The Man Died Essay - Critical Essays

Wole Soyinka


The structural principle underlying The Man Died defines its meaning: Survival, not only of the individual but also of human values such as justice and integrity, is not merely an individual matter but also a communal and even cosmic process that nevertheless takes place within the individual mind. Its psychic completion requires contact with the worlds of the living and of the spirits. As Soyinka goes through the cyclic continuum during his two years in prison, each repetition becomes more intense, the isolation and threat to sanity greater, and the victory and affirmation more complete.

The first cycle, coinciding with the first long section, “Ibadan-Lagos,” finds Soyinka at “E” Branch (“Gestapo Headquarters”) for interrogation by Mallam D., in the hospital for a physical examination, in Kiri-Kiri Minimum Security Prison, and in Shaki Maximum Security Prison. Despite being under arrest and even put in chains, Soyinka at first experiences a false sense of security. A series of scenes— the momentary empathetic meeting with a woman prisoner, the confrontational dialogues with Mallam D., the humiliating physical examination by the prison doctor, the commentary on the two soldiers given special treatment as prisoners because they had killed an Ibo—shows him fully in control of his emotions. Then the crisis sets in: He learns that there will be an attempt on his life and then, when he helps foil that, he learns that the government is framing him and is claiming that he has tried to escape. At this time, he is placed in isolation at Shaki Maximum Security Prison. Soyinka is torn by paranoia. He cannot distinguish his frantic fears from reality. He tries to make the truth known, but not until he knows that his statement has been published does he begin to recover his sanity. The government must not be able to victimize him; his name must not be used to cover the sins of the regime.

In chapters 11 and 12, Soyinka describes the transition experience as a nightmare that repeats in imagery an experience he had had as a student helping flood victims in Holland rebuild their homes. Now he is the victim, relying upon unseen coworkers to toss him the bricks to lay on the mortar. He specifically calls his madness a “ritual of transition,” during which “time vanished”; by describing his experience as a repetition of Ogun’s voyage of reconstruction, Soyinka gives it meaning. He quotes Pablo Picasso’s assertion, “I do not seek; I find”; this aphorism obliquely states the theme of The Man Died. Soyinka opposes Picasso’s attitude to the tragic stance that is the Western world’s legacy from the Greeks. “Tragic loftiness,” he says, is a “trap,” a “historic conspiracy” to make people content with failure. Soyinka learns from this first transition experience that one does not have to settle for tragedy but can with an act of will and the aid of other human beings survive the threat of annihilation.

A second cycle of ordeal-survival-affirmation, in the second large section of the memoir, begins with Soyinka’s transfer to an isolation cell at the prison in Kaduna in December of 1967. Much more sober and less naive than before, Soyinka depicts his situation as a hell. He sees only two choices before him: “violence or surrender.” Beyond the walls of his cell are “cries of souls in torment,” and the dry cold wind of the Harmattan cracks his skin until he learns to use margarine to moisturize it. Still, he maintains his lucidity as he rejects an offer by the government to transfer his university salary to his wife as “hush-money”; he learns through conversations with the prison superintendent that the massacres of Ibos were not spontaneous; and he manages to persuade the authorities to let him use the prison library for three weeks. Then the superintendent closes him off entirely by sealing the square peephole in the door to his isolation block. Thus begins the second entry into transition. He realizes later that the sealing of the peephole is the definitive act which “kills” him, makes his cell into a crypt. He begins to hear voices from the dead: his grandfather; the assassinated Lieutenant Colonel Adekunle Fajuyi, whom Soyinka trusted as a new leader in Nigeria; and Victor Banjo, a revolutionary leader of the Third Force.

The political nature of these recollections leads Soyinka to a brief statement of political theory and the function of war in the political process: “It must shatter the foundations of thought and re-create.” This theory parallels the psychic disintegration in the void and just precedes Soyinka’s deepest penetration...

(The entire section is 1895 words.)