(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 34)

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,”...

(The entire section is 2740 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 34)

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.