Form and Content

(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

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...

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(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

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.