated army imposed a brutal blockade that resulted in mass starvation, with Biafran deaths estimated at approximately one million. It was a cause célèbre at the time: many contemporary rock stars sided with Biafra, and John Lennon returned his MBE (Member of the Order of the British Empire) because the U.K. supplied arms to the central government and thereby contributed to Biafra’s collapse.
The Igbo were not innocent lambs led to slaughter. Shortly after independence, political violence erupted, and Igbo elites participated in some of the politically inspired assassinations over the decade. In early 1967, leaders of the army and regional political leaders met in Aburi, Ghana, in an eleventh-hour attempt to avoid civil war. The core of the Aburi Accord was transformation of the country into a decentralized federation with significant powers accorded to each of three regions. All representatives at Aburi signed the accord, but General Yakubu Gowon, head of the national government, never allowed it to be proclaimed.
Soyinka’s roots are with the Yoruba. His family descended from the royal family of Isara, one of several Yoruba dynasties. His father was an Anglican pastor and school headmaster, his mother an ardent Christian feminist. In the years leading to Biafra’s secession, Soyinka held a comfortable position as Chair of Drama at the University of Ibadan, Nigeria’s first university to grant degrees. In a quixotic attempt to avoid the looming civil war, Soyinka secretly met with Colonel Ojukwu, military governor in the Igbo southeast. When his unofficial intervention became known, Soyinka was arrested and kept in solitary for nearly two years. Another quixotic attempt to hold politicians accountable came three decades later, in the 1990s. Soyinka publicly condemned Sani Abacha, the general then running the national government. Soyinka was obliged to flee Nigeria, which he did on his motorcycle. Abacha arranged a trial in absentia, which resulted in Soyinka’s being condemned to execution.
The Igbos lost their independence, but they have won the historical interpretation of events. Long after the civil war, in 2006, Chimamanda Adichie, an Igbo, published an award-winning novel, Half of a Yellow Sun (the title refers to Biafra’s flag).¹ The novel is the equivalent of Tolstoy’s treatment of Napoleon’s invasion of Russia. Another Igbo writer, Chinua Achebe, served as a Biafran cabinet minister during the war and 40 years later published his memoir, There was a Country.² The following is an excerpt from the memoir – the parallel with the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 is obvious:
Said Baroness Asquith in the British House of Lords, “Thanks to the miracle of television we see history happening before our eyes. We see no Igbo propaganda; we see the facts.” Following the blockade imposed by the Nigerian government, “Biafra” became synonymous with the tear-tugging imagery of starving babies with blown-out bellies, skulls with no subcutaneous fat harboring pale, sunken eyes in sockets that betrayed their suffering. Someone speaking in London in the House of Commons or the House of Lords would talk about history’s happening all around them, but for those of us on the ground in Biafra, where this tragedy continued to unfold, we used a different language … the language and memory of death and despair, suffering and bitterness. The agony was everywhere. The economic blockade put in place by Nigeria’s federal government resulted in shortages of every imaginable necessity, from food and clean water to blankets and medicines. The rations had gone from one meal a day to one meal every other day—to nothing at all. Widespread starvation and disease of every kind soon set in. The suffering of the children was the most heart-wrenching.
