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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1895

The structural principle underlying The Man Died defines its meaning: Survival, not only of the individual but also of human values such as justice and integrity, is not merely an individual matter but also a communal and even cosmic process that nevertheless takes place within the individual mind. Its psychic completion requires contact with the worlds of the living and of the spirits. As Soyinka goes through the cyclic continuum during his two years in prison, each repetition becomes more intense, the isolation and threat to sanity greater, and the victory and affirmation more complete.

The first cycle, coinciding with the first long section, “Ibadan-Lagos,” finds Soyinka at “E” Branch (“Gestapo Headquarters”) for interrogation by Mallam D., in the hospital for a physical examination, in Kiri-Kiri Minimum Security Prison, and in Shaki Maximum Security Prison. Despite being under arrest and even put in chains, Soyinka at first experiences a false sense of security. A series of scenes— the momentary empathetic meeting with a woman prisoner, the confrontational dialogues with Mallam D., the humiliating physical examination by the prison doctor, the commentary on the two soldiers given special treatment as prisoners because they had killed an Ibo—shows him fully in control of his emotions. Then the crisis sets in: He learns that there will be an attempt on his life and then, when he helps foil that, he learns that the government is framing him and is claiming that he has tried to escape. At this time, he is placed in isolation at Shaki Maximum Security Prison. Soyinka is torn by paranoia. He cannot distinguish his frantic fears from reality. He tries to make the truth known, but not until he knows that his statement has been published does he begin to recover his sanity. The government must not be able to victimize him; his name must not be used to cover the sins of the regime.

In chapters 11 and 12, Soyinka describes the transition experience as a nightmare that repeats in imagery an experience he had had as a student helping flood victims in Holland rebuild their homes. Now he is the victim, relying upon unseen coworkers to toss him the bricks to lay on the mortar. He specifically calls his madness a “ritual of transition,” during which “time vanished”; by describing his experience as a repetition of Ogun’s voyage of reconstruction, Soyinka gives it meaning. He quotes Pablo Picasso’s assertion, “I do not seek; I find”; this aphorism obliquely states the theme of The Man Died. Soyinka opposes Picasso’s attitude to the tragic stance that is the Western world’s legacy from the Greeks. “Tragic loftiness,” he says, is a “trap,” a “historic conspiracy” to make people content with failure. Soyinka learns from this first transition experience that one does not have to settle for tragedy but can with an act of will and the aid of other human beings survive the threat of annihilation.

A second cycle of ordeal-survival-affirmation, in the second large section of the memoir, begins with Soyinka’s transfer to an isolation cell at the prison in Kaduna in December of 1967. Much more sober and less naive than before, Soyinka depicts his situation as a hell. He sees only two choices before him: “violence or surrender.” Beyond the walls of his cell are “cries of souls in torment,” and the dry cold wind of the Harmattan cracks his skin until he learns to use margarine to moisturize it. Still, he maintains his lucidity as he rejects an offer by the government to transfer his university salary to his wife as “hush-money”; he learns through...

(This entire section contains 1895 words.)

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conversations with the prison superintendent that the massacres of Ibos were not spontaneous; and he manages to persuade the authorities to let him use the prison library for three weeks. Then the superintendent closes him off entirely by sealing the square peephole in the door to his isolation block. Thus begins the second entry into transition. He realizes later that the sealing of the peephole is the definitive act which “kills” him, makes his cell into a crypt. He begins to hear voices from the dead: his grandfather; the assassinated Lieutenant Colonel Adekunle Fajuyi, whom Soyinka trusted as a new leader in Nigeria; and Victor Banjo, a revolutionary leader of the Third Force.

The political nature of these recollections leads Soyinka to a brief statement of political theory and the function of war in the political process: “It must shatter the foundations of thought and re-create.” This theory parallels the psychic disintegration in the void and just precedes Soyinka’s deepest penetration during this cycle. This time the abyss is an undersea cavern, Soyinka’s “self-capsule, . . . a mere bubble in the lake of consciousness.” Again, Soyinka conjures up “the titanic strength” necessary and is able to balance the attacks of claustrophobia into “a pattern, an acceptable rhythm of ebb and tide, misrule and clarity.” He is Prometheus, whose “liver is mended” only to “await the vultures for there are no eagles here.” During the long days and nights of these attacks, he sees hallucinations of Adolf Hitler and Albert Schweitzer in the iron grill of a gutter and hears three days in succession a procession of chained prisoners, which he eventually learns to be the death march of a condemned few. During this transition experience, the contact Soyinka makes is not beyond prison walls but within them: “I have actually seen a human face and with daring, and the luck of the guard’s turned back, returned a careful wave of the hand, even a nod of the head. Contact for him and me. A strengthening of wills.” The cycle ends with a ritual hanging, described for Soyinka by one of the warders, and with the doctor’s extraction from the victim’s neck of “the thing which contains a man’s life.” Soyinka’s original title for the memoir was “A Lesser Lynching”: The victim’s real death parallels Soyinka’s archetypal death in the realm of transition and helps establish his feeling of identity with the oppressed members of society for whom he writes.

