As a Nigerian writing in the English language, Wole Soyinka was forced to work in relative obscurity for a long time. As his body of work grew, however, so did his reputation, and today he is looked upon as Nigeria’s foremost exponent of Afro-European literature. It is even safe to say that he has now become a kind of one-man cultural force in his native land, with the sort of international influence only writers of genuine greatness can affect or claim.
Soyinka’s primary achievements lie in the field of drama. He was a leader in the birth and development of an authentic Nigerian theater, and he has written several plays which, grounded in native culture, have a universal appeal and impact. His body of poetry is less accessible, particularly to a reader unfamiliar with African history and culture. At his best, however, Soyinka writes the kind of verse which stirs the imagination and conscience, whatever one’s background happens to be. In the area of fiction, Soyinka’s contribution to modern literature is less certain. Always experimenting with the possibilities of assimilating the aesthetic and cultural approaches of both the African and Western worlds, he seems not yet to have found a natural way to do this in his novels. Thus, perhaps his venture into fictive autobiography may have been at least partly brought on by this strategic frustration. Whatever first prompted him to consider writing Aké: The Years of Childhood, composing the book must have been especially gratifying artistically, since it provided him with a traditional format in which he could resolve the technical problems which have marred his fiction.
Soyinka’s novels have been persistently troubled with meandering or uncertain form and with cultural ambiguity or confusion. In Aké, Soyinka combines a chronological direction with a dramatic strategy of a child’s step-by-step, or crisis-by-crisis, initiation into intelligent awareness. This approach, which contrasts favorably with the narrative strategies of his fiction, provides his account with the kind of unfolding, fateful quality essential to an initiation story. As for the problem of cultural ambiguity, it seems to be resolved less in a technical than in a cunningly imaginative way. Soyinka still has not learned to join his various cultural cross-references with the harmony he desires, yet this seems to matter less in Aké than in Soyinka’s novels, mainly because here, one is seeing everything through the eyes of a very young boy. Being so young, the boy is often not quite clear about the life which surrounds him. When such confusion reflects cultural matters, it seems a natural consequence of youth. Thus, the occasional bewilderment and allusive ambivalence only add to the dramatic perception of a young mind struggling (and not always succeeding) to understand a confusing world.
In addition, Aké is a successful book because it unites all of Soyinka’s most characteristic strengths. The story features many descriptive sections which rise with a poetic power of insight and richly suggestive meaning. The passages of dialogue, always vivid and energetic, carry forward Soyinka’s thematic concerns. The language throughout is consciously chosen to reflect the imaginative, direct, and rhythmic qualities of folk art at its best. Above all, Aké is distinguished by its narrative intelligence—an intelligence at once charming, angry, satirical, intensely observant, and profoundly moral.
The story begins when Soyinka is about three years old, in the mid-1930’s, a time when the European influence was felt in Africa, but not to the extent that the old ways were seriously threatened. To emphasize this point, Soyinka describes Aké and the surrounding area where he grew up in terms which stress its mixture of lyrical extravagance and powerful mystery—the appropriate tone for introducing a memoir. By establishing this tone at the start, however, Soyinka also means to introduce a bitterly nostalgic theme, the theme of the death of faith. As Soyinka will make increasingly plain in the story, the boy’s gradual loss of the sense of magic anticipates a society’s religious decadence. While the boy grows in intellectual awareness, and his eyes see the world more and more clearly, he is less and less puzzled and frightened by the various native superstitions, mystical rituals, or inherited beliefs. This is as it should be, except that as a result, there is a loss of that wonder which distinguishes a child—or a society which values religious mystery more than sophistication.
An exceedingly precocious child, Soyinka took it upon himself one day to go to school when he was not yet three years old. This event, described with great warmth and...