Achebe’s most famous novel is his first, published a decade prior to Biafran secession. Things Fall Apart is the iconic novel about cultural disruption arising from Europeans’ intrusion on Africa’s tribal societies. In English-language schools and universities throughout Africa, it is on all relevant reading lists. Achebe’s novel has been linked to Soyinka’s famous play, Death and the King’s Horseman, written in the 1970s. The play is inspired by an actual event: a colonial official prevented the suicide of the horseman of a recently deceased tribal chief. According to Yoruba tradition, once dead, the horseman guides the chief to his life after death. Like Achebe’s novel, the play deals with incompatibility of Western and traditional cultures. Soyinka wrote an introduction in which he insisted that the play was an indictment as much of traditional African culture that sanctioned suicide as of imperial hubris. The play is set during World War II, when modern “civilized” countries were engaged in an all-consuming war. In 2009, the Guardian interviewed Soyinka on a London performance of the play:
I find it necessary to caution the would-be producer of this play against a sadly familiar reductionist tendency … At the time , the tendency – in the theatre, the cinema and the novel – was to present everything that dealt with things outside western culture as being understandable only as a “clash of cultures”. This covered everything, and it encouraged analytical laziness.³
Soyinka is not a guerrilla opponent of a corrupt national government. He is among the elite of west Africa. His best historical precedent is perhaps Voltaire. On occasion, Voltaire avoided prison by fleeing abroad (to Switzerland); at other times, European royal circles feted him. Though a critic of the “ancien régime,” Voltaire did not share the revolutionary ideas of contemporaries such as Rousseau. Soyinka has refused to identify with Marxist colleagues who blame all on French and British colonialism. His critique: Third World Marxism is reductive and ignores the complex realities of postcolonial societies. Soyinka has taken his distance from Léopold Sédar Senghor’s ideas of négritude, which he views as a romantic attempt to paint precolonial African society as ideal.⁴ A recent documentary film has used asynchronous film clips of Senghor and Soyinka elaborating on their respective literary and political ideas.⁵
When I searched for a Canadian review of Soyinka’s Chronicles in a national newspaper, all I found was this squib in the Globe and Mail:
Half a century after his last novel, the playwright and Nobel-winner returns to the form with aplomb in a bustling satirical tale about contemporary Nigeria, one of whose most memorable characters is Kighare Menka, a surgeon who runs a lucrative side business selling the amputated limbs and organs of suicide-bombing victims.
The squib is a testament to parochialism among Globe journalists. Not only is the brevity an insult to Soyinka; the squib’s author lost the plot. Probably, he or she never read the novel. Far from running the “lucrative side business,” Menka plays the role of Voltaire’s Candide, the naive moralist horrified by the lucrative elite-managed secret society that sells amputated limbs. The source of body parts is Boko Haram’s tactics and application of shari’a in northern Nigeria. (Spoiler alert: at the head of the society are the Machiavellian Nigerian prime minister and a prominent religious leader in the tradition of Sinclair Lewis’s Elmer Gantry.)
Chronicles has parallels with Dostoyevsky’s finale, The Brothers Karamazov. In both novels, a whodunit mystery is a central plot device enabling the exhaustive discussion of a wide range of human behaviours and beliefs among closely entwined characters who enter into multiple conversations. Not until the final chapter in each novel does the reader discover who murdered a central character. The Brothers Karamazov was Dostoyevsky’s last major piece of writing; given his age, Chronicles may well be Soyinka’s. I hope not.
A Novel Written at the End of an Artist’s Tether
by Ben Okri
Ben Okri is a Nigerian poet and novelist, forced to flee his country in the 1970s. He won the Booker prize with his novel The Famished Road. Reprinted by permission from the Guardian, September 27, 2021.
Soyinka’s new novel tells the multidimensional story of a secret society dealing in human parts for sacrificial uses, whose members encompass the highest political and religious figures in the land. It details how the conspiracy and cover-up of this quasi-organisation affect not only the life of the nation but, more specifically, the lives of four friends. This is essentially a whistleblower’s book. It is a novel that explodes criminal racketeering of a most sinister and deadly kind that is operating in an African nation uncomfortably like Nigeria. It is a vivid and wild romp through a political landscape riddled with corruption and opportunism and a spiritual landscape riddled with fraudulence and, even more disquietingly, state-sanctioned murder. This is a novel written at the end of an artist’s tether. It has gone beyond satire. It is a vast danse macabre. It is the work of an artist who finally has found the time and the space to unleash a tale about all that is rotten in the state of Nigeria. No one else can write such a book and get away with it and still live and function in the very belly of the horrors revealed. But then no other writer has Soyinka’s unique positioning in the political and cultural life of his nation.
Chronicles from the Land of the Happiest People on Earth opens with the sentence: “Papa Davina … preferred to craft his own words of wisdom. Such, for instance, was his famous ‘perspective is all.’” This alerts us from the beginning that we need aesthetic distance to make sense of the twists and turns, the baroque engineering, the curious structure and the paradoxically exuberant tone of this strange novel.
