Wole Soyinka: The books that really change the world?



Who will watch the watchers, indeed? There are direct echoes of Swift’s cannibalism in Soyinka’s Chronicles, where one of the central characters, a surgeon called Dr Menka, who spends his days dealing with mangled victims of the Jos region’s endemic violence, discovers a thriving underground market in human body parts for ritualistic purposes. Soyinka deplores the state of contemporary Nigerian society; he has spoken of “cannibalism, of a strange kind, … a society which is actually eating itself, sort of self-directed cannibalism and the deterioration of our humanity”.

In Chronicles, Soyinka cites a Yoruba proverb: “When we encounter an elephant, let us admit that we have seen the lord of the forest, not offhandedly remark that we have seen something flash across our sight.” He has dedicated his career to addressing the elephant in the room – as well as the circus around it. (Juvenal said that people long for just two things, “panem et circenses”, or bread and circuses.) The trick is to avoid the elephant sitting on you.

Dangerous fiction

Satire has a way of putting its practitioners on the cutting edge of politics, and often that is a risky, not to say life-threatening, proposition. As Mullan points out, even the most fearsome, seemingly invulnerable leader usually can’t stand being laughed at. (Mullan cites Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin, both of whom have been accused of humourlessness.) It is one thing to, for example, remorselessly send up the British prime minister and cabinet using puppets, as the successful TV series Spitting Image did (it represented Margaret Thatcher as a demonic tyrant and even a pal of Adolf Hitler); such satirical targets traditionally have very little comeback in healthy democracies except to complain. President Reagan, repeatedly mauled by Spitting Image, is reported to have phoned NBC and asked them to cancel broadcast of the show, to no avail.

It is quite another thing to devote a lifetime to needling Nigerian regimes and other elite cliques, as Soyinka has done: during the Nigerian civil war he spent 22 months in prison, and in 1994 he fled the country after enraging Sani Abacha, a military dictator who pronounced a death sentence on him in absentia. But Soyinka has always lived on the political brink. His 1986 Nobel Prize, his sheer stature, may or may not have afforded him some protection. Others have not been lucky: Chronicles is dedicated to two Nigerian political activists, the journalist Dele Giwa and lawyer and politician Bola Ige, “both cut down by assassins”.

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