Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 518
You Must Set Forth at Dawn is Soyinka’s fifth book of memoirs, but unlike the previous four it does not limit itself to a relatively confined span of time. This long and dense volume, instead, looks back as far as Soyinka’s earliest days as a university student in London, covering more than fifty years in the theater, in the academy, and in the political world, while avoiding mention of his family life.
The first section of You Must Set Forth at Dawn, placed before the chapters Soyinka labels as “Part I,” is “IBA—For Those Who Went Before,” and it establishes the approach Soyinka takes to the material in this memoir. It opens abruptly, in medias res, as Soyinka is on a plane heading toward Nigeria, remembering past plane trips: his return from exile and his trip to bring back the body of another political exile, his friend Femi Johnson. From here he moves on to an anticipation of and reflection on the loss of cactus in the bush landscape near his home in Abeokuta, and then on to a consideration of the human landscape and its loss of another friend, the late former vice chancellor at the University of Ife, Ojetuni Aboyade. Soyinka moves freely from anecdote to anecdote, from reflection to narrative to dialogue to poetry; the section’s twenty-eight pages are broken up into nine separate episodes. While the body of the book is roughly chronological, the frequent digressions and the references to an African history that the author knows far better than many of his readers makes this a challenging memoir for his non-Nigerian audience.
One of the most interesting features of this volume is Soyinka’s vivid and insightful portraits of several of the national leaders with whom he has interacted, including French president François Mitterrand, Tanzanian president Julius Nyerere, and others. As the memoir unfolds, Soyinka describes personal relationships with nearly all of the important figures in the history of Nigeria over the past fifty years. He tells, for example, of his admiration for and friendship with African National Congress leader Nelson Mandela; he relates his secret attempts in 1991 to arrange diplomatic meetings between Mandela and his rival for political power in South Africa, Inkatha Freedom Party leader Mangosuthu Buthelezi, with the aid of another African Nobel laureate, Nadine Gordimer, and of Ibrahim Babangida, then president of Nigeria. Soyinka also describes his relationships with internationally important writers, including Gordimer, the British poets W. H. Auden and Stephen Spender, and Nigerian writers Chinua Achebe and Ken Saro-Wiwa, as well as curators at the British Museum, media executives and personalities, business leaders and military officials.
As the book moves into the twenty-first century and into Soyinka’s late sixties and seventies, he remains a central political figure. While frequently throughout the memoir Soyinka yearns for solitude, for time to fish and read, he never is given—or never chooses—a solitary life. The memoir concludes where it began, at the airport when Soyinka arrives back in Nigeria after years away, surrounded by a cheering, out-of-control throng of well-wishers welcoming him home.