Wole Soyinka won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1986, the first black person to win the award. He is perhaps the most versatile of African writers, equally relevant in all genres; Dramatic masterpieces such as Kongi’s Harvestand Death and the King’s Horseman, produced all over the world. The poetry anthology, Poems of Black Africa (1975), remains the most authoritative showcase of the writings of the first generation of post-colonial African poets, from Agostinho Neto to Léopold Senghor to Dennis Brutus, now a rapidly declining generation with Soyinka. One of the few remaining, 87, still publishes books every year. He makes an excellent poster figure: imprisoned, exiled, after his enthusiasm for independence from colonial Europeans, he is constantly trying to reform his country by publishing books criticizing corrupt rulers who pick up exactly where they left off using the same playbook. divide and rule.
His two novels, The Interpreters (1965) and Season of Anomy (1973), were less praised than his poetry and dramas. But nearly 50 years later, Soyinka says, we have Diaries from the Country of the Happiest People on Earth, written to relieve boredom during the pandemic. The headline refers to one of the mysterious internet surveys that placed Nigeria at number 1 in the world on the “happiness index” a few years ago. The irony of this permeates the entire book.
Convincing people that they are happy is done in typical Nigerian fashion, with extravagant, televised awards ceremonies. Another way is to keep the public enslaved by religion – again, one of these online surveys found Nigeria to be the most religious country in the world. One of the most energetic and enigmatic characters in the book is Bishop Teribogo, whom Soyinka’s genealogy readers can easily trace from the plays of Jero to Brother Jero of Jero. Formally, the book repeats The Interpreters. It is largely unplanned, held together by a series of events and characters and their relationships and interactions with each other. The four main characters were educated at the British universities where they first met and returned to Nigeria with the dream of returning to their country. Much of the book’s conflict comes when this idealism is confronted with social indifference and material pursuit.
We meet them at a moment of transition. Duyole Pitan-Payne, a talented electrical engineer, goes to the UN as Nigerian representative. Dr. Kighare Menka, a prestigious award-winning surgeon, is forced to move to Lagos, where he is hosted by Pitan-Payne and his wife due to circumstances. Prince Badeona is a creative accountant drawn into the circle of dangerous money launderers. It ends in prison, a subplot that reflects Soyinka’s own experiences. And finally, there is Teribogo, the self-inventing preacher whose mission is to unite the country’s different religions under one ecumenical roof for his own personal gain: Islam, Christianity, traditional beliefs, and even Zoroastrianism.
Chronicles are written in what critics would describe as “late style”: somewhat long, often lengthy and anecdotal. He is also bold and names names and points fingers. One of the delights is the ease with which Soyinka transitions from high to nonsense between recordings, with Soyinka’s “Nigerianism” and unapologetic use of the Yoruba language. There is a long monologue in English near the end of the book, in which a butler named Godsown comically describes a crime he witnessed. Perhaps the author’s personality seems larger than any character he portrays, but then, as most readers will tell you, that’s exactly what they want from Soyinka: witty anecdotes, tweens, even the famous linguistic ambiguity and exaggeration. There is a restless intellectual energy here that belies the author’s age.
Chronicles are a good model for what the political novel should be: fearless, contemptuous of official restraints, outspoken, corrupted by corrupt politicians, military dictators, religious charlatans and social parasites, and even the masses, made the tool of the elite in the name of religion and tribe. In the end, it is a triumph of the novel as a form: its ability to accommodate all styles and approaches. How lucky we are that Soyinka decided to try this form once again.