Book review: Wole Soyinka returns with first novel in nearly 50 years

Wole Soyinka's blazing wit and biting satire shines in his skewering of political hypocrisy in  Chronicles From The Land Of The Happiest People On Earth.
Wole Soyinka's blazing wit and biting satire shines in his skewering of political hypocrisy in Chronicles From The Land Of The Happiest People On Earth.PHOTOS: BLOOMSBURY, GLEN GRATTY

Chronicles From The Land Of The Happiest People On Earth

By Wole Soyinka
Fiction/Bloomsbury/Hardcover/449 pages/$42.69/Available here from Tuesday (Sept 28)
3 out of 5

"That the nation known as the Giant of Africa was credited with harbouring the Happiest People in the World was no longer news," writes Nigerian literary titan Wole Soyinka in his third novel.

To this end, the nation has created a Ministry of Happiness. It hosts the annual Festival of the People's Choice, where candidates across the country jockey to be honoured as Yeoman of the Year, a popularity contest that grows to eclipse all other reality television.

Acts of sabotage, even murder, are committed in the pursuit of this award. Candidates show their common touch by eating peasant snacks, giving lifts to the elderly, break-dancing and so on - all conveniently captured on camera.

Never mind that the country is mired in rampant corruption and endemic violence. Its people are