Review by Anna Hollingworth
“Literary lion” is one descriptor attached to Wole Soyinka. For one, there’s a mane-like quality to his hair, a kind of halo circling his face. More importantly, though, he is Africa’s first Nobel Laureate in Literature and one of most vocal critics of Nigerian government. He has been jailed twice, but even solitary confinement didn’t stop him from putting words on paper: he wrote part of his memoir on bits of toilet paper. Now, almost 50 years since his last novel, he is back with a roar.
]True to form, Chronicles From the Land of the Happiest People on Earth delivers sharp criticism of corruption, whether that is in politics, business or within the human soul.
At the centre of the novel’s increasingly complex plot is Kighare Menka, a surgeon renowned for his work with victims of terrorist attacks. He has grown weary of witnessing the horrors and hopelessness of his day job, but as if that wasn’t enough, one day he is cornered by a group of men with a business proposal to sell body parts from his hospital for ritualistic use. Menka shares his discovery with his closest friend and ally, Duyole Pitan-Payne, a Yoruba royal and successful engineer, now set to become an ambassador to UN. Pitan-Payne jumps immediately into action to extricate Menka from the mess and help him pursue his long-held dream of setting up a clinic in his home village. Before doing so, however, Menka wants to get to the bottom of what kind of operation is behind the body part business.
What the two don’t wholly realize is that the waters they wade into are murkier than they have imagined. As the novel proceeds, its webs grow exponentially more tangled, with much of Nigerian elite operating in the background, from politicians to business associates and the mysterious Papa Davina, a self-appointed religious leader.
Soyinka straddles the multiple plotlines with dexterity, and as a whodunit the novel is certainly complex enough (only one of the final twists didn’t quite have the shock effect it was meant to carry). The author transports the reader from hospitals to governmental offices and religious sects and does not falter in doing so: like Pitan-Payne, he is a talented engineer in constructing multiple layers from intricate details. The pages are layered with scheming and corruption so that the reader is left with a Kafkaesque feeling of loss of control when reality is not what it seems.
Even more remarkable, though, is the author’s wit that carries through the darkness. As Papa Davina is setting up his new religious movement and weighing up what he has learned from his endeavours so far, he “believed quite simply that while “a step at a time” was a counsel that merited notice, two steps in tandem were even more meritorious. Even the yahoo-yahoo boys knew that, but they lacked any sense of coordination. They worked internet scams, then dabbled in child-snatching on the side. That was a crippling sense deficiency in finesse. No sense of the big picture.”
Soyinka’s language has been described as one of “maximal exuberance”, and the title gives a clue to the wordiness of the prose. Chronicles From the Land of the Happiest People on Earth is a dense read, and for a lot of the novel, the prose comes in multi-line sentences, branching off into different directions and saturated with information. There are plenty of dashes and plenty of long trains of thought. For example, Chief Oromotaya, the one-man jury for a national award, is described as “when the public — the aspiring elite, that is — presumed that they had reached the ultimate in titular desire, he simply upped the ante, thus creating an ever-rising peak of aspiration — not unlike the National Independence Day Awards, another source of confusion!” A lot of this is undoubtedly verbal virtuosity, especially when it comes with Soyinka’s trademark wit, but as a whole, the narration could have done with some more brutal cutting down; as it is, the text is lacking breathers and is more of a non-stop onslaught of words than a rhythmically digestible whole.
The same need to prune back goes for the novel as a whole. There are parts, especially towards the end, where the narrative is elongated beyond its relevance. To an extent, the drawn-out descriptions and events underline the absurdity of the situations that corruption and personal interests intertwining with politics and family can lead to, but too often the sharpest criticism is lost in the sheer length of narrative segments.
Soyinka’s novel makes the reader work, at times unnecessarily so. Yet for the most part it is worth the work, offering a shocking, scathing and gripping look at society and human behaviour all in one.
Anna is a journalist and linguist.
Wole Soyinka, Chronicles from the Land of the Happiest People on Earth (Bloomsbury, 2021) ISBN 9781526638243, hardback 464 pp..
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