You Must Set Forth at Dawn

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 4)

Wole Soyinka’s memoir You Must Set Forth at Dawn has the air of “setting the record straight.” As well as being the 1986 Nobel laureate in literature and a world figure in modern drama and poetry, Soyinka is one of those people who come to symbolize a cause to those outside of it. In his case the cause is political freedom of choice, specifically in his homeland Nigeria, but also in Africa at large. Because Nigeria had a series of military dictators after its independence from Great Britain in 1960, Soyinka’s undeviating insistence on democratic government ran him afoul of these generals cum dictator, the last of whom, Sani Abacha (Soyinka’s nemesis in the book), did his best to dispose of Soyinka and failing that to smear his reputation. Thus the motive for setting the record straightbut this memoir is far more than a rejoinder or even the testimony for a life’s credo. It is a carefully shaped account of someone who finds himself transformed from a person into an idea in the minds of his fellow Nigerians. In fact, it is novelistic in its structuring and literary techniques, rendering it both compelling to read and, as a memoir, worrisome.

That is not to say that Soyinka’s book is a novel or in any way fictionalized, only that it is methodical in ushering readers to his purpose. Among the novelistic techniques is his extensive use of dialogue. One comes to assume that Soyinka has an excellent memory because he repeats conversations from many occasions. One might suspect that he made up at least some of the dialogue, but such qualms do not last long. He is a master prose stylist, able to strike a tone, charm with it, then entrance with it, and finally triumph with it. No author equates exactly with his prose style, but in the hands of a fewand Soyinka is one of thema memoir sinks more deeply into the reader than any possible account of the facts as facts, however authoritative or objective it is. His prose is full of likeably inventive imagery, lyricism, periodic sentences, and cleverly exploited figures of speech that seem just about to lapse into verbosity when, quite unexpectedly, they so turn a phrase that readers are left as fully delighted as informedleft, moreover, with clarity where they may well have been merely diverted. Consider, for instance, his use of an extended, well-worn metaphor to characterize his dealings with military dictators:It boils down, ultimately, to one’s personal confidence in determining the length of spoon with which one dines with the devil and one’s ability to keep a firm hold on it. This involves deriving no advantage, no gains, no recompense in the processif anything, expending oneself both materially and mentally for the attainment of a fixed and limited goal, retaining one’s independence of action. Most delicious of all is the ability to walk away from the dinner table, flinging a coin onto it as a tip for the host.

Soyinka can be funny, amusing, thrilling, meditative, mischievous, somber, and irate and never fails to win the reader’s trust. Equally important, even when he is hilarious, he is serious, and he does not fall prey to the modern weakness for irony (often an excuse for ignoring an unpalatable truth), excepting only a lightly sardonic self-scrutiny.

However, the book’s circular structure reflects Soyinka’s shaping most clearly of all. It opens and closes with his flight to Nigeria in 1999 after five years of exile. Like the opening of contemporary novels, the account of that flight in the preface (“IBAfor Those Who Went Before”) is left incomplete, thus establishing a line of suspense to be resolved only in the concluding pages of the memoir. At the outset he introduces the underlying theme of the book: the inextricable bonds between personal identity and the countryside and people of one’s homeland. This bond is expressed through the symbol of friendship, in particular his relation to his best friend, Femi Johnson. The story of their friendship threads through the book. Two other running symbols reflect the nature of Soyinka’s patriotism: the theater and the road. Both are much-used symbols signifying the attempt to understand through experience, yet Soyinka, a playwright and exile, uses them with exceptional adroitness.

In the opening sections of the book, one encounters important figures from Soyinka’s first volume of memoirs,...

(The entire section is 1785 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 4)

Booklist 102, no. 14 (March 15, 2006): 4.

Kirkus Reviews 74, no. 5 (March 1, 2006): 223.

Library Journal 131, no. 8 (May 1, 2006): 88.

Mother Jones 31, no. 4 (July/August, 2006): 74-75.

The Nation 282, no. 21 (May 29, 2006): 46-50.

The New York Review of Books 53, no. 11 (June 22, 2006): 20-23.

The New York Times Book Review 155 (April 23, 2006): 12-13.

The New Yorker 82, no. 14 (May 22, 2006): 83.

Publishers Weekly 253, no. 9 (February 27, 2006): 47.

The Wilson Quarterly 30, no. 2 (Spring, 2006): 112-113.