Wole Soyinka Long Fiction Analysis
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...
(The entire section is 3,415 words.)