Soyinka, Wole (Vol. 5)
Soyinka, Wole 1934–
A Nigerian playwright, novelist, translator, and poet, Soyinka brings to his work a balance of both African and European influences. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 13-16, rev. ed.)
What marks Soyinka and Armah so strongly is their unwillingness to fall back on the past as a solution for present-day social and political problems, and their interest, instead, in the current-day scene, the immediate. When Soyinka's drama, A Dance of the Forests, was presented at the Nigerian Independence celebrations in 1960, it, indeed, denigrated the glorious African past and warned Nigerians and all Africans that their energies henceforth should be spent trying to avoid repeating the mistakes that have already been made. Kongi's Harvest (Soyinka's last play prior to the Nigerian Civil War) was a scathing condemnation of the recklessness of post-independent African political leaders, and Soyinka's two years in prison during the Nigerian Civil War typify the renewed political concern of the African writer as critic of his own independent society. (pp. 244-45)
In the novels by Wole Soyinka and Ayi Kwei Armah there is one further marked distinction: the isolated individual is often the would-be artist, and the works by these two novelists are concerned with the pressing problem of the place of the artist in the independent African nation, the status and future of the intellectual who wants to be an artist only and not an appendage to the government and a part-time creator. (pp. 245-46)
The Interpreters, Wole Soyinka's only novel,… is one of the most impressive pieces of African fiction published in the last few years, and at the same time one of the most obscure African novels. The obscurity, however, is not due to culturally restricted materials. At the time of its publication, there was no precedent in African writing for this kind of work at all, and the critics were confronted with something totally different from what they had seen before. The Interpreters has no plot in a conventional sense; there is no real beginning or ending to Soyinka's story. The movement of the narrative instead of being temporal is figural, through space, and the pattern within the novel itself is based on a montage-like repetition of images, piled up on top of one another, overlapping upon one another, suggesting the works of Robbe-Grillet but only in the most generalized way. There is no conflict in the traditional sense of the well-made story; little, if anything, has been resolved by the end of the novel, and one has the impression that the arrangement of the scenes within the book itself could have been considerably different than it is without noticeably altering the impact or the meaning of the work itself. The fact that Soyinka is a playwright and a poet is apparent throughout much of the novel. Instead of basing his narrative on the orderly progression of events leading toward a suggested goal, Soyinka has given his narrative form and pattern by the repetition of certain scenes and images which are used as leitmotifs and short playlets incorporated into the texture of the novel. Soyinka's dialogue is especially effective and shows the influence of his years of work as a playwright. Many of the scenes read as if they were originally conceived as short plays and later incorporated into the novel.
Satire and social commentary are present in almost every incident of The Interpreters, and it is these aspects which especially relate Soyinka's only novel with Armah's two works, though Soyinka is not yet as bitter as Armah, nor as he himself is later, in his play Madmen and Specialists, written after the Nigerian Civil War. (pp. 246-47)
Technically, the structure is something altogether different from that of any previous African novels, with much more experimentation (in a Western sense) than in Camara Laye's Le regard du roi or even James Ngugi's A Grain of Wheat. At times, this obscurity is more harmful than beneficial to the novel itself, and it becomes extremely difficult to grasp Soyinka's meaning. Time is obscured almost completely except for occasional references to specific blocks of time, usually between chapters. The flashbacks are often spatial instead of temporal, and the imagery has a tendency to cluster around one given character but overlap upon others. (p. 254)
[The] theme of Soyinka's novel … is religion, ritual, the quest for the finer sensitivity which is missing from contemporary African society and above all the artistic side of it. Until these sensitivities are restored, until people have regained their faith in religion and art—bribery, corruption, religious quackery and pretense will reign. And the African intellectual will remain an interpreter instead of a creator.
What characteristics brand Wole Soyinka's The Interpreters as a distinctly African novel? No doubt this is a question which is asked by Africans more frequently than by non-Africans. The Western reader is already familiar with the kind of experimentation found in The Interpreters—in the Western novel of the twentieth century it is hard to miss this kind of thing. In answering the question, then, one is inclined to conclude that it is content only which will ultimately identify the African novel from any other novel—the inside point of view of an African culture as seen by an African himself, for it is slowly becoming obvious that it is in this direction that African fiction is moving as the second generation of writers becomes further and further removed from traditional African society, and as African oral literary materials are slowly forgotten. (pp. 257-58)
Charles R. Larson, in his The Emergence of African Fiction, revised edition (copyright © 1972 by Charles R. Larson), Indiana University Press, 1972.
Soyinka at his best can write very well indeed, but his weakness is still a tendency to the grandiloquent—a tendency that proves fatal to his attempt to convey the inner reality of his experience [as a political prisoner]. Mostly these parts of his book [The Man Died] come out in just a whirl of words, most of them too large and fancy to be of much service for his purpose. There are, however, moments when he seems to strike a precise reality: not just what it feels like to be a prisoner but what it felt like for him to be a prisoner. Thus I shall never forget what he calls his moment of "self-definition," at the moment when fetters were placed on his legs for the first time: "I define myself as a being for whom chains are not, as, finally, a human being."…
Wole Soyinka as a person has every right to his indignation; as a writer he would have done well to control it. Thus he refers to the Nigerian police and other political controllers as the "Gestapo." If they had been, he would not have been alive to write what he has written. It is clear from his own narrative that his warders, however badly some of them may have treated other prisoners, were as decent as they were allowed to be to him personally. But in the eyes of the "being for whom chains are not," this was by no means decent enough: The warders and also the relatively decent prison governor remain "beings for whom chains are," that is to say below humanity. And below literature. (p. 46)
[He] is potentially a notable writer, but only potentially; and those who have praised him as already a mature writer, because it sounds nice to praise African writers, have done him no service by this particular version of racism. He has lived an extraordinary, interesting life at the center of events in a crucially important period in African and world history. If he would write about this straight and plain, with no prose poetry and with his indignation there but firmly under control, he would be giving us a testimony of world importance. We read Swift not just because his heart was lacerated by fierce indignation (to a much lesser extent I suspect than Soyinka's) but because he was able to control his expression of that emotion. Mr. Soyinka's indignation may in fact be so blazing as to be uncontrollable. If so, that would be a very great pity indeed. We need to hear—and really hear—the testimony of the man who did not after all die. (p. 48)
Rex Collings, "Literature and Indignation," in World (copyright © 1973 by Saturday Review, Inc.; reprinted with permission), February 13, 1973, pp. 46, 48.
Mr Soyinka writes with great fluency and subtley, and Season of Anomy is an elaborate, careful book. I have one cavil and that is with an occasional over-lyricism, when he aspires towards being a black Mallarmé and the writing becomes too grandiose for its theme. I don't use 'theme' advisedly here, since the narrative diverges into romance, intrigue, high comedy, political statement and bloody description. The landscape of the novel is. apparently, an historical mess and Soyinka has smudged or erased the conventional boundaries of fiction. In each other's arms, his protagonists learn the politics of it all and in this particular revolution no aspect of life is left untouched. (p. 787)
Peter Ackroyd, in The Spectator (© 1973 by The Spectator; reprinted by permission of The Spectator), December 15, 1973.
Wole Soyinka appears to have written much of Season of Anomy in a blazing fury, angry beyond complete control of words at the abuses of power and the outbreaks of both considered and spontaneous violence at a time when winds of change are blowing at gale force through societies, governments and individuals. The plot charges along, dragging the reader (not because he doesn't want to go, but because he finds it hard to keep up) through forest, mortuary and prison camp in nightmare visions of tyranny, torture, slaughter and putrefaction. The book reeks of pain. Ofeyi, the protagonist, struggles to find reasons and remedies for so much acute and seemingly needless suffering. Despite too many luridly purple passages of description and argument, and Ofeyi's irritating habit of making up ballads as trivial as the TV jingles a copywriter composes in the bus, the book compels attention, admiration and respect. Soyinka hammers at the point that the liberal has to deal with violence in the world however much he would wish he could ignore it; the scenes of murder and mutilation, while sickeningly explicit, are justified by Ofeyi's and the author's anger and compassion and insistence that bad will not become better by our refusal to examine it. Exuberance saves Season of Anomy from being solemn or pretentious, and it is good to see that Soyinka, despite his time in prison, has preserved intact his powers of observation and sense of the incongruously comic….
Soyinka's style is at its worst in the dialogue in Season of Anomy, which is surprising when you look at The Jero Plays, two short plays…. They are lightweight, and not, I would guess, as amusing to read as to see acted, but the dialogue is as competent as in the novel it is clumsy and untrue to life, at least to any sort of life that I can imagine. (p. 136)
John Mellors, in London Magazine (© London Magazine, 1974), April/May, 1974.