Last Updated on September 5, 2023, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 564
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.