On the bookshelf
Chronicles of the land of the happiest people in the world
By Wole Soyinka
Pantheon: 464 pages, $ 28
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A new work by a Nobel Laureate is usually a cause for celebration, but in the case of Wole Soyinka, it is especially meaningful. It has been almost 50 years since he published his latest novel, “The Interpreters,“ and although her work has spanned several genres – poetry, plays, memoirs and essays – her new novel, “Chronicles from the Land of the Happiest People on Earth”, manages to trace new territory. At 87, the first Sub-Saharan author to be honored by Stockholm remains a brilliant thinker and handyman. “Chronicles” combines elements of a mysterious murder, searing political satire, and a modern “Alice in Wonderland” allegory of power and deception.
The novel picks up just as Nigeria – or the author’s replacement for his home country – prepares to celebrate its annual People of Happiness Festival, another example of official double talk. The ruling People on the Move (“POMP”) party has turned the country into a vast, harmless reality TV show even as violence, fanaticism and ruthless looting wreak havoc across the country. But when Dr Kighare Menka, famous for dealing with mutilated victims of Boko Haram, stumbles across a black market in human body parts, the nation’s horrific secrets begin to surface.
And that’s just the start of the plots, which range from a quack preacher named Papa Divina to the president, Sir Godfrey O. Danfere. The mysterious death of Menka’s blood brother Duyole Pitan-Payne – who came of age with Menka during the hopeful early years of independence – tightens the web of intrigue. What did he know? Who wanted her dead? And when, exactly, did Nigeria fall so low? These and other questions – personal, moral, social and political – seep into Soyinka’s comic and sour vision of his country’s “dark contest of human, physical and mental desecration”. Soyinka spoke to The Times by email about the new book, his homeland and his own legacy.
I’m curious how long this book germinated and why this story demanded the form of a novel.
A long time, certainly almost two decades. However, the themes emerged in other, mostly controversial, forms. Let’s say that she found a temporary outlet in my local interventions, both literary and political. So it was built in the mind. With that kind of pressure – much like a flood behind a retaining wall – only the cascade of prose seemed empowered to bear the burden of liberation.
Have there been any unexpected challenges in writing a novel after such a long time?
Mainly technical. I work – like most – directly from my laptop. I’m not a sequential writer, so each session doesn’t necessarily pick up the story where it left off. Now imagine returning to work where you left off. thought you had left your characters. The more often you click that “save” button, the deeper you get into a hole – no, multiple tunnels.
You started writing during the first days of the pandemic, away from your home in Nigeria. Was it out of necessity or out of preference?
No, I started working just before the pandemic. I needed to physically move away from the challenging environment to be able to cope with it, and in total isolation. Two sessions of about eight days each – one in Dakar, the other in Ghana – I necessary those, even to begin with. Then the pandemic locked me in my own wooded house, with just my characters for company. The heavy stuff took over, for three or four months. Not a recommended diet.
The headline is facetious, but it was inspired by a genuine report on Nigeria’s high rating in a global optimism survey.
Sometimes I even suggest that the novel write itself, with the overwhelming array of occurrences in the manic vein. To meet a report that this land, hanging on a marginal survival index, is ranked high on the “happiness” scale – it scatters your brain! But then you also understand. Just recently, a carnival wedding party was held. The bride was the president’s daughter, and more than a hundred private jets carried guests from all corners of the country. I had foolishly imagined that the nation was in mourning, with a thousand students still being held captive by religious fundamentalist freaks and other homicidal maniacs.
This novel can be read in a number of ways, but, in the end, it moves at the pace of a thriller. Was this something you wanted to try?
I have always dreamed of writing a mystery, there is no doubt about it. In high school, I ate detective stories. Well, as “Chronicles” progressed, my long suppressed antennas sniffed an opening and that was it. I backed up and made some sideways adjustments. So it’s gratifying to receive comments that this is some kind of thriller. Finally: Idunnit!
How much did you want to stick to the realities of present-day Nigeria and what artistic license did you grant yourself?
It would be useless to deny that I wanted Nigerians to see themselves in work. Yes it is consciously a I accuse both of power and of the destitute. And I drove my African editor to the distraction just so the work could come out in time for Nigeria’s 60th independence anniversary last year. And guess what? The government announced that the celebrations would be spectacular and would last a whole year! Notice, the anniversary project was just dropped. Left to flow quietly into the government sump.
You openly criticized the abuse of power. You tore up your American green card when Trump was elected in 2016. I’m interested in how you viewed the Black Lives Matter protests last year.
Black Lives Matter was long overdue, its tempo simply accelerated roughly with the entry of Donald Trump and what he represented. It was a psychic liberation. Trump was the revenge of American racism to the shock of the unforgivable Obama. I hope, by the way, that “Chronicles” is not seen as a simple criticism of its own government. It is intended to also accuse us, the governed, as a people who have abandoned the human values that this same society imprinted in my upbringing. Yes, I would give a lot to force Nigeria to accept that Black Lives do Matter!
You’ve said before that winning the 1986 Nobel Prize came with a heavy burden – in short, it was “hell”. But it also gave you a powerful platform. Is this something that you have learned to embrace?
Remember, I had a “platform” even before the Nobel Prize. I had and regularly exercised this voice. The Nobel, however, began to make the voice hoarse and brittle because of the expectations and demands. Worst of all, I lost even my remnants of anonymity. This is the unrecognized part, and one that I still have to come to terms with.
As the first Black African Nobel Prize winner, you have also had a huge impact on contemporary African writing. How do you think this has changed over the past half century?
Yes, the award sparked literary emulation – not imitation, thank goodness – that manifested itself in more daring and confident writing among the young African generation. That alone was gratifying. Young women writers in particular.
When you look at your work, which works do you think represent your greatest legacy?
No, no, I never think in terms of inheritance. And I can honestly say I’m quite comfortable with any genre – from poetry to controversy. The theme appeals to the medium, and one can only aspire to be a faithful conduit!
Tepper has written for the New York Times Book Review, Vanity Fair, and Air Mail, among others.