It is a mighty tome from the great Nigerian writer. Chronicles From The Land Of The Happiest People On Earth is a mire of poetic prose. It is possible to sink in it. Flail about and enjoy the view. Tense doesn’t always seem to make sense, but not often enough to do away with it altogether. The layers within the narrative threaten to drown the plot, in the same way the ocean becomes overwhelming in a storm, yet you remain afloat in your bark, tilting the rudder to the swell. That there’s a lot of ocean does not make it less important; on the contrary.
It is the antidote to the desiccated sentences often found and admired in Western literature. And in the Western, too. The clipped masculinity that leaves us to fill the void with our imagination, and so impressing us with the stoicism of it all. Not that the dry form hasn’t earned its place, and is used by the best to awesome effect: Cormac McCarthy, J.M. Coetzee, Ernst Hemingway, Stephen King, Annie Proulx – a rare woman among them, along with, arguably, Lionel Shriver.
If the landscape of their sentence structures and the words they choose to construct them evoke a metaphorical desert, Soyinka’s sentence structure and grammar evokes the jungle, made more fecund and multifarious by coming from a county containing a nation of more than 500 languages and the social and religious complexity such a multitude of tongues contains. Every chapter is a squall.
At the beginning, it seemed to read as satire. But in Africa the satirist’s complaint that the politicians and the powerful are continually stealing their best lines is a cliché because it is true. Self-styled pastors ordering followers to swallow live snakes, or spray themselves with Doom, staging farcical shows in claims to be raising the dead are not the creative imaginings of a wit taking aim at organised religion; they are facts. The same can be applied to actions and corresponding statements by politicians, the constructed drama of celebrities, the convolutions of conmen, the connivance of gangsters, the hysteria of WhatsApp groups. The satirist has only to point and present the facts, hyperbole is no longer possible.
Once this is absorbed, it is tempting to cast off again and tackle the storm better prepared, but trying to turn back into the wind is a way of getting stuck, and capsizing. By forging forward and letting the sail out, towering descriptions are crested with abandon, gaiety. Laughter abounds, sometimes at the sheer abundance of what is being conveyed. There is exuberance at plunging into the next trough.
The story Soyinka tells can be drawn together like the four strings of a purse, to hold within it the pulse of a nation, its blood streaming out in rivers of oil.
Perhaps I’m projecting a lot of imagery here. Oil is not a significant feature of the book, although the desire for the wealth it represents confronts us in the first chapter. What lies within the palm of this book is corruption. We see what it looks like, how it behaves, its insidiousness, and yet its inabililty to infect the immune; mostly choosing to kill them outright instead.
There are unforgettable characters. Duyole Pitan-Payne, irrepressible originator of the Gong o’ Four, bursting with mischievious creative energy. His closest friend, the phlegmatic surgeon from Gumchi, whose fame comes from stitching Boko Haram’s victims back together. The evangelical showman Teribogo aka Papa Davina, who sells religion like snake-oil, using the desperation of the poor and ambitious as a ladder to power. And Sir Goddie, the Prime Minister whose politics of the belly is comedic, were it not so tragic.
Tantalisingly, their narratives converge amidst scenes detailed lavishly by Soyinka’s playwright’s eye, combined with a delight in the backstory. You may, as I did, initially feel you need a metaphorical panga to hack a path through the imagery, but it is not long before you realise there is no obstruction, the verdant landscape is familiar as a recurrent dream, the prose as infectious as a tropical disease.