Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka leveraged the recent public presentation of his third novel in Lagos to decry Nigeria’s worsening insecurity and predilection for religion. Yinka Olatunbosun reports
Finally, the much-anticipated historic moment happened on Monday, December 7. A gathering of dignitaries – urshered in by a gaggle of traditional dancers and drummers – converged at the Terra Arena in Victoria Island, Lagos for the public presentation of Nobel Laureate Professor Wole Soyinka’s first novel in 48 years, titled Chronicles of the Happiest People on Earth.
The roll-call of that Monday evening gathering’s Who Is Who included the Transport Minister Rotimi Amaechi, the Works Minister Babatunde Fashola (represented by the CEO, Temple Management Company, Idris Olorunnibe), the US Consulate’s Public Affairs Officer Stephen Ibelli, Professor Ebun Clark (the wife of the recently-deceased poet John Pepper Clark), the environmental activist Newton Jibunoh, the renowned actor Richard Mofe-Damijo, TheNEWS’s executive editor Kunle Ajibade and The Nation’s editorial board chairman Sam Omatseye, among others.
It was indeed expected that the event, featuring Soyinka as unarguably one of the country’s most reverred figures, would be a guaranteed crowd-puller. After all, this was all about the third novel of the playwright and poet, who became the first African to win the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1986. His previous novels – The Interpreters, and Season of Anomy – were published in 1965 and in 1973, respectively.
Thus, Chronicles of the Happiest People on Earth, published by Bookcraft Limited, becomes his third. The publisher, which described the novel as “a narrative tour de force”, hinted at plans to publish the book internationally early next year. “This novel,” the publisher intimated in an earlier statement, “has got everything – friendship and betrayal; faith and treachery; hope and cynicism; murder, mayhem and no shortage of drama, all set against the backdrop of contemporary Nigeria. As you would expect from a Soyinka work, it’s got plenty of colourful characters, profound insights, witty commentary, and the most elegant language.”
There were animated readings from the book in English, French and Spanish, while a pre-recorded readings by the author were screened before the audience. The other readers in the three languages included Somto Asibelua, Simi Olayemi, Bolanle Austen Peters and Mofe-Damijo.
Honoured to be Soyinka’s African publisher, Bookcraft Limited’s chief executive Bankole Olayebi said: “We at Bookcraft are extremely delighted and grateful to Professor Soyinka for the opportunity to be the publishers of this book. We are grateful, especially for the continued trust and commitment he’s had to work with us. For nearly two decades, we have worked as Professor Soyinka’s African publishers.”
Indeed, it was the Ibadan-based publishing house that published Soyinka’s memoir, You Must Set Forth At Dawn in 2006 and other subsequent works including the author’s Interventions series, which is now in its ninth volume.
Not surprisingly, the occasion was also a platform for Soyinka to voice his concern over the state of affairs in the country. For ever since his literary odyssey began in Nigeria’s pre-independence years, he had consistently been vocal against the failings of the successive governments.
On the current atmosphere of insecurity, he expressed his dismay over the rising cases of killings and kidnappings across the country and cited religion as one of the fastest growing businesses in Nigeria today. The country, he added, was not only at war but in a war zone. “There is a greater dependency on religion because the nation is desperate. When a nation is desperate they turn to the supernatural. I think we are not only at war, we are all in a war zone. There is no question about that, because now, the sense of individual, collective and community safety has virtually become equivalent to a question of survival.”
The author, who was jailed as a political prisoner for being outspoken against the injustices of the Nigerian civil war, decried the trends chipping away at Nigeria’s unity and urged a decentralisation of governance to prevent a new set of conflagration fracturing the country.
During General Sani Abacha’s regime he fled the country in 1994 after his passport was seized. Sentenced in absentia, he spent most of his time in exile teaching in the US, only to return to Nigeria in 1998 after Abacha’s death. He also destroyed his green card after the US President Donald Trump’s election in 2016.
Asked how long it took him to write the novel, he responded that it took him forever. Not only was writing the book a problem he dealt with for many years, he had to escape twice, first to Senegal and then to Ghana before he could concentrate on the book. Cumulatively, he spent about two years to write it.
“I just could not concentrate sufficiently within these borders,” he maintained. “For me, all media of expression are important. Some things demand greater expression and approach. When you look at the country as it is now, it requires not only prose but tones. So, in my frustration I turned to prose.”
Another question that was raised regarding the book was the author’s preoccupation with the theme of religion. In his classic The Jero Plays, religious hypocrisy got a hard knock with his strong characterisation of Brother Jero. In this new novel, he probes the vicious character that religion has assumed not only as a justification for bloodshed but for being responsible for crippling human wills.
“I distinguished between spirituality and religion,” he said. “When religion is spiritual, it is good for humanity. And that which brings humanity under their spell. That is when religion becomes a problem.”