As with the first cycle, Soyinka manages to stay alive with his integrity intact; he survives the void with an affirmation of life. Yet also, as before, his victory does not mean freedom in the physical world. In the first instance, the world responds by throwing him into deeper isolation. In the second, the response is even more threatening; the Gowon government holds out a hope of release but, as Soyinka almost immediately realizes, on unacceptable terms.

In December of 1968, Mallam D., the interrogator at E Branch, comes to tell Soyinka that an order has already been signed for his release. At first Soyinka believes him, and indeed the word spreads in the prison that others have already been released. (In retrospect, Soyinka admits that he was being “plainly dishonest by refusing to accept the plain meaning of it all,” the promise of liberty was so attractive.) As he is about to have his hair cut for the first time in a year, however, he suddenly realizes that his release would only be part of “a selective Christmas amnesty”; in this “Christmas tomfoolery,” Gowon would play “Father Christmas with justice.” Instead, Soyinka takes the offensive. He wants an end to the mental torture. When the demands are ignored, Soyinka clarifies his mission. He announces an open-ended, seven-week “gradual fast,” one day the first week, two days the next, working up to a full-time fast. The goal is to confront and destroy those in the Gowon regime who are out to destroy him: “Something must be tested even at the risk of life. I must reach that point where [neither] mind nor body of me can be touched.” Soyinka is clearly on his way to the third transition experience, but for the plan to work he must make contact with the outside.

Soyinka embarks on this third cycle in a much more conscious and purposeful manner. By the fifth week, he is even “pregnant,” a condition anatomically explained by his abdominal muscles expanding to fill the void in his stomach, metaphorically suggestive of the fast as a creative act, but potentially dangerous to his historical identity if he fails to make his confrontation known. The opportunity comes when Gowon arrives in Kaduna to celebrate his marriage. A consequent change in prison personnel provides Soyinka with a warder who will carry his messages and bring him writing materials. While Soyinka waits to find out if the risk in trusting the warder succeeds, he experiences his third ordeal, the most dangerous and enlightening. He describes the experience metaphorically as a parallel to the garden and the guava tree that the warders keep—an oasis of fertility in the prison desert, which chance and the superintendent’s wrath completely destroy. So Soyinka begins cultivating a mental garden, as he recapitulates the history of the world: re-creating the age of the dinosaurs and the emergence of man, training animals and inventing tools, creating art (mobiles), music (a flute), and mathematics. His efforts are crude and unsuccessful. When the superintendent comes to sweep away the visible results of his fertile mind, “finally there was no living thing walking the earth.” When Soyinka much later discovers the mathematical symbols and equations he managed to hide away, he is “terrified” at the evidence of insanity. Yet even while his mind seems to be losing control he has, again, moments of lucidity. The fast produces in him “transcendental moods” as he has a “growing sense of superhumanity.” Out of the realm of transition comes “a proud, inextinguishable promethean spark among dead bodies, astral wraiths, failed deities, tinsel decorations in barren space.” Tempted to give up his spirit and die, he passes through a phase resembling Eastern mysticism: “I need nothing. I feel nothing. I desire nothing.” The choice no longer seems to be “violence or surrender” but “death or surrender.” Then he advances, with more understanding, to the confident assertion of Picasso, “I do not seek; I find.” Soyinka reaffirms his creative identity: “I create, I re-create in tune with that which shuts and opens all about me.”

He is able to end his fast and reemerge into normal reality when the superintendent comes to accuse him of ingratitude, of using one of the warders as “a courier.” As the conversation opens, Soyinka is still in an almost-unconscious state, but when he realizes that his message has been delivered and that the superintendent is pleading with him (“Mr. Soyinka”) as a human being, he immediately returns to the world.

Before his release Soyinka is again victim of false hopes—books, journals, paper, pencils, pens, a typewriter, and a radio are granted, only to be taken away— and his detention continues for several more months (the time scheme is not carefully chronicled); yet because he now trusts the goodwill of the superintendent, who is only reluctantly obeying orders, and is sure of pressure being exerted by people on the outside on his behalf, he abandons his fasts for the remainder of his detention. His cyclic experiences lead him to “a positive revelation. It had to do with liberty but not with the gaining of it. It was a passionate affirmation of the free spirit, a knowledge that because of this love, my adversaries had lost the conflict.”


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