Wole Soyinka: Exit, pursued by a bear

The Nigerian Nobel laureate's weird memoir recalls a life of protest, exile -- and farcical political interventions.

Published April 20, 2006 11:00AM (EDT)

In 1987, the late Allan Bloom, a University of Chicago professor, published one of the defining texts in the neoconservative culture wars of the past several decades, "The Closing of the American Mind." The book was an extended harrumph directed at Bloom's students, whom he accused of embracing a lazy and unexamined cultural and moral relativism. Bloom wrote that his students were unable to respond cogently to the classic problems posed by the relativism they propounded -- for example, the question of what they would do if, while serving as a British colonial officer in India, they had to decide whether to allow a prominent man's widow to commit suttee, i.e. to be burned to death along with her husband's corpse.

The year before, the Nobel Prize in literature had been awarded to Nigerian playwright Wole Soyinka, and it's no coincidence, in a tenor-of-the-times sort of way, that he was the author of the scenario Bloom was referring to, or rather of its greatest artistic representation. In Soyinka's 1975 play, "Death and the King's Horseman," the king (or "Oba") of the Yoruba city of Oyo has died, and his horseman, Elesin Oba, is expected to follow him into the afterlife by committing ritual suicide. The colonial British administrator, Pilkings, bars the ceremony, which he considers barbaric. The result is a tragedy of unintended consequences.

One might suppose the author of such a text to be a bit of a moral relativist himself, someone prone to excusing the misdeeds of African regimes by appealing to non-Western cultural mores. Nothing could be further from the truth. Soyinka has been a relentless human rights and political activist since the dawn of the Nigerian republic. When he wrote "Death and the King's Horseman," he had already served two years in prison for opposing the brutal policies of one Nigerian military dictatorship and was in self-imposed exile from another; he was busy denouncing yet a third when he received the Nobel Prize.

A lot has happened since the late 1980s. The post-colonial left has decided that some cultural traditions are less morally relative than others: Nigerian picturesque ritual suicides, perhaps yes; Nigerian genital mutilation of girls, perhaps no. Bloom's University of Chicago neoconservatives, having seized the wheel of American foreign policy and steered it into Iraq, have found that a culture-neglecting moral absolutism can indeed lead to tragedies of unintended consequences. In Nigeria, as the oppressive military dictatorship of Ibrahim Babangida gave way first to the obscenely sadistic one of Sani Abacha, and finally to a problematic democracy under Olusegun Obasanjo, Soyinka has remained steadfast in opposition, hewing to a relentless moral absolutism of his own. Now he has come out with a new memoir, "You Must Set Forth at Dawn," sketching his attempts to reconcile culture and politics, Africanness and internationalism, over the past 50 years. Unfortunately, the sketch is rather aimless and superficial, and Soyinka doesn't take on the most important issues his autobiography raises.

"You Must Set Forth at Dawn" makes a convincing case for Soyinka's central place in Nigerian history. Nigeria is a huge country; no one is sure just how big, but population estimates run between 120 million and 150 million. (A government census in March was hampered by ethnic separatists in the southeast who threw acid in census workers' faces and hacked at them with machetes, and by large numbers of urban residents who decamped to their ancestral villages to be counted so that village chieftains could bulk up their purported populations and get bigger government subsidies.) But the reader of "You Must Set Forth at Dawn" could be forgiven for thinking that the country is about the size of a large high school. Soyinka appears to have had a personal relationship with virtually every significant political and cultural figure the country has produced over the past 40 years. Current President Obasanjo; Bola Ige, an attorney general who was assassinated in 2001; the governor of Lagos (Nigeria's largest city), Bola Tinubu; ex-dictators Babangida and Abacha; Afrobeat great Fela Kuti; writers Chinua Achebe, Amos Tutuola and Ken Saro-Wiwa; and artists, businessmen, human rights activists -- Soyinka has known them all.

And he hasn't just known them. He has known them from back in the day, through complex and interrelated emotional twists and turns. Their relationships, as he presents them, have been the stuff of Nigerian history. Soyinka's dramatic sense has often been called Shakespearean, and "You Must Set Forth at Dawn" tries to cast Nigerian history as one of the Bard's histories might: a tale enacted by a limited cast of characters, thick with dramatic confrontations, daring escapades, great friendships, bloody treachery, metaphysical themes and portentous soliloquies, somewhere between "Henry IV" and "Macbeth."

Yet ultimately, the memoir recalls the histories less than it does the comedies. Soyinka's political courage and dedication are beyond dispute. But, as described here, many of his political endeavors carry a hint of the ridiculous. After some of the more striking episodes, one half expects to see him (like that other political exile, Angelo in "A Winter's Tale") exiting, pursued by a bear.

Consider: November 1965. Soyinka charges into the broadcasting booth of the state radio station in Ibadan, armed with a gun, to compel the engineer to remove the tape of Western State Prime Minister Akintola's electoral victory speech and substitute his own tape denouncing voting fraud. He is tried for armed robbery, and acquitted on a technicality.

Autumn 1967. The Nigerian-Biafran civil war. The young officer commanding the Nigerian army in the Western Zone, none other than future President Obasanjo, is home in his bedroom. He hears a telephone ringing in his closet. He was unaware that there was a telephone in his closet. He finds it, and picks up the receiver. On the other end -- Wole Soyinka! The playwright bears a message of peace from secessionist Biafran Gen. Victor Banjo and wants to arrange a secret rendezvous.

Summer 1992. Soyinka meets the newly released Nelson Mandela at a dinner in Paris hosted by François Mitterrand. He becomes convinced that he and Nigeria can host a summit between Mandela and South African Zulu leader Mangosuthu Buthelezi to end the bloodshed between the African National Congress and the Inkatha Freedom Party. (The two groups' young street soldiers were beating, shooting and "necklacing" one another -- placing flaming, gasoline-doused tires around the victim's neck -- as they positioned themselves for power in the coming post-apartheid order. Soyinka seems to have thought it was all just a misunderstanding.) After months of shuttling about, enlisting the support of Nigerian dictator Babangida and corresponding with Buthelezi, Soyinka succeeds in getting Nadine Gordimer to present his proposal to a meeting of the ANC Executive Council. Result: "The meeting broke up in a bout of derisory laughter."

Soyinka seems to be unaware of how these scenes play for his audience, treating them mainly in deadly earnest. For one of the world's great dramatists, he makes a weirdly unreliable narrator. His prose style is ornate and pompous, sometimes to the point of unintelligibility. (Released from jail in 1971: "I proceeded to review the immediate actuality of our national being.") This grandiloquence is firmly rooted in Nigerian dialect, but when paired with the inadvertent hilarity of Soyinka's political escapades, it occasionally makes the reader wonder whether the 71-year-old is losing the plot.

The most telling of these misadventures, one with both cultural and political resonance, comes in 1978, when several academic colleagues persuade Soyinka that they have discovered a long-lost Yoruba archaeological treasure in an illicit private collection, and propose to kidnap it. The treasure is the original bronze head of the sea god Olokun, discovered by German archaeologist Leo Frobenius in a dig at the palace of Ife in the 1920s. The head had supposedly disappeared somewhere along a chain of transactions with the British government and the British Museum. Olabiyi Yai, one of Soyinka's fellow professors at the University of Ife, says he has seen what he is sure must be the original "Ori Olokun" at a party in the house of an architect and collector in Brazil, and that the great anthropologist Pierre Verger, also at the party, confirmed in a whispered conversation that it was the real thing, and that the architect had obtained it from Verger himself.

Soyinka quickly telephones the head of state, as one does, and obtains a meeting. It happens to be Olusegun Obasanjo, then serving as military dictator. (Again, a limited cast of characters. Presumably this time the telephone was not hidden in the closet.) Soyinka and Obasanjo have a "brainstorming dinner" and come up with a plan. Within a week, Soyinka and Yai head for Brazil. Meanwhile Verger, then visiting at the University of Ife, is delayed from returning to Brazil by some conveniently invented red tape. Once in Brazil, Soyinka and Yai case the architect's house and have themselves invited over for lunch. They ask to see the collection. Soyinka deliberately forgets his camera bag, goes back to retrieve it and quietly stuffs in the Ori Olokun. Then the two professors make a beeline for the airport.

There's just one problem: The Ori Olokun appears to be made of clay, and covered with fake verdigris to look like copper. On expert examination at the IFAN ethnological institute in Dakar, Senegal, headed by noted goofball pan-Africanist Cheik Anta Diop, the initials "BM" are noticed stamped into the base of the neck. It seems the object in question is actually a cheap souvenir from the British Museum. Meanwhile, Verger has found out what's going on and is livid. Soyinka calls Obasanjo, and finds that the secretary will not put his call through. He is shocked: "The nation itself, Nigeria, appeared to have tumbled into some time warp and was spinning out of control." It does not occur to him that countries in which playwrights can phone up the president are the exception, not the rule, or that Obasanjo may be justifiably irritated that Soyinka has wasted his time and sullied the name of the Nigerian state on a fool's errand.

Undeterred, Soyinka continues his quest. He puts a close friend's British ex-wife to work hunting through records at the British Museum. She uncovers the less than thrilling information that the Ori Olokun was lent to a branch museum, the Burlington. Soyinka jumps on a plane to London, goes to the Burlington museum and ... finds the "long-lost" Ori Olokun, on display in a glass case, correctly labeled. Apparently Pierre Verger's whisper to Olabiyi Yai had been a joke.

Soyinka recognizes the absurdity of the episode. (He introduces it with a hilarious sequence in which, years later, while watching "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom" with professor Henry Louis Gates, he becomes convinced that Steven Spielberg is secretly lampooning him.) But it's not clear that he recognizes it thoroughly enough. The effort to "recapture" the Ori Olokun fits the mold of a series of attempts by African states to regain custody of treasures held by European museums; it's a model narrative of African cultural nationalism. As Soyinka notes, two years earlier the same issues had played out over Nigeria's unsuccessful attempt to get the British Museum to return an ivory head of a princess of the 19th century kingdom of Benin. Of that conflict, Soyinka writes: "Condescending arguments -- such as that the Nigerian nation lacked the means, will, or sense of value required to preserve its precious heritage -- require no comment." But they do require comment. A country whose most prestige-laden university professors launch an expedition to "rescue" a clay copy of a nonmissing archaeological treasure faces a certain burden of proof.

There are several ways to interpret the farcical character of Soyinka's political interventions. One might be simply that Soyinka himself is a bit of a lunatic -- an interpretation he would no doubt embrace. Another might be that in the context of Nigeria, with its intensely theatrical and verbally bombastic culture, political action tends to devolve into farce. A third might be that the comedy is simply an artifact of Soyinka's gifts as a writer -- that the playwright who announced his arrival in 1960's "A Dance of the Forests" with two dead figures rising out of the earth, as a group of skeptics gather to make wisecracks about the "Gathering of the Nations" taking place in the village, cannot resist injecting an ironic note into even the most serious of scenes.

But a final, somewhat darker interpretation might be that it is the distance of Soyinka's ideals from anything resembling Nigerian reality that turns his political efforts into comedy. Like Quixote, Soyinka often seems to be applying moral categories that bear little relation to the events he is describing. "Death and the King's Horseman" may be a canonical text of cultural relativism, but it is Soyinka's moral absolutism that drives him to continually vilify one Nigerian regime after another; and by the time his condemnations of Abacha have given way to condemnations of his old friend and enemy Obasanjo (for the third time), the reader has to wonder whether Soyinka has any realistic vision for Nigeria.

"You Must Set Forth at Dawn" does have its strengths. There's a beautiful sequence in which Soyinka forces a terrified cabbie to drive him from Benin back into Lagos in the midst of an uprising against Abacha, dodging the popular barricades and the "Kill-and-Go" paramilitary squads, his only passport his own universally recognized face -- hailed by citizens and police alike as "Prof!" The sections on his artistic and theatrical life are interesting, but sparse. Soyinka has chosen to concentrate on his political life, and it proves unsatisfying -- as politics, anyway; it frequently makes for excellent theater. In the past few months, Soyinka has founded a new Nigerian political party, in collaboration with a longtime politician and former minister named Anthony Enahoro (another member of the old gang; in "Dawn," we first meet him in 1964, fleeing out the window of a state legislative building to escape a police crackdown). It's hard to imagine the new party wielding much power, though with luck, it may serve as an electorally marginal but ethically significant polestar, like Russia's Yabloko or Israel's Meretz. In any case, if "You Must Set Forth at Dawn" is any guide, a party with Wole Soyinka at the helm is guaranteed to provide years' worth of first-rate public spectacle.

By Matt Steinglass

Matt Steinglass writes for the Boston Globe and other publications, and for the children's television show "Arthur." He lives in Hanoi, Vietnam.

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