tue 05/03/2024

Wole Soyinka: Chronicles from the Land of the Happiest People on Earth review – sprawling satire of modern-day Nigeria | reviews, news & interviews

Wole Soyinka: Chronicles from the Land of the Happiest People on Earth review – sprawling satire of modern-day Nigeria

Wole Soyinka: Chronicles from the Land of the Happiest People on Earth review – sprawling satire of modern-day Nigeria

The Nobel Laureate ends a 48 year wait for his third novel

Wole Soyinka

Eight-years passed between the publication of Wole Soyinka’s debut novel, The Interpreters (1965), and his second, Season of Anomy (1973). A lot happened in the interim.

One of Nigeria’s most resilient critics of corruption and dictatorship, Soyinka was arrested in 1965 for raiding a radio station at gunpoint, and replacing a tape of a recorded speech by the then-president of Western Nigeria, Ladoke Akintola, with another – accusing Akintola of electoral malpractice. The crime brought two years in solitary confinement for Soyinka, who was released a few months later, then assuming the role of Headmaster and senior lecturer within the English department of the University of Lagos, and Chair of Drama at the University of Ibadan. For his attempts to broker peace in 1967, Soyinka was imprisoned again, remaining there for the duration of the Nigerian Civil War before his eventual release in October 1969. In the face of a deteriorating political situation, Soyinka embarked upon a voluntary exile – first to Paris, and later to Cambridge, where he served as a visiting fellow at Churchill College. It was there that Soyinka would write one of his most celebrated plays to-date, Death and the King's Horseman (1975).

Consider, then, how much has transpired during the forty-eight years wait for Soyinka’s third novel, released this year. Chronicles from the Land of the Happiest People on Earth (2021) condenses nearly five decades’ worth of brewing anger and activist sentiment into a dense and sprawling text, which loosely assumes the shape of an amateur detective drama. The Land in question is a slapstick caricature of Nigerian society in several degrees of chaos, its landscape one of “elephant-trap potholes”, “military-assisted police extortion checkpoints”, and “kamikaze drivers drugged to the gills on all brands of affordable hallucinogens”. It is a world of surface over substance: under the rule of the “People on the Move Party” (POMP), daily life revolves around a barrage of Orwellian celebrations of false virtue, including “Yeoman of the Year” and “P.A.C.T.” (the “People’s Award for the Common Touch”), with nominees such as the politician who once drank from a calabash, and another, “Ubenzy’, whose name has been self-styled after Mercedes Benz: “the status symbol after independence before the motor car was displaced by the private jet”. This is satire, with a thin veil.

Amid the vice, the plot of Chronicles revolves around the mysterious “Human Resources”, a black-market organisation dealing in the trade of human spare parts, with ties to a web of high-profile figures including the shadowy preacher Papa Davina, and the prime minister, Sir Godfrey Danfere. There is a sleuth on their tail, however: the surgeon Dr. Kighare Menka, a reluctant member of Nigeria’s celebrity class, on account of his work tending to the victims of a Boko Haram massacre. Menka is approached by a group of representatives from Human Resources, in the hope that he will contribute to their supply. Refusing, he instead commits himself to the unveiling their crimes. In this, Menka is aided by his “bosom friend”, the effusive engineer and entrepreneur Duyole Pitan-Payne – yet another to enjoy celebrity status, following his recent appointee to the United Nations.

When Soyinka was presented with the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1986, he became the first African laureate in the process. For those unfamiliar with the achievements of this celebrated poet, playwright, and novelist, however, Chronicles offers a poor sample of Soyinka’s work. Menka’s investigation falls through almost as soon as it has begun – an indication of insurmountable effort required to recover Nigerian society, but resulting also in a novel that boasts a surprising lack of direction, despite the hundreds of pages given over to description and context. Along the way, characters fall into irrelevance, others are kept frustratingly distant by prose that is unnatural, even disorientating. Consider this line, commenting upon a funeral procession: “It would appear that it was not merely stentorian grieving that proved contagious among that motley assemblage of the bereft”. Nor even can basic descriptions escape Soyinka’s thesaurus: Menka’s face, he tells us, is “lightly scarified”. Insignificant in isolation, yet the frequency of these moments is relentless. Their sum is to disrupt all readerly momentum, leaving Chronicles with the feel of a thing unfinished.

This is not to say that Chronicles roams without merit. Death announces itself into the novel like “a sinkhole opened up in the midst of a crowded intersection, precipitating a welcome shift in focus away from Soyinka’s Nigerian satire, and towards a more nuanced assessment of the tensions that inhere between local traditions and culture and an imperious West. It is the latest chapter in a career-long engagement with such themes, and a reminder of the work that secured Soyinka's place at the high table of contemporary writing.


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