The Man Died is one of many literary works that help document the chaos in African countries soon after independence: the struggles for power, the corruption, the conflicts between African and Western ideologies and between tribal and national interests, the seeming inability to accommodate traditional values to the modern world. Specifically, in Nigeria, Soyinka was caught up in a struggle in which the tribal power structures in the north and east resisted containment by a central national authority. Soyinka sought peaceful means and reconciliation at a time when the various factions preferred war.
The work is especially important in understanding Soyinka’s own role in these struggles and his literary response to them. The memoir records a dramatic turning point in his career. The mythological event that gives it shape and meaning— Ogun’s victory over the abyss—was not new to Soyinka’s work, but in The Man Died it emerged as a much more active, creative, and metaphysical principle, one which has informed all of his subsequent works. The phrase, “shuttle in the crypt,” his image of the creative mind in transition, became the title of his next collection of poems. His novel Season of Anomy (1973) is a fictionalized version of his role in the civil war and borrows its title from the “anomy” Soyinka saw about him and experienced in prison. Its hero makes journeys to the north and east, sees the atrocities at first hand, becomes involved with a “third force,” is torn between Eastern mysticism and active involvement, is thrown into prison and survives through an act of the will, and undergoes the transition experience. In Myth, Literature, and the African World (1976), Soyinka analyzes the Ogun myth and uses its fundamental principle of re-creative social vision to explain his own literary works and to critique those of other African writers. Finally, the uncompromising attitude he developed in composing The Man Died affected his major form, the drama—most strikingly Madmen and Specialists (1970)—and his commitment to justice within the political arena, as is clear from the political focus in his Nobel Prize address in 1986, dedicated to Nelson Mandela and the oppressed peoples of South Africa. It is an attitude captured in his account of the naming of his memoir: “The man dies in all who keep silent in the face of tyranny.”