Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3415
Like other novelists in Africa during the years just before and after independence, Wole Soyinka faced the question of ethnic and cultural identity. The now notorious negritude movement, begun in the 1930’s, had attempted to promote a pan-African identity by distinguishing between two mentalities: the rational, methodical, categorical tendency of the industrialized Westerner and the emotional spontaneity of the African still in tune with the rhythms of nature. Many, including Soyinka, came to see this definition as a sign of cultural dependence—the African described by contrast to the dominant European culture. In his most famous remark on the subject, Soyinka declared that “the tiger does not proclaim his tigretude!” Soyinka presumably meant that Africans need not be defensive about their identity; at any rate, Soyinka has proclaimed unabashedly, in all of his works, including his two novels, the indigenous source of his themes and inspiration.
As Soyinka makes clear in his book of criticism Myth, Literature, and the African World, his own cultural heritage is Yoruba. Drawing from its fascinating and complex mythology, Soyinka concentrates on two central events. One is the disintegration of primal oneness, which he calls Orisa-nla. In the beginning, only Orisa-nla existed, with his servant Akunda; in a moment of revolution or treachery, depending on the point of view, Akunda rolled a boulder down the back of Orisa-nla, shattering him into the fragments that became the human race and the gods of the Yoruba pantheon; god and humanity were thenceforth separated from one another. Among these individuated gods, two stand out, Obatala and Ogun, as aspects of the original oneness. Soyinka uses human representations of them both in his novels. Obatala appears as the titular leader of a traditional community. While not actively pursuing the rejuvenation of society, he tries to hold things together: “He is the embodiment of the suffering spirit of man, uncomplaining, agonised, full of the redemptive qualities of endurance and martyrdom.” Soyinka also includes a third human figure in the novels, a woman, who appears as the fertility principle inherent in Orisa-nla and promises continuity.
The most important god for Soyinka, however, is Ogun, whose story is central to the plots in the two novels and whose complex character makes him the most complete symbol of the original oneness. Most simply, he is the god of creation and destruction, and he is incarnate in humankind. After the original disintegration, Ogun took on the task of entering the abyss that separated humankind from the gods and building a bridge across the primeval gulf to reunite them. To accomplish this task, he had to “die,” to risk total disintegration of the personality (thus repeating the original fragmentation) and to reintegrate himself through an act of the will. Ogun’s success was his grand triumph that humanity must strive to emulate. Ogun’s cautionary tale does not, however, end here. At the call of human beings, he reluctantly descended to aid them, but his gift of “Promethean” fire—Ogun is the god of the forge—gave humankind the power of destruction as well as creation. During his sojourn among people, Ogun, as god of wine and of war, then experienced his most shameful moment, the massacre in battle, while in a drunken rage, of both friends and enemies. This destructive power of the will repeated the drunken act of Akunda and symbolizes the ever-present threat of humankind’s own destructiveness. It is especially Ogun’s personality and social roles that provide for Soyinka a rationale for contemporary events. Ogun’s story proclaims the will as the crucial ethical faculty, individual heroism as the dynamic factor in social change, and the communal function of the heroic act as its sanction.
Soyinka’s first novel, The Interpreters, is a dark comedy. The settings are the capital city of Lagos, the university city of Ibadan, and the surrounding lagoons, at a time soon after Nigeria’s independence, in the early 1960’s. Soyinka presents a directionless society seen mainly through the eyes of a few university-educated observers who have just returned from abroad to take up their roles, which they have yet truly to discover, in the new state. What they see is an assortment of professional people holding on to or seeking status and power; their attractive public image is but a disguised sleaziness, a combination of Old World corruption and Victorian hypocrisy. Moving through this structured society are various lost people seeking stability: an American black man who is gay, an evangelical preacher, a thief, and occasional transients from outside Africa. The novel traces the lives of the five interpreters—Egbo, Sagoe, Kola, Sekoni, and Bandele—as they get in touch with themselves and their society. What sets them apart, in particular, is their refusal to accept wholesale imported Western values and mores, as well as a vague sense that an indigenous worldview should mold the new state. The problem is to get in touch with it and revive it. Soyinka does not offer any hope of immediate success.
