The Interpreters by Wole Soyinka

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(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

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...

(The entire section is 796 words.)