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Saturday, December 04, 2021

Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka’s Chronicles From The Land of the Happiest People on Earth puts the ‘global’ back into the novel

The Nigerian writer returned to fiction after a gap of nearly 50 years

November 20, 2021 10:01:29 am
Wole SoyinkaReturn of the master: Wole Soyinka during a lecture at Stockholm Public Library on October 4, 2018

By S Satish Kumar

An early reviewer of this novel described it as being pessimistic, while others have expressed mild concern over the “image of Africa” (more specifically Nigeria, which one feels compelled to emphasise are not one and the same) that a global readership might glean from it. Many more have sought to contextualise the novel’s plot (or a perceived lack thereof) while crafting sincere panegyrics for the 87-year-old literary giant, who for nearly three decades has held the unique distinction of being the first “Black African person” to have won the Nobel Prize for literature.

What immediately struck me when I learnt of Soyinka’s first novel in 48 years, was the title he chose for it. An ostensible jibe at the World Happiness Reports released by the United Nations starting in 2012, the novel’s title, I believe, goes beyond the apparent caustic sarcasm and political satire in articulating an earnest inquiry about what it means to be happy. One is almost immediately reminded of the title to yet another author’s much-awaited return to fiction-writing in 2017 — Arundhati Roy’s The Ministry of Utmost Happiness. Besides these two writers, who can in many ways be thought of as kindred spirits, such narrative inquiries into the meaning of happiness have long been a staple in the world of fiction writing. Especially in more recent times, in a world that is no longer satisfied with making good but seems obsessed with making all things “great”, the question of happiness — individual or otherwise — is often framed within a context of such pursuits of greatness.

Wole Soyinka book Chronicles from the Land of the Happiest People on Earth
By Wole Soyinka
444 pages

Evocative in form of The Interpreters (1965), Soyinka’s first novel, Chronicles… also revisits many themes that have preoccupied the writer’s literary imagination across his life and career. Set in a nascent-formed independent Nigerian nation of the early 1960s, The Interpreters presents a plot explored by several writers of Soyinka’s generation from across various African nationalities at the time — the returnee, who having acquired a European degree, is driven by the desire to do good in his native land. As the destination for foreign aspirations gradually starts to shift from European countries to the US, so do the challenges faced by the returning natives.

The horrors that plague Dr Kighare Menka, through whose character play out the ethical dilemmas of the major plotline in the novel, are more complex in a thinly fictionalised contemporary Nigeria. In gaining recognition for his clinical work with victims of communal violence perpetrated by the militant Boko Haram, he also finds himself embroiled in a racket for the trafficking of human organs and body parts. Such horror is more sinister as it hides in plain sight with its agents emerging from the woodworks of every social or political institution imaginable. It almost makes one long for those times of straightforward military coups and dictatorships, when the oppression of people and the despoliation of human dignity bore an identifiable face.

The true genius of Soyinka shines through not in the laying out of the major plotlines, but in the details he populates them with. Yet another life chronicled in the novel is that of Dennis Tibidje. Beginning as a garden-variety grifter, he returns to Nigeria escaping charges of attempted rape while being a student in the UK. Met with lukewarm success in the local film industry, Tibidje sets his sights on reinventing himself in the US, where he swiftly lands himself in a detention facility for immigrants without appropriate travel documents.

Detention camps having been a hot-button issue in the recent past, the author, true to his satirical style that is grounded in a robust institutional memory, is quick to remind us that detention camps at the time were “not entirely inhumane”. Our resourceful picaro, however, argues the inhumaneness of his detention as a person belonging to a minoritised and persecuted group. When his pleas for asylum fall on deaf years in the Land of Liberty, Tibidje finds his true calling as an itinerant evangelical preacher, before making his way back home to Nigeria, where he is now known as Papa Divina and preaches a globally minded (and marketable) syncretic doctrine of peace and harmony. Of course, he uses his mission as a front for his many backdoor dealings with friends in high places, often on behalf of a rather exclusive clientele who come to him seeking salvation of both a worldly and otherworldly nature.

After all the twists, turns, and intrigues that hold the reader in rapt attention for 444 pages, the story concludes in neither a whimper nor a bang, but rather in somewhat awkward silence. Hence, perhaps, the perceived pessimism. It is undoubtedly a pertinent question to ask within indices that arrogate measures of human happiness — is it possible to be happy while inhabiting realities where our survival implicates us, quite literally in the case of this novel, in the dismemberment of humanity itself? That is not, however, what makes Chronicles… relevant to global fiction today, it is rather the location from which such inquiries are made.

Triumphalist tales of escaping minoritisation and persecution in “Africa” and subsequently thriving within an assimilated model minority somewhere in the US or the EU have become a mainstay for the “African novel” in the global literary market for some time now. Such a trend is usually offset by representations of the horrors of an existence outside of Europe or America which, let us face facts, is what one usually means when invoking any kind of globality. In contrast, Chronicles… spotlights a reality other than such conventional “Afropolitan” imaginaries. Making no attempts to perform otherness for Euro-American consumption, Soyinka’s return to fiction writing reaffirms the plurivocality of the “global” novel.

Satish Kumar holds a PhD in Comparative Literature and Intercultural Studies from the University of Georgia and is assistant professor of English in the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at GITAM (Deemed to be University), Hyderabad

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