Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1113
Before the tensions in Nigeria broke out into open civil war in 1967, Wole Soyinka had been engaged in various activities distasteful to the Yakubu Gowon government. Soyinka had argued for a peaceful settlement, especially between the secession-minded Ibos in eastern Nigeria and the rest of the country; he had visited the northern and eastern portions of the country on a fact-finding mission; he had recruited intellectuals to help stop arms shipments to all factions; he had helped generate a “third force” to achieve a compromise; and he had participated in an “underground railroad” to help potential victims escape capture and probable execution. The government suspected him of worse and, after incarcerating him, sought an admission of treason. Failing that, it wrote and forged a confession and in other ways made it appear that Soyinka not only had betrayed his country by siding with the Ibos but had confessed and was penitent as well. Soyinka offers this background to his imprisonment. His actual activities may have been the cause of his arrest, he says, but the government’s case against him was based on false evidence.
The government’s misrepresentation became a key element in Soyinka’s confrontational prison experience and partially dictated the dramatic structure of his memoir. The formal outline provided by the table of contents, however, offers little hint of its dynamism: a preface titled “The Unacknowledged,” a tribute to those who kept him in contact with the outside world but whom he could not acknowledge by name; an opening chapter, “A Letter to Compatriots,” which accounts for the book’s title, uncompromising tone, and content; the “Prison Notes” themselves, divided according to time and place of imprisonment—“Ibadan-Lagos” (August to December, 1967), “Kaduna 68,” and “Kaduna 69”; appendices that offer substantiating documents, testimonies, and eyewitness accounts; and finally a postscript in which Soyinka threatens to reveal documentary evidence of atrocities committed by federal troops if the government or “poised historians of the establishment” ever attempt to deny the genocide practiced against the Ibos.
The Man Died is not a journal or diary—during his imprisonment, Soyinka did not even have access to writing materials, except for a very brief period. The modest subtitle belies the intense spiritual struggle that the detention provoked; only in retrospect was Soyinka able to regard his prison experience with the detachment necessary for understanding. As might be expected from this accomplished writer—by 1967 he had already published a book of poems, a novel, and a number of plays— The Man Died is itself a work of literature that combines Soyinka’s narrative and poetic talents and most notably his control of dramatic scene and structure. It displays a remarkable array of tones and styles, from comedy of manners, grim humor, and cool political essay to almost-mad staccato pulsations. It shifts from dramatic scenes with lengthy dialogue and character portrayals to moving narrative vignettes and metaphysical speculation. It places his personal prison experience within larger cultural and political contexts: the non-African, Western culture represented by such Greek heroes as Odysseus, Prometheus, and Oedipus; the Christian ideology of compassion and forgiveness; the political corruption and power struggles of contemporary Nigeria; and, what is most significant to the memoir’s form and meaning, the Yoruba mythology of western Nigeria as he understood and reinterpreted it. It was, surely, only after considerable reflection that Soyinka was able to comprehend his spiritually shattering experience in the light of this traditional African context.
Early in his memoir, Soyinka rather inconspicuously warns his readers that the dramatic movement of the book is not at all obvious. In chapter 2, he notes that The Man Died “is not a textbook for survival but the private record of one survival,” designed to “refresh the world conscience on the continuing existence [of] the thousands of souls held under perverted power.” On the opening page of chapter 1, in comparing his own experience with that of a Greek professor, George Mangakis, Soyinka had already announced the universal pattern that structured his prison experience:Indeed, it is the certitude of an indestructible continuum of ordeal-survival-affirmation, constantly reinforced by the knowledge of predecessors in this cycle which sustains a prisoner in his darkest moments and which, his liberty regained, urges on him a pledge and a duty to all victims of power sadism in and outside of his own country.
In fact, the seemingly organic form of the memoir, arising directly out of a terrifying reality, came to Soyinka only after “problems of expediency” had “changed the format, title, conception of this book at least a dozen times,” and he had decided to tell, uncompromisingly, the unvarnished truth.
The structure of the memoir resembles that of a three-act play, as the ordeal-survival-affirmation cycle occurs three times before Soyinka’s release. It is, in a sense, an internal drama, with Soyinka as the center of consciousness. In all three acts, the central movement comprises a break from the everyday world, an enforced isolation, and a return. For Soyinka this action takes on meaning within the context of Yoruba mythology, specifically the journey of Ogun—Soyinka’s heroic paradigm—into the abyss of “transition,” the realm of the dead and unborn, to build a bridge of communication between gods and human beings. It is a life-threatening journey, a loss of consciousness, and a recovery through an act of will. Each cycle begins with Soyinka in a normal state of mind, in contact with his physical surroundings, commenting on or describing events past or present but attempting to make contact with the world outside the prison walls. The crisis comes when he fears that the contact might fail or learns that the government has managed to distort historical fact to make him appear weak and disloyal to his principles. In the face of this victimization, Soyinka asserts himself by fasting—a means to conquer material reality, his physical being and needs, through an act of will. The fast provokes the confrontation, risks annihilation, and thus repeats the Ogun transition experience. It is crucial that Soyinka enter the abyss not as a totally passive victim of circumstances, subject to the will of others, but through his own volition. The style of the narrative at this point becomes frenetic as Soyinka lies on the edge of madness. Yet the mind wins the confrontation with chaos; Soyinka makes contact not only with the spirit world but with the living world as well, as though there were some mystical relation between the two reachings out. He overcomes his isolation through the contacts, reaffirming the message of community and solidarity. This affirmation is followed by a temporary relaxation of tension, to be followed in turn by the beginning of another cycle.
Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 45
Agetua, John, ed. When the Man Died: Views, Reviews, and Interviews on Soyinka’s Controversial Book, 1975.
Gibbs, James, ed. Critical Perspectives on Wole Soyinka, 1980.
Jones, Eldred D. The Writing of Wole Soyinka, 1983.
Maduakor, Obi. Wole Soyinka: An Introduction to His Writing, 1986.
Moore, Gerald. Wole Soyinka, 1972.
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