Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

Everything in The Interpreters suggests that Nigeria in the early 1960’s is in transition: the comic but dangerous characters futilely holding on to the manners of Victorian England; the interpreters in suspension, seeking themselves and their roles in the body politic; the oppressive, seemingly interminable rainy season; the unsifted mixture of traditional and contemporary corruption; the death and rebirth motif that promises hope but is temporarily manifest in false forms; the open-endedness of the novel, which promises change rather than mere repetition.

Transition is a state of confusion and paralysis; no established code sanctions behavior. Egbo, for example, is lost because he is caught between two worlds, neither of them clearly offering a value system according to which he can function. He attempts to return to traditional Yoruba mythology, but it is a completely private process until he shares it with the stranger girl during one intimate night of love. During his childhood, his Christian guardians had beaten him for praying to heathen gods. Such worship was “apostasy” a word repeated often enough in the novel to qualify as a key to the central theme. Kola describes it as “an absolute neutrality,” the hardest thing in the world to paint. Later, Egbo and Kola debate its meaning and determine that there are two types of apostates, Christ and Judas. The one heroically breaks new ground by declaring an old code defunct or by reinterpreting it; the other, merely for the sake of immediate gratification, betrays an accepted belief. The difficulty lies in knowing what the true codes are and hence who the heroes are.

Soyinka presents three artist-interpreters the writer, Sagoe; the painter, Kola; and the sculptor,...

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