Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

The choice of a short story is especially appropriate for the material, as a short story’s few pages represent approximately what condemned prisoners could write on their last night. Having Bana write to his childhood girlfriend lends credibility to his confession to his cellmates that he wants to explain the meaning and significance of their pleading guilty to a sympathetic human being. Because Bana and Zole are not really close anymore, the primary bond that ties them is something like the universal human sympathy the author may hope for from his readers. Therefore, the letter is as much directed to the general human population as to a fictional character.

This stylistic idea is reinforced by Zole’s name. The phonetic closeness of “Zole” to “soul” immediately strikes Saro-Wiwa’s fellow English readers. It may also represent an allusion to the writer’s Nigerian friend, fellow author Wole Soyinka, who chose the alternative of exile over possible death at the hands of the military dictatorship, leaving Nigeria in 1994 and not returning until after democracy was restored in 1999.

Bana’s moral stand to face capital punishment for his actions, even though the application of the law is clearly unjust, is built on a model with long Western literary tradition. In Plato’s famous account of the Greek philosopher Socrates, the philosopher’s friend Crito is prepared to offer a bribe so that Socrates will be released from jail and spared execution, but the philosopher refuses this option because of his absolute belief that citizens have to obey the legal system of their country, even when its sentences are unjust. In addition, Albert Camus’s existentialist hero Meursault, in L’Étranger (1942; The Stranger, 1946), faces his death sentence rather than shedding a few hypocritical tears for his dead mother. In the hands of Saro-Wiwa, Bana becomes a kind of African Socrates and Meursault by his own valiant refusal to give in to the temptation of corruption in his native Nigeria.