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Last Updated on February 25, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 564

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The Interpreters is a 1965 novel by Wole Soyinka set in Nigeria in the wake of its independence from Britain. The novel stylistically rejects established norms. There is no central, driving plot; rather, the chapters are a series of scenes and descriptions that chronologically follow a group of five characters over a period of months. This chronology is interrupted by flashbacks, memories, and projections into the future. The Interpreters explores the lives of new African elites who have taken over from European occupiers. The central characters are friends from high school who are returning from studies in foreign universities and entering middle-class professions. They attempt to solve the moral decadence that plagues Nigerian society, each trying to “interpret” himself in relation to the society they inhabit and discover the right way to live.

The novel is divided into two sections and set between Lagos and Ibadan, a university city, across a period of several months during the rainy season. There are five main characters: the foreign ministry clerk Egbo, the university professor Bandele, the journalist Sagoe, the engineer-sculptor Sekoni, and the artist Kola. Each is presented as a type and each has his own way of interpreting the world. But through their shared upbringing and camaraderie as self-identified intellectuals, there is a degree of commonality in their worldviews. Throughout the novel, the main characters search for identity and morality, expressing contemporary anxieties about the future of Nigeria. The novel presents a tension between those who conform to the old colonial status quo and those who resist that status quo in favor of a renewed, authentic culture.

Each of the central characters has his own particular dilemmas and experiences that, taken together, allow the novel to reflect on Nigeria as a whole. Egbo, for example, is the grandson of a tribal chief, and his story centers around his dilemma of whether to return to his fishing village, Osa, and assume his position as chief or leave his village behind and adapt to the new Nigeria. This dilemma is representative of the newly independent nation’s conflict between valuing heritage on the one hand and valuing a new landscape of opportunity on the other. This dilemma is compounded by his love affairs with two women, one of whom is pregnant with his child. The old culture permits polygamy, whereas the new culture demands he make a choice.

Meanwhile, Sagoe is a journalist who enjoys philosophy and intellect sparring with his brilliant fiancée, Dehinwa. He participates in and observes several adventures: two funeral processions, an encounter with an evangelical preacher named Lazarus, and strange confrontations with “respectable” society. As is true of Egbo, Sagoe’s narrative elucidates the tensions of postcolonial Nigeria as much as they do Sagoe’s particular character arc.

Sekoni’s narrative ends abruptly with his death. One rainy morning, he speeds down the highway and collides with a lorry. It is a highly symbolic death. In an echo of Modernist works, the scene represents the fragility of the human body and its destruction by technology. At another level, it represents the intelligentsia being destroyed by the political technocrats it has set out to support.

Cumulatively, these interpreters of the new Nigeria explore a society dominated by confusion, social climbing, corruption, and moral decadence. The novel moves slowly towards a resolution as each character becomes more aware of the reality of their collective situation.


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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 756

The Interpreters has no central plot; it is instead a sequence of dramatic scenes and lyric descriptions that follow a chronological line, interrupted by periodic flashbacks and recollections, during the rainy season in Nigeria from May through July. The action shifts from Lagos and the university city of Ibadan to the back country and lagoons outside populated areas. The main characters are university graduates, who have studied and traveled abroad and have just returned to Nigeria because of the country’s newly obtained independence. These intellectuals, interpreters of the new Nigeria, are trying to find their way within the new political structure, within a society dominated by confusion, insensitivity, social climbing, and corruption. One thing that holds the novel together is the gradual movement of the interpreters Bandele, Egbo, Biodun Sagoe, Kola, Sekoni toward an awareness of their situation.

The first story that Wole Soyinka introduces is that of Egbo, the grandson and heir of a tribal chief and warlord. His dilemma is whether he should return to the old village and assume his powers and privileges (including polygamy) or abandon them and adapt to the new Nigeria. By delaying his return (he does make one abortive trip toward his home country), he in effect chooses to remain in the present, though the alternatives plague him throughout the novel. The dilemma is compounded by another: Should he remain with his mistress, Simi, a nationally famous courtesan with whom he forms an intimate relationship early in the novel, or abandon her to commit himself to a university student, a feminist, who is pregnant with his child and who challenges the moral prudishness of the university elite? The old African society, which Egbo has forfeited, has a social structure permitting him to keep both. The new society demands that he make a choice and, at the same time, declares unacceptable the two women he would choose. The novel leaves him in a state of frustration.

The second story to take shape is that of Sagoe, a reporter for a Lagos newspaper and an amateur philosopher. In addition to his relationship with his fiancee, Komolola Dehinwa a comic, romantic sparring of intellectual equals Sagoe participates in a picaresque sequence of curious adventures: a visit to a cemetery where he watches two funeral processions; an encounter with an evangelical preacher, Lazarus; indecorous, even zany, confrontations with respectable society; and an accidental meeting with Joe Golder, which provides psychological material for an entire chapter. What holds these adventures together is not the development of plot or even of character but of common motifs.

A third story, which extends over a large portion of the novel, especially the second half, is that of Lazarus, who is not a main character but who attracts the attention of all the interpreters. Sagoe first sees Lazarus, an albino, in a battered hearse leading a bedraggled funeral procession to a cemetery. When Sagoe steals a wreath from a rich procession to place it on the poor one, Lazarus marks him as a moral man. They meet again while watching a market crowd chase a thief. Lazarus eventually transforms that thief into an acolyte and has plans for him to be his new apostle, replacing the one who has died. In hopes of winning Sagoe and his interpreter friends over to his religion, or perhaps simply to get publicity for it, Lazarus tracks Sagoe down. He informs him and the other interpreters of his history; he shows them newspaper clippings as evidence that he died and came back to life. Since the interpreters have recently lost their close friend, Sekoni, and are intrigued with notions of rebirth, they accept Lazarus’ invitation to a church service. There they see the marketplace thief, renamed Noah, apparently converted to the new faith. The interpreters are not convinced of Lazarus’ resurrection or of Noah’s conversion, but Kola is fascinated enough task both Noah and Lazarus to sit for his painting of the Yoruba pantheon. Lazarus’ story ends disastrously when the homosexual Joe Golder intimidates Noah into jumping off the balcony of his eighth-floor apartment.

Such incidents as these make up the novel. They bring together the various interpreters who interact and respond to contemporary situations, learning about themselves and exposing follies in contemporary Nigeria. They do not, in mere outline, do justice to the artistry of Soyinka. His is a sensitive portrayal, though difficult to follow, of a lost generation. None of the stories ends with any assuredness of success. In the final pages the characters seem suspended in time.