Papa Davina is the religious guru, whose all-purpose spiritual ministry, Ekumenica, is an elaborate front for practices so sordid and monstrous that even when one learns what they are the mind still refuses to grasp them. He is in cahoots with the head of state, the wily and pragmatic Sir Goddie, and it seems that this racket, this secret society, encompasses the entire power structure of the land. Is this a metaphor for the extreme nature of corruption and lies that strangles the life out of that potentially great nation or is it a case where the metaphor is in fact the thing itself? If the latter, then the writer is dealing with one of the most existential problems in fiction, which is how a writer deals with the unspeakable in a medium in which things must be spoken of and a story told. How do you tell a story of the unspeakable?
Soyinka is one of Africa’s most representative writers. A poet, playwright, essayist, memoirist, activist and novelist, he was jailed in the 60s for his outspoken condemnation of the Nigerian civil war and was the first African recipient of the Nobel prize for literature in 1986. He has been one of the most caustic critics of dictatorships and bad governance in Nigeria.ᵃ This novel is the fruit of all that experience. It is his first in 48 years and only his third. His debut, The Interpreters, was the story of a generation of friends, each one representing one of the gods or goddesses of the Yoruba pantheon. It opens with the sentence: “Metal on concrete jars my drink lobes.” His second, Season of Anomy, was his fictional and poetic response to the Nigerian civil war. In the intervening years he has written more than 20 plays, poems, autobiographies, polemics and various forms of literary hand grenades. Apparently it took the forced solitude of lockdown to compel him to finally write the novel he has carried in him for some time.
It is a portrait of how a generation betrays and is betrayed by the prevailing ethos of moral entropy At the heart of Chronicles … is the tale of a quartet of friends who form themselves into a fraternity called the Gong of Four and how they maintain their integrity and are drawn into the maelstrom of political life that surrounds them. In a microcosmic sense it is a portrait of how a generation betrays and is betrayed by the prevailing ethos of moral entropy.
One thing to be clear about from the outset is that with certain writers of highly individualised voices, highly cultivated ways of seeing, there is nothing you can do about their styles. It is an inescapable fruit of how they see the world. Like Henry James,ᵇ like Conrad, like Nabokov,ᶜ there is no choice but to get used to the style, to saturate yourself in it. But once you nestle into that tone, something wonderful happens and a rollercoaster ride of enormous vitality is the result.
It is a high-wire performance sustained for more than 400 pages and it makes for uncomfortable and despairing reading, but always elevated with a robust sense of humour and the true satirist’s unwillingness to take the pretensions of power seriously, even when it is murderous in effect.
There are many things to remark upon in this Vesuvius of a novel, not least its brutal excoriation of a nation in moral free fall. The wonder is how Soyinka managed to formulate a tale that can carry the weight of all that chaos. With asides that are polemics, facilitated with a style that is over-ripe, its flaws are plentiful, its storytelling wayward, but the incandescence of its achievement makes these quibbles inconsequential.
If you want to know what kind of novel can be written by someone who has survived as a sort of insider in a difficult land but who has kept their creative conscience and their powers of invention alive then Chronicles… answers that question. It is Soyinka’s greatest novel, his revenge against the insanities of the nation’s ruling class and one of the most shocking chronicles of an African nation in the 21st century. It ought to be widely read.
ᵃ See Alison Flood, Wole Soyinka Protests Imprisonment of Nigerian Humanist Mubarak Bala, The Guardian, August 6, 2020.
ᵇ See Henry James, The Guardian.
ᶜ See Ian Thompson, Letters to Véra by Vladimir Nabokov Review – Scenes from a Happy Marriage, The Guardian, November 9, 2014.
¹ See Rob Nixon, A Biafran Story, New York Times, October 1, 2006.
² See Justin Cartwright, There was a Country by Chinua Achebe – Review, The Guardian, August 4, 2013.
³ Andrew Gumbel, Wole Soyinka on How He Came to Write Death and the King’s Horseman, The Guardian, April 8, 2009.
⁴ See Poets.org, A Brief Guide to Négritude, May 22, 2004.
⁵ Manthia Diawara, Negritude: A Dialogue between Wole Soyinka and Senghor (USA, France, Germany and Portugal, 2015).