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April 27, 2006


Well, let me assign some additional reading to the readers here: the New York Times has a review of the new book. The critic is Norman Rush, and he's a good read:


I'll have a fuller response after I've had a chance to catch up with the Post.

A video of Soyinka on Charlie Rose.


It's free now and, I believe, 99c after tonight.

You get to hear his voice which, I shamelessly suggest, is not entirely unlike mine. :O

Well, on second thought, I don't sound quite so plummy or professorial.

So, Soyinka.

Well, Wole Soyinka was a hero to us in those years, in that part of the world. The prestige came first, that impossibly high profile for a writer in a society that didn't do much reading. A writer as great as the generals who were at the time busy looting the national treasuries. We spilled out onto the streets in 1986, celebrating Soyinka's Nobel Prize as if we had won the World Cup or come to the sudden but long-awaited end of a Civil War.

Only later did he begin to exist to some of us as a literary figure: "The Man Died," his prison memoir; "A Shuttle in the Crypt," which were poems from the same dark age; "Ake," the childhood memoir that is his best known book in the West but not in Nigeria; and, above all, the collected plays, in two volumes, in those severe-looking dark blue Oxford University Press paperbacks.

Soyinka was, foremost, a playwright. "The Lion and the Jewel," a funny (and, in retrospect, misogynistic litte play), bejewelled many a high school theater arts program. It shares something of the energy of "The Taming of the Shrew." It was Soyinka's first play.

Soyinka's best and best known play also has a Shakespearean spirit about it. "Death and the King's Horseman," to date the best thing I've read out of Africa, luxuriates in the language and ritual of the Yoruba, and brings that reality into an unforgettably strange English. It is a truly monumental play, based on a historical event in colonial Nigeria, and reminiscent in equal parts of "King Lear" (the furious inventiveness of the language), "Oedipus Rex" (the inexorable and tragic mood) and "Madame Butterfly" (with whom it shares certain plot elements and, especially in the figure of the colonial officer, characterizations).

Soyinka's other plays delved into the mysteries of Yoruba religion. He was obsessed with myths, forests, rituals. He wasn't famed for lightness of touch.

To youngsters of my generation, Soyinka represented a kind of extreme of what was possible in terms of literary ambition. Being Yoruba, being Ijebu for that matter, was no barrier to entering the rarified world of literature.

That's why it seems to me just a little sad that Soyinka's wholly political now. It's strange that he isn't making new work (of a literary cast: his polemical essays have continued to be published in a steady stream), and it's even stranger that he doesn't seem to have a particularly active relationship with his past work, in terms of facilitating the production of his plays, or leading theatre workshops, or doing book reviews, or giving literary lectures. The well seems to have dried up about twenty-years ago, as if the Nobel proved his point and freed him for other pursuits.

He is utterly consumed by the Nigerian political situation. In his writings now, a lot of the old strengths are gone: the love for the pungent detail, the rootedness in Yoruba mythos and ritual, the bizarre flights of poetical fancy. What remains now is the hot anger that sustained him through the years of military dictatorship, as well as his language: ostentatious and clotted as it ever was. In "Death and the King's Horseman," the Baroque density of words suited his subject. But Soyinka's continuing inability to resist the lure of four and five syllable words, his love of Latinate constructions and rare words in all situations (regardless of suitability) is by now a total irritant to me.

Why is it that the Master, in his dotage, has come to sound exactly like the pompous dictionary-wielding village schoolteacher that he took such delight in skewering in his very first play? His example has poisoned the literary style of many a Nigerian to this day: no one in Nigerian journalism uses a simple Anglo-Saxon word when a Latinate monstrosity would do. No one says "join" when they can launch "amalgamation." I'd love to go up in a helicopter and drop reams of Orwell's essay on the masses of Lagos.

To those who wish to experience Soyinka's genius and impish wit at its best, I'd recommend "Ake," the memoir of his childhood. There, the subject matter seems to have freed him into what (for him) is the very rarest of literary virtues: simplicity.

I tend to agree with St. Antonym's take on Wole Soyinka's book. I have also read the book and posted a review at:

My review is from the perspective of a Nigerian writer. Enjoy!

I've read a fair bit of post-colonial African literature, and Soyinka has always been the most erudite of the authors I've studied, the one who best appropriated the Western literary forms, although there's a strong case to be made in favor of Sembene's adoption of cinema having been more successful than anyone could have been expected from novels. I hate to agree with the sentiment that his old stuff is better than his new stuff, rather than simply changed as he himself has over the years, but the plays especially really are Soyinka in top form, and The Man Died better than any later essays or longer non-fiction. Frankly, the Collected Plays, volumes 1 and 2, contain better work than Death and the King's Horseman represents, although, having seen it in production at Lincoln Center years ago now, maybe that's just perception, since I only ever read the others. His essays since exile were nearly unreadable.

I'd like to read Isara and Ibadan, and I have plans to go back to A Season of Anomy, even though I liked Ake more, but still, when I go back to any favorites among the African writers I know best, it's usually Sembene or Armah or Mongo Beti or Ngugi Thiongo.

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Who was Cassandra?

  • In the Iliad, she is described as the loveliest of the daughters of Priam (King of Troy), and gifted with prophecy. The god Apollo loved her, but she spurned him. As a punishment, he decreed that no one would ever believe her. So when she told her fellow Trojans that the Greeks were hiding inside the wooden horse...well, you know what happened.