Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2740
Soditan Akinyode, the methodical Head Teacher of the local school, sits in his “makeshift study” at his home in Abeokuta, Nigeria, reluctantly submitting to his self-imposed schedule to take care of business before dinner. He sighs, and a genie rises from a bottle, first as a presence, then as the...
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- Critical Essays
Soditan Akinyode, the methodical Head Teacher of the local school, sits in his “makeshift study” at his home in Abeokuta, Nigeria, reluctantly submitting to his self-imposed schedule to take care of business before dinner. He sighs, and a genie rises from a bottle, first as a presence, then as the physical shape of Osibo, a Western-educated pharmacist and friend. Just so, Ìsarà: A Voyage Around “Essay” rises like a genie from a tin box that Wole Soyinka opened in 1984, a box that held the physical evidence of his father’s life: “a handful of letters, old journals with marked pages and annotations, notebook jottings, tax and other levy receipts, minutes of meetings and school reports, programme notes of special events.” Reading them, Soyinka says, he felt like an eavesdropper “on this very special class of teachers of our colonial period.” The book is indeed historical, focusing on three specific years of colonial history. Benito Mussolini’s invasion of Ethiopia in 1936 and his ouster by the British in 1941 frame its action from 1937 to 1940. Before the book closes, Adolf Hitler has dropped his bombs on England, the Mother Country, and the fear of bombs falling on Nigeria is both a joke and a real concern. Nigerians, however, do not see much difference between the British soldiers garrisoned throughout the country and the war machines of Hitler and Mussolini: The war of white people has imposed itself on them. Beyond the war, Ìsarà covers the gamut of Western influences, from medicine and cowboy films to capitalism, education, literature, the arts, marriage, and politics. The book is a tribute to the dignity with which Soyinka’s father and his generation experienced and challenged their world.
Soyinka may be an eavesdropper, but his memoir is not a simple recording of what he hears. It is a “reconstruction” with no “pretense to factual accuracy”: “I have not only taken liberties with chronology, I have deliberately ruptured it.” The names of the people in the account are largely invented. Soditan Akinyode, to be sure, is Essay (the real-life nickname being a whimsical student pun on the father’s initials), but the character is a creation. The other “exiles,” those who left Ìsarà to attend the seminary at Ilesa (puns are inevitably a part of Soyinka’s own whimsical style), other participants in the action, Ilesa itself, and Ìsarà are more representative than actual. From the tin box rises the drama of a moment in history that contains “a far more soul-searching dimension,” a more “heroic dimension,” than Soyinka finds in his own present.
Soyinka’s journey back in time begins and ends with the American Indian word “Ashtabula,” a city in Ohio as real and perhaps as common as Essay’s hometown of Ìsarà; to Soditan, however, it is magical—a land of dreams, a symbol of his own fulfillment. The word initially appears as Soditan reads a letter from his American correspondent, Wade Cudeback, who lives in Ashtabula. The two place names, Ìsarà and Ashtabula, so unexpectedly juxtaposed (one the book’s title, the other its framing device), announce both the mental journey being taken to unite them and, more specifically, the theme of that journey—exotic illusions and complex realities, the impingement of one reality on another—which preoccupies Soditan. Indian names, in natural landmarks, historical sites, and towns, remain on American soil, but very little remains of Indian culture itself. Does the threat of cultural extinction, on the eve of World War II, hang over Nigeria as well?
Though Soditan does not realize it in 1937 when the memoir begins, the main problem facing him as an individual and as a Yoruba is making Ìsarà into a contemporary community without betraying its past. He knows only in a general sense that he must find himself in his acts, that his is “an intense quest for a place in the new order.” He certainly has no way of knowing that he and Wade Cudeback will become the author’s symbols for the necessary human encounter between Africa and the West. In chapter 1, entitled “Exile,” Soditan is on an “off-season” visit to his hometown, Ìsarà, to celebrate the purchase of Ìsarà’s first truck. The exile sits in his father’s chair, reading and rereading his correspondence. Like many of his generation, Soditan had left Ìsarà to go to school and then to work, for there was nothing in that provincial town to offer anyone with ambition. The exiles return on seasonal holidays to share their experiences. Since Soditan has arrived before the Christmas season of 1937, he has time to relax and reflect. He seems bombarded from all sides, however, by personal longings and outside pressures.
In his fantasy, he vicariously lives the journeys of Wade Cudeback, his American correspondent from Ashtabula, who the previous summer had traveled through ”the four provinces of Canada and six states of the United States, a scintillating 3,500-mile trip in my jalopy.” Soditan wonders if he will ever make such a journey outside the environs of Ìsarà or if he must leave that enlightenment to others and to his own children. (Soyinka sometimes insinuates himself and the future into the narrative.) Soditan is envious of the landmarks and the recorded history in Cudeback’s America, since his own country, so replete with history, seems to have no visible record. Yoruba children in British schools do not learn to see their own past. He recalls his journey by train to attend Ilesa Seminary. The words of his adopted motto, ”He has no future ... who fails to affect his present,” beat in “contrapuntal rhythm to the turns of the carriage wheels.” Should he “affect his present” by imitating Cudeback, by journeying outside Nigeria? Should he begin by traveling within his country and recording what he sees? Should he sacrifice himself for the sake of his students’ future? “Such self-immolation in the name of his profession” Soditan immediately rejects. Should he become a business partner of Sipe Efuape and promote indigenous products and local enterprises? The timber business attracts him because it is there that the printing of books begins, yet he wonders whether the impression he makes on the world is necessarily dependent on the importation of foreign culture and foreign technology.
Soditan recalls, as the chapter closes, a comic incident that occurred at school when his music instructor tried to indoctrinate the entire student body on the virtues of Western classical music. As the gramophone plays Franz Schubert’s Third Symphony, Dr. Mackintosh describes the “mountain peaks,” “the scattered fleeces of white clouds,” and the “angry God” of his own “Scottish hills.” The students, one by one, fall asleep. Dr. Mackintosh turns to his prize pupil, Soditan Akinyode, also asleep, his “eyes staring but unseeing,” and exclaims, ”‘Et tu, Soditan?’” To what should Soditan swear allegiance? The Nigerian seems doomed to apostasy—a major theme in Soyinka’s novel The Interpreters (1965). Either he betrays the devout teacher-missionary from abroad who takes pains to educate him, to assimilate him, to assure his survival in the modern world, or he betrays the traditional life that lsara would cling to. The memoir dramatizes the rising of Essay’s generation to this occasion.
Memoir may be the best term the language offers to define Ìsarà. As a remembrance of the father, as a tribute to him, as a reconstruction of history from scant evidence—Soditan himself complains that written records in Africa are hard to come by—the book would seem to fit the definition. The text also suggests more than once, however, that messages in Yoruba come by indirection. If Soyinka were to communicate the image of his father he would have to rely on indirection, on dramatic structure, suspense, irony, ambiguity, and elusiveness; it would be a task requiring all of his literary skill. As he acknowledges in his preface, the writing “proved an almost impossible journey which came close to being abandoned more than once.” The journey is “around” Essay; it is not about him.
Soyinka himself, as a character, is not present, except perhaps as the child born in 1937, who, in his only appearance, gets “his legs tangled up as usual in the bed- clothes,” or perhaps as the “boy” who is still in Morola’s womb when the book ends. Since Soyinka was actually born in 1934, however, identification is conjectural. Nor is the author, as one might expect in a memoir, the center of consciousness. That role falls most often to Soditan, the filtering eye through which the reader enters the world of Ìsarà’. Yet the point of view is not totally subjective; the narration is at times omniscient, and twice, in chapters 2 and 3, Soyinka shifts perspective, showing Ìsarà through the business eye of Sipe and through the traditional, female eye of Mariam, Soditan’s mother. As in the works of all great writers, the author’s voice, his style, his special vision colors everything. Yet the book begins and ends with Soditan as the ethical, evaluative center, the teacher-philosopher through whom the epiphany is to come. If Soyinka is otherwise present, it is in the son’s respect, admiration, even veneration for this humorous, cautious, noble character whom he has created, and who, as Essay, created him. In short, Soyinka constructs from the contents of his father’s tin box a memoir that is also a work of fiction, a novel, a comic romance, for only through art could he hope to tell the truth. The creative process is not too far different from Soyinka’s transformation of postindependence Nigeria into the social, tragicomic statement of The Interpreters or of the Nigerian civil war into the terrifyingly human myth, Season of Anomy (1973). Romance would seem to be an integral part of Soyinka’s vision; in Ìsarà it justifies elevating the father into the role of hero and it explains the triumphal ending that reunites Ìsarà into a community.
Ìsarà is, in spite of its realism and its rejection of simple solutions, a nostalgic book. No one, it appears, can lose; the principle of good prevails. One finds a litany of successes. Mrs. Esan fabricates a cloth that is sure to triumph over the imported “velvet imposter.” As if in a fairy tale, it becomes a king’s “embroidered robe.” Osibo, at first the defender of imported medicines, will change his mind and support Sipe’s Herbal Institute. Sipe makes capital of a West Indian’s confidence scheme, as he turns an unfortunate indebtedness into a white stallion for a king’s procession. Mariam recovers money she thought stolen, and the mechanisms of traditional society work, after some misunderstanding, to bury her brother properly. Ill since the birth of her second child, Morola regains her health through the aid of Western medicine and is pregnant with her third child on the eve of the new year.
Soditan himself enjoys numerous victories. He successfully disciplines an unruly pupil and outmaneuvers the angry parent. The very idea of succumbing to the advances of a seductive teacher-trainee appears so impossible for this ethical man that the incident has become a joke among Soditan’s friends. This Head Teacher is the voice of reason. He repeatedly overcomes prejudice, bitterness, and other irrational behavior with good humor and good sense. He is, according to an image introduced facetiously in the text, an ethical Faust resisting mean and demeaning temptations but seeking knowledge, truth, and virtue. He is also, as his name Akinyode suggests, a comic figure in the mold of Don Quixote. While he appears, especially in the eyes of Sipe, his Sancho Panza, quixotic in his scholarly idealism, in this romance he can succeed even in his wildest dreams. That is, indeed, what happens on the final pages. He has sought success throughout the book, from the visit home in 1937 to the eve of the new year in 1940. When Akinsanya enters Ìsarà on his triumphal march as the future king, it is Soditan who finds fulfillment, not simply as king-maker—he has persuaded his cousin Akinsanya to accept the nomination—but also as a hero in his own right: Former pupils, there on his summons to cast their votes, shout “Teacher” in his honor. He has, they tell him, affected his present.
The European war fades into the background as Ìsarà’s engage in their local political battle, in which a few are even killed. They have their own immediate concerns, and the imminent victory of Akinsanya has cosmic significance, though it goes unnoticed by the rest of the world. In its own way it announces the emergence of Ìsarà onto the world scene. Not only is Akinsanya a trade unionist, thus joining the traditional with the modern, but also he is an elected Odemo, a democratic king—the people of Ìsarà, as in a ritual town meeting, surrounding the nominee of their choice. Mrs. Esan has already predicted independence for Africans after the whites end their fighting, and the events in Ìsarà suggest that Africans are readying themselves for the occasion.
lsara is, after all, about change and renewal, about the romantic possibility, even the inevitability, of renewal. Sipe and Soditan quote a traditional song: ”‘Orisa, if you cannot save me leave me at least as I was.’” Soditan must not, Sipe persistently tells him, continue “to travel backwards.” It is obviously too late for Nigeria to sing that song. Besides, this is a world (as Mariam, Soditan’s mother, believes) in which “everything had a remedy of its own. It was only a question of knowing where to look. Nothing ever happened by chance.” Even sins often “prove fortunate in the end.” Sipe, the pragmatic entrepreneur, submits, at least temporarily, to the ethical ideal: “Everything combines together for good for the righteous man,” he declares. Josiah, however, a voice of the old order, warns Soditan that it is not enough to be good; spirits reveal their secrets but rely on the living to carry them out.
Soditan has recognized from the beginning that he must “affect his present” or he will have “no future.” Chapter 1, “Exile’s,” takes place before the 1937 Christmas season, chapter 4, “Tisa” (a nickname for Soditan), before the 1939 Christmas season, and chapters 5 and 6, “Homecoming” and “Ashtabula!” during the 1940 Christmas season, up to the eve of the new year. Both the titles and the seasons are significant in their movement toward renewal. Soyinka does not commit to specifics, but he knows that the new order must combine a faith in the traditional and in the foreign. Ancient oracles and modern medicine both have their place. The spiritual powers of Jagun, voice of the Ìsarà oracle, may (one will never know) have killed the old warrior who resisted change and thus cleared the way for Akinsanya. The medium at the Odogbolu shrine may have actually predicted that Soditan would find his fulfillment in Ashtabula, but the message remains ambiguous.
Soditan chooses to interpret the spirits in a philosophical vein. If one asks the oracle a stupid question, it will give a stupid answer. Like the Zen teacher, the oracle is there to teach wisdom, not to tell fortunes. An old Yoruba children’s game reminds Soditan of this truth, and with it comes fulfillment. He, not the oracle, must define success for himself. His personal renewal coincides with Ìsarà’s. To complete the romantic victory, drama and dream become reality. Soditan had once written a dramatic pageant in honor of the first Anglican missionary to Abeokuta; he rewrites it as the procession of the new Odemo. Then, as if the spirits were stage-managing the whole event, Wade Cudeback shows up as spectator and participant in the drama. When Cudeback preempts Soditan’s long-rehearsed greeting with the line, “Teacher Soditan, I presume,” Soditan counters with the totally unpremeditated “Welcome to Ashtabula.” Soditan has reached out to a fabulous Ashtabula, and a real Ashtabula has come to him.
Paradoxically, the fulfillment of a dream is its demise. The “aura” of Cudeback’s letters gives way to his human presence, and Soditan faces the transformation with ’’Inner composure.’’ Where the romance of the memoir ends, the reality of life begins. Not surprisingly, since he has given ample warning, Soyinka as image-maker steps out of nostalgia into the present. “Did it augur well?” that Cudeback should arrive to meet “an Ìsarà son” on that particular day? The future would depend less on augury than on will: “Did it augur well? The feeling was—it had better!”
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 40
Library Journal. CXIV, October 1, 1989, p.96.
Los Angeles Times Book Review. October 15, 1989, p.2.
The New Republic. CCI, December 11, 1989, p.40.
The New York Times. November 3, 1989, p. B13(N).
The New York Times Book Review. XCIV, November 12, 1989, p.11.
Publishers Weekly. CCXXXVI, August 18, 1989, p.44.