Further thoughts on Soyinka

Further thoughts on Soyinka

Having concluded my piece “Soyinka at 86” a few weeks ago, I do not wish to go banging on interminably about Chronicles of the Happiest People on Earth—or more specifically about the title of Wole Soyinka’s monstrous new novel. After all, banging on interminably is one of the accusations I was levelling at Soyinka.

Before, nonetheless, banging on, I want to make it clear that I believe Soyinka is the greatest writer Africa has produced, and certainly the most challenging. He has also been a constant champion of the principle that the writer should be an active critic of the ills of his / her society, and has suffered for standing by this principle, with spells of imprisonment in, and exile from, Nigeria. Dictators and exploiters rightly fear him. I am looking forward to reading his 2019 poetry collection on the abduction of the Chibok girls by Boko Haram, in the hope that Soyinka remains a great poet.

I have to say also that my personal encounters with Soyinka, in the UK, France and Lesotho, have always been extremely amicable, though I am painfully aware of spats—sometimes vituperative—he has had with friends and colleagues.

But very recently some of Soyinka’s work as a writer has become pretty ragged. To reference another great Nigerian author, one fears that things may be falling apart. Soyinka has made vacuous threats against two academics, Caroline Davis and Juliana Spahr, who have dug up again the case of Soyinka, indirectly, and probably without his knowledge, receiving funding from the CIA for some of his early theatre and research projects. As I reported a few weeks ago, I haven’t read Spahr’s work, but Davis is meticulous in accusing him of nothing worse than carelessness or naivety. I am assured that, were Soyinka to attempt to take Davis and Spahr to court, he would not stand a cat’s chance in hell. A colleague tells me that Spahr’s work is documented with official US diplomatic cables, some of them obtained through Wikileaks (hey, the plot thickens…)

The new novel, Chronicles of the Happiest People on Earth, offers plenty of evidence that Soyinka might be losing the plot a bit: its inordinate length and its multitude of errors (why on earth wasn’t the thing copy-edited?) Recently a colleague pointed out to me an error I overlooked, Soyinka’s use of the phrase “snooker stick” rather then “snooker cue.” Maybe he was confusing snooker with hockey? There’s also an unintentionally hilarious reference to the film director Cecil. B. deMIlle as Cecilia De Mille.

To get down to more serious stuff, since writing the earlier part of this article I have been reminded of comments Soyinka made at an African Writers’ conference held in Stockholm in 1967. Here he was addressing a theme very dear to his heart, the responsibilities of writers as critics of their society. He said: “when the writer in his society can no longer function as conscience, he must recognise that his choice lies between denying himself totally or withdrawing to the position of chronicler and post-mortem surgeon.”

Soyinka here used the term “chronicler” (and the qualifier “mere” can be inferred) to refer to a writer who is not up to scratch, not fully adequate to his / her responsibilities. And—bearing in mind that one of the major characters in Chronicles, the novel he was to publish over 40 years after his Stockholm speech, is the surgeon Menka—I assume he used the term “post-mortem surgeon” to suggest the writer’s lot in a society that has expired, because it has not received and responded to corrective criticism.
If this is the case and if Soyinka stands by the comments quoted above, does his use of the word Chronicles in the title of his novel suggest he can no longer regard himself as an entirely serious writer?

Were this to be so it would at least absolve me from the responsibility of reading the book he has published since Chronicles, a non-fiction work titled Trumpism in Academe: The Example of Caroline Davis and Spahring Partners (a title that aims, nastily, below the belt). Having said that, I might just be tempted to get hold of the book to savour other material it contains (or so friends who have been brave enough to read it inform me), including an account of an early, doomed attempt to get a film made of his play The Lion and the Jewel, a project headed, would you believe, by one of the producers of the early James Bond films, and to star Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor (in blackface??). That bit could be fun.

Chris Dunton

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