How does one objectively review a master’s first novel in nearly half a century? In my case, it proved to be an impossible task. There’s been much hype surrounding Wole Soyinka’s Chronicles from the Land of the Happiest People on Earth, but thankfully the book lives up to it.
At its simplest, the book is a murder mystery with much of the plot dedicated to solving the killing of engineer and business entrepreneur Duyole Pitan-Payne, who’s offered a position to represent Nigeria at the United Nations and is preparing to leave when he meets his fate. Pitan-Payne is one of many characters that make up this portrait of Nigeria. While a satirical take, it’s clear that Soyinka – a fierce political activist – aims his gaze squarely at Nigerian society.
Chronicles is a searing indictment of greed, corruption, brutality, fundamentalism and power in Nigeria, and the misery that these have inflicted on its citizens. The dark humour helps to temper the absurdities and hypocrisies that are embodied in this world – and, worryingly, in real-life Nigeria. The problems are cleverly interrogated through characters such as Papa Divina – a religious guru of sorts – who opens the novel. Papa D tells an unnamed character who one assumes is the reader: “You are the Seeker. I am the Guide. Our thoughts can only lead to revelation. Please – pull the curtain apart.”
What does it mean to truly lay bare the truths of a country? “There are many, including our fellow citizens, who describe this nation as one vast dung heap,” Papa D proclaims later. “But you see, those who do, they mean to be disparaging. I, by contrast, find happiness in that. If the world produces dung, the dung must pile up somewhere. So, if our nation is indeed the dung heap of the world, it means we are performing a service
While Chronicles is a remarkable book, it’s not easy to read. Soyinka’s style takes some getting used to, and working through the various plots and characters takes intellectual effort, as you might expect given how contradictory and complicated nations are. But the effort is richly rewarding. Africa’s first Nobel laureate in literature takes his time to show us how quickly a nation can lose its morality. And if we are prepared to listen, it provides a lesson for citizens anywhere on Earth.
Bloomsbury Circus, 464pp, $29.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on November 20, 2021 as "Chronicles from the Land of the Happiest People on Earth, Wole Soyinka".
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