Of all the interpreters, Egbo and Sekoni are most closely associated with the Ogun experience. Sagoe, Kola, and Bandele do not share the risky heroism of Ogun’s nature but seem closer to the passive, suffering attitude of the god Obatala, though it is difficult and undesirable to make such identifications with any allegorical rigidity. Sagoe, the newspaper reporter whose experiences give insight into the corrupt practices of business and politics and into the religious void of modern Nigeria, suffers in the first part of the novel from inebriation and a morning hangover. He has developed the absurd “Philosophy of Voidancy,” a solipsistic return to original oneness, a passive loss of identity. A recurring childhood memory perpetuates a Western, Manichaean split between divine and human nature. He finally agrees to abandon his philosophy and commit himself to his fiancé, Dehinwa, but Sagoe never displays any deep internal struggle.
Kola is a painter who is intellectually aware of Yoruba tradition; he spends several months finishing his huge canvas, a symbolic representation of the Yoruba pantheon using contemporary models. Kola gradually recognizes his own inadequacy as an artist—Ogun is Soyinka’s divine symbol of the true artist—and is almost ready to accept his role as simply a teacher of art. The painting itself would suggest, at least in the eyes of Egbo, an inadequate conception of human struggle and redemption. Kola presents Ogun (Egbo) not in his creative role as architect of order but as a drunken murderer. Bandele is the clearest image of the god Obatala. Throughout the novel, he tries to mediate among the various interpreters and to judge and encourage ethical behavior. He also tries to live a life of compromise, to prevent a complete split between the intellectuals and the rest of society. In the end, he continues his role of judge—as the traditional Oba—but strikes out at the society itself, ensuring a split, as he sarcastically accuses the hypocritical professional class of burying its own children.
Soyinka measures human character against divine behavior after the original fragmentation. Only Ogun, among all the gods, risked the loss of individuation in the abyss of transition. Egbo, the grandson and heir of a village chief, is on the edge of the abyss. The novel places two choices before him: between the power and privileges of the Osa chiefdom and a life in a modern state, and between a sensuous life with Simi, a nationally famous and beautiful courtesan, and a New World university student, a feminist rebel pregnant with his child. While he has not made either choice definitively at the end of the novel, he leans toward contemporary demands. Such a commitment would be a denial of African heritage as superficially perceived but an assertion of it in essential terms. The university student is herself a heroine, defying artificial conventions of the day and committed to her child and to her education in spite of bitter rejection by the professional elite. She is also the only person with whom Egbo has shared his religious commitment to the Yoruba gods; their night of love takes place in his sacred retreat under the bridge crossing the Ogun River. Egbo has at least three initiation experiences, all sexual, described as symbolic leaps into the abyss of death and rebirth: twice during his first night with Simi and once during his more mature “venturing” with the unnamed student girl. By the end of the novel, he knows, though he has not yet made the decision, that “he could not hold her merely as an idyllic fantasy, for the day rose large enough and he was again overwhelmed by her power of will.”
While Egbo’s Ogun experience is still on the level of “idyllic fantasy,” Sekoni’s has a degree of fulfillment and a tragic finality. Like Egbo, at the beginning of the novel he perceives the sacred through physical reality. Egbo calls the fleshy black dancer at the Club Cabana “the exaltation of the Black Immanent.” For Sekoni, she is a symbol of the original oneness: It would be profane, he says in his stuttering excitement, “t-t-to bring her in c-c-conflict.” In moments of inspiration, as he comes into contact with spiritual reality, his language breaks down and his stuttering increases. Sekoni’s first profession is engineering. His dream is to harness the powers of nature. A flashback has him returning home aboard ship, imagining the ocean as “a deafening waterfall defying human will,” and his creative fingers as shapers of bridges, hospitals, derricks, and railroads.
The sea, however, proves to be too strong; the bureaucracy at home gives him a desk job and then allows him to build a rural power plant only to have it condemned by an expatriate expert. The failure drives him insane. When he is released from the mental hospital, he goes on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem (not to Mecca, as his devout Muslim father would have wished), and by putting his fingers through the broken walls of the city, he has a mystical experience. Soyinka’s description of it suggests an identification between the Jewish and the African diasporas, the disintegration of traditional community, and, by implication, a repetition of the original fragmentation of Orisa-nla. Sekoni returns to Nigeria as an inspired artist. His one great work, a sculpture that he calls The Wrestler, seems a race against time. Using Bandele as a model and a rough incident with a bouncer at the Club Cabana as the inspiration, Sekoni depicts what appears to be Ogun just beginning to relax after subduing the forces of chaos in the abyss. Kola admires and envies Sekoni’s genius, his ability to create “that something which hits you foully in the stomach.”
When Ogun grants such powers, however, he demands a sacrifice in return. In a symbolic scene, with obvious mythological references and a typical Soyinka setting, Sekoni dies in an automobile accident during a raging storm, near a bridge that spans a precipice. As god of the forge, Ogun is associated with automobiles and bridges and with the metal that draws down lightning from the heavens. On that chaotic night, the “dome” of heaven “cracked,” and, like Ogun in the abyss, Sekoni loses his identity, literally, except as he survives in his sculpture. His death leaves the other interpreters drained of energy, searching desperately for a myth that will convince them of rebirth. That Sekoni is not reborn seems to provoke estrangement. At the end, the four remaining interpreters are no longer a close-knit group: They experience “a night of severance, every mangoing his way.” The Ogun paradigm would suggest that, since everyone is an incarnation of Ogun, the interpreters are facing the transition experience.
Season of Anomy
Like The Interpreters, Season of Anomy has as its major theme the reestablishment of cultural and spiritual continuity. Bandele’s searing rebuke of his peers, that they are burying their own children, applies even literally to the generation in power in Soyinka’s second novel. The ruling Cartel (a conglomerate of business, political, and military leaders) use their positions to exploit the country (a fictionalized Nigeria) and to intimidate, suppress, and massacre in order to maintain control. The novel’s main antagonist is the innocuous-appearing community of Aiyéró, headed by the wise Pa Ahime, which perpetuates the traditional African values of community and harmony with nature. Ahime resembles the Obatala personality in his passive, suffering role as priest. Beneath his surface calm dwell “doubts upon doubts, thicker than the night” about African ideals ever overcoming the forces of exploitation. He himself, however, does not struggle actively against the forces outside the community. The conflict in the novel begins when Ofeyi, the novel’s protagonist and the Ogun personality in its artistic, creative aspect, goes out into the larger world to combat the Cartel. Ofeyi is at first a propagandist jingle writer for the Cocoa Corporation, an ally of the Cartel; under the influence of Ahime and his own vision of a new Africa, however, he uses his position to undermine the corporation, until he has to resign under fire. The novel, then, presents a conflict between these two forces, creation and destruction, but the plot is a tracing of Ofeyi’s growing commitment to his cause, his debate in particular over using either peaceful or military means, his eventual acceptance of violence, and his personal and communal quest for Iriyise, his mistress, whom Soyinka develops as a goddess of fertility, an aspect of Orisa-nla, who gave birth to the Yoruba pantheon. Ofeyi travels into the center of the Cartel’s massacres in order to rescue Iriyise from the enemy prison and carry her, though comatose, safely back to the refuge of Aiyéró.
While the novel often operates on a realistic level—with its vivid pictures of war, for example—its language is infused with ritual and myth. Ofeyi’s actions take on a ritualistic meaning and, as in ritual and myth, detailed, causal explanations are not always forthcoming. The novel does not follow a clear chronological line; it oscillates between the communal life in Aiyéró and the outside world and between the inner life of Ofeyi, his memories and reflections, and public action.
The novel tries to make sense of the chaotic events through which Ofeyi moves. It judges the Cartel according to traditional values and myths. In particular, it condemns an exploitation that forgets the obligation of one generation to another. Ofeyi’s subversive jingles accuse the Cocoa Corporation of milking the country dry: “They drained the nectar, peeled the gold/ The trees were bled prematurely old/ Nor green nor gold remained for the next generation.” The proverb that defines the Cartel, one of its own choosing, damns it: “The child who swears his mother will not sleep, he must also pass a sleepless night.” The mother (the Cartel), accusing the child of the crime, fails to acknowledge that the child is restless and screams for attention because the mother has not been nurturing him. The Cartel fails in its function of ensuring continuity from one generation to the next. Aiyéró, on the other hand, through its rituals and myths, maintains the three necessary connections, between generations, between the living and the dead, and between gods and humanity. Aiyéró is not a pastoral paradise; it has a reputation for its boatbuilding, uses hydroelectric power, and manufactures guns. Soyinka’s notion of the idyllic community is not backward. Still, its communal ideal suggests strongly its allegorical representation of the divine world attempting to reestablish ties with the fragmented human race to achieve wholeness.
Ogun’s transitional journey is the paradigm for the novel’s plot and theme. Individual scenes and incidents reinforce the idea. Ofeyi’s main concern is whether his actions will make any impact on history: whether the attempt to create order out of chaos is hopeless and whether his own personal contribution will soon be covered in obscurity. When he is still debating his role, sitting in a canoe on the pond that the people of Aiyéró use as a retreat for reflection, Ofeyi watches the wake quickly disappear as the waters resume their calm cover. Even “this simple rite of passage,” he says, seems a meaningless challenge. Beneath the pond are centuries of history—“Slaves, gold, oil. The old wars”—and his efforts seem doomed to join them. The oil could be a promise for the future; like Ogun, Ofeyi regards resources as the raw materials of creativity. As he contemplates the Cartel’s exploitation of them, he determines, through an act of the will, that victory requires “only the rightful challenger.”
The novel’s central symbol of the new Nigeria, as conceived by Ahime and Ofeyi, is the dam at Shage, which will, when completed, span the river into Cross-river, the region most antagonistic to Aiyéró’s ideas and known for its xenophobia. Mainly Aiyéró men, living outside their native community, are engaged on the project, and Ofeyi, as ideologue, has been its inspiration. It, like Iriyise’s dance performed for the workers on the construction site, celebrates the harmonious creation of power—hydroelectric power—out of natural forces. Later, however, after the Cartel has begun to react to the initiatives of the Aiyéró men and has begun to repress them, Ofeyi passes by Shage Dam on the way to Cross-river. The site is abandoned, the dam only partially finished, and dead bodies—perhaps the men of Aiyéró—lie floating in the artificial lake. The Cartel has begun its massacres. When Ofeyi first sees the crane with its rope suspended over the lake, he recalls a similar scene in Scotland and remembers his reaction to the unfinished bridge there. It seemed to him then that all unfinished things were sublime—a Western romantic notion to which he had clung until this day at Shage Dam. Now he reevaluates that experience, according to the myth of his own culture: “It all remained unfinished, and not sublime.” Ofeyi as the Ogun personality cannot accept the chaos of the abyss as the end of the creative effort. The goal must be to restore order, not aesthetically admire the incomprehensible.
When Ofeyi arrives at the bridge that will carry him into Cross-river, he, like Egbo in The Interpreters, bathes himself in the purifying waters. Unlike Egbo, however, he then takes the final plunge into the abyss. He enters Cross-river in search of Iriyise. As he experiences at first hand the horrors of war, he moves deeper and deeper into enemy territory and ends in Temoko Prison. He is there not because he is forced to be but because he wills to be. In the final symbolic act of the abyss, he is knocked unconscious, loses his “individuation,” and then wills himself back to life. This unrealistic mythical event accompanies his simultaneous rescue of Iriyise from the prison. Their return to Aiyéró with Ahime and Demakin (the warrior aspect of Ogun) means a temporary defeat for society but a victory for Ofeyi, whose will has overcome the recurring temptation of passivity.
A common complaint against Soyinka, in spite of the high acclaim he receives for his artistry and his patriotism, is his failure to speak realistically to the issues confronting African societies. Not only does his complex, allusive style encourage elitism, but his characters also are intellectuals whose problems and solutions have little direct relationship to the larger society. Whereas Western audiences, especially critics, might be attracted to such a highly individualistic aesthetic, African readers and critics might wish for a voice that is closer to their pitch, that seems to echo their complaints.
Certainly, many would wish fervently that one who is perhaps the most talented literary figure on the continent could use his gift to effect real and visible change. Nevertheless, three things must be said about Soyinka as an African spokesman. First, his novels have as their underlying theme the freedom of the individual and the use of that freedom in the interests of society. Second, he insists on African roots and traditional African concepts as rationales and sanctions for human behavior. Finally, Soyinka does not indulge in experimentation for its own sake, nor does he employ fiction merely as a medium for presenting the tensions of contemporary conflict; rather, by incorporating ritual and myth in his novels, he seeks to suggest the very communal sense that must ultimately hold the society together.