A taste for gold: Andrew Whitehead reviews Wole Soyinka’s ‘Chronicles from the Land of the Happiest People on Earth’

Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka’s first novel in 48 years does not live up to the hype

November 27, 2021 04:00 pm | Updated 04:00 pm IST

Difficult lives: People at a fruit market in Lagos, Nigeria.

Difficult lives: People at a fruit market in Lagos, Nigeria.

This novel is a lacerating attack by a Nobel laureate on the collapse of democracy and public values in Nigeria, by far Africa’s most populous nation. At least, that’s what it is intended to be. Alas, it misses the mark.

Political satire needs to be stiletto sharp. Wole Soyinka’s Chronicles is no more incisive than a plastic picnic knife.

The targets are all lined up: bloated political leaders; corrupt corporates; tainted populists; false prophets; absurd national awards; murderous police officers; priapic architecture; and, extending to every crevice of the country, a profound absence of civic sense and an acceptance of grotesque inequalities as the natural order of things. No wonder then, that in the book’s opening pages, a character declares: “our nation is indeed the dung heap of the world.”

Inspirational figure

Soyinka is an inspirational figure in African writing and the continent’s first Nobel laureate in literature. In a life stretching over almost nine decades, he has campaigned against colonialism and, with even more vigour, against the corrupt and autocratic governments which have divided and looted Nigeria, and much of the rest of Africa, since independence.

But this book does not add to his eminence. It is overwritten, under-plotted, and with little in the way of

characterisation. Promising storylines pop up and then, just as suddenly, vanish. A coded Codex keeps creeping into the tale, as does a bogus champion of religious syncretism who at one point poses as a Zoroastrian priest. Underlying the rot in every corner of public life is a ruthlessly efficient trade in human body parts — not just hearts, kidneys and livers, but also limbs, heads, the whole lot.

It feels like a cross between Orwell’s Animal Farm , Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code — but works neither as political parable, nor as horror story, nor as mystery thriller.

Deep rot

Nigeria’s difficulties in establishing an effective democracy and an enduring national identity have been much greater than those suffered by India. But there are parallels in the travails. Soyinka gives voice to this through a Nigeria-based geologist, Dr. Mukarjee, who comments: “I am from India, and I think you know our politics are very much alike. Very much so, I felt at home here from my first arrival fifteen years ago.” But, like so much in this novel, the observation is not developed. Dr. Mukarjee’s great accomplishment is to be able to taste gold and to detect it in a Nigerian leader’s favourite caffeine-rich kola nuts. This is loaded with symbolism, as a taste for gold is about the only unifying attribute of Soyinka’s main characters.

The author’s deep contempt for those who have monopolised wealth and power comes through loud and clear. But it often translates into a disempowering pessimism. Yes, there are people of moral courage. And yes, they can win minor skirmishes. But the rot has settled in so deep that it can’t be eradicated. Those who have proved to be so adept at grabbing status and privilege are even more adept at eliminating those who threaten their supremacy.

Chronicles is, as the publishers proudly proclaim, Wole Soyinka’s first novel in 48 years. Meanwhile, he has won global esteem as a playwright and poet as well as an activist. What the publishers clearly believe is a selling point should perhaps serve as a warning. Would you trust a surgeon who hasn’t wielded the scalpel for half a century? Would you go to hear a singer who hasn’t performed since the 70s?

Chronicles from the Land of the Happiest People on Earth; Wole Soyinka, Bloomsbury Circus, ₹699

The reviewer, a former BBC India correspondent, teaches at the Asian College of Journalism in Chennai.

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