The Burden of Memory, the Muse of Forgiveness

Anderson Tepper reviews 'The Burden of Memory, the Muse of Forgiveness' by Wole Soyinka.

By Anderson Tepper
January 27, 1999 1:00AM (UTC)
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"What sort of a nation is this?" The plaintive words of Ken Saro-Wiwa, the Nigerian activist-author who was executed in November 1995, echoed from the final pages of Wole Soyinka's 1996 book of essays, "The Open Sore of a Continent: A Personal Narrative of the Nigerian Crisis."

What sort of a nation is this? repeated Soyinka, the exiled 1986 Nobel laureate for literature (and the first from black Africa), as he pondered Nigeria's pockmarked postcolonial legacy of corruption, repression and division and ticked off the recent traumas of his country: the Biafran civil war, the 1993 military coup of Gen. Abacha, the Ogoniland rebellion in the oil-rich but impoverished southern Delta region, the hanging of Saro-Wiwa and eight other activists. What sort of a nation? A filthy, bleeding, wounded one.


Now, with "The Burden of Memory, the Muse of Forgiveness," based on three lectures he delivered at the W.E.B. DuBois Institute at Harvard, Soyinka has broadened his canvas. He reflects on the whole of Africa as it comes to terms with its past, and by extension, on much of the rest of the modern world (Germany, Chile, the former Soviet Bloc countries) as it unearths historical skeletons. Soyinka considers the models of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the Rwandan war crimes tribunals and ponders the relationship of healing and forgiveness to the verse of Senegalese "poet-priest" Liopold Sidar Senghor and the mid-century Negritude literary school. Since these 1997 lectures, of course, Soyinka's country has taken another turn: Gen. Abacha died unexpectedly in June and, with elections slated for February and a return to civilian rule promised in May, Soyinka, a vocal pro-democracy activist, has gone home.

So there is an added relevance to his deliberations as his acrobatic mind encircles the multiple dimensions of truth and reconciliation (and reparations). Are these mellifluous terms contradictory or compatible, attainable or utopian? And what models are applicable not only to Nigeria but to other African countries haunted by the ghosts of their own reigns of terror -- Amin's Uganda, Mobutu's Zaire, Doe's Liberia? While ruminating elaborately on issues of nationhood and memory, of healing and vengeance, Soyinka cautions against the path of "revolutionary justice" in such countries as Jerry Rawlings' Ghana, where he witnessed firsthand "the processions of a baying student population ... plunge into the abyss of unreason: Kill! Kill! Blood! Blood! More blood! Let the blood flow! More! More!"

Though at times Soyinka's language can be cumbersome (as in most lectures, there are spells that inspire heavy-liddedness), he concludes with a lively discussion of the pitfalls of Negritude's African humanism. "A tiger does not proclaim his tigritude," the young Soyinka famously caricatured the movement. In late middle age and with a Nobel Prize under his belt, Soyinka is a tiger parading his own stripes, but as an eloquent, emboldened and much-needed fighter for the future of his beleaguered country and continent.

Anderson Tepper

Anderson Tepper has written for the New York Times Book Review, Time Out New York and Paper magazine.

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