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Wole Soyinka is the most esteemed living writer from Africa. Nobel Laureate, Professor, ex-Prisoner of Conscience. Everyone from the contemporary Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie to the late Toni Morrison have sung his praises. Chronicles from the Land of the Happiest People on Earth is his first novel in 50 years. His reputation would be perfect if this book did not exist: the plot is too meandering, and the prose too mediocre, for it to qualify as a great novel.
Chronicles is principally about corruption. A svengali-like religious figure named Papa Davina, “also known as Teribogo”, uses a territory called Ekumemika as a front for savage practices. He describes himself early on in the book as a Guide, and those who visit him are described as Seekers. He is ostensibly dedicated to offering enlightenment and happiness to those who seek it. In truth, his ministry exploits gullible people on behalf of the Prime Minister of the nation, a man called Sir Godfrey Dafere, who, throughout the text, is known as Sir Goddie.
Meanwhile, a surgeon called Kighare Menka discovers through an organisation called Primary Resources Management that body parts are being used by a rich clientele connected to Sir Goddie. Together with his friend, an aristocratic engineer named Diyole Pitan-Payne, they investigate what is going on.
Although the name is not specifically mentioned in the text, the novel is about contemporary Nigeria. It is a satire of many of the country’s foibles, such as its materialism, pride and lack of self-awareness. In Soyinka’s version of the country, Nigeria, with its grinding poverty and religious sectarianism, could even boast of “a Ministry of Happiness”. There are patriotic awards such as the Yeoman of the Year — awarded to a person for public service — that dwarf Big Brother Africa.
When a British former colonial civil servant dubs the country the “Most Extraordinarily Corrupt Nation in the World”, the legislature table motions to cut off diplomatic relations with Britain, boycott British goods and expel British nationals: “Did they think the nation was still under colonial rule to tolerate such insults?”
I am all for satire — especially when it is about a country as beautifully dysfunctional as Nigeria. But Chronicles is a slog. The plot is often difficult to follow, as Soyinka winds his way through a thicket of characters and obscure aphorisms. Density can be successful if there are pay-offs: vivid characterisation, satisfying plot resolutions, or beautiful prose.
But there is very little of that here. In fact, too many sentences seem laboured. Take this description, for example, of how Nigeria’s status as the happiest nation on earth is treated by other countries: “Many, many salient contributory factors were often overlooked by competitive nations, largely owing to vested interest and an obsession to wrest the happiness crown from the head of the richly deserving”. The prose is functional rather than sparkling, which is odd because a “colorful” satire of the sort Soyinka is aiming for can only be sustained by a language that is correspondingly vital.
Soyinka’s reputation, however, rests less on the fact he is a wordsmith than that he is a wise and courageous thinker. Although this is first novel in 50 years, it is only his third one; he is known more for his plays. And he would have been better served by releasing a collection of essays.
Nigeria is the most populous country in Africa. By the end of this century, it will have a larger population than America and China. But it is going through a severe crisis right now. The recent End-SARs movement was directed against police corruption and brutality, but this rot goes all the way to the top — to the president. Soyinkna has long been an opponent of authoritarianism, corruption and religious fundamentalism. He is an inspirational figure for anyone who cares about truth and justice. That his latest novel doesn’t succeed does not change that fact.
Chronicles from the Land of the Happiest People on the Earth by Wole Soyinka (Bloomsbury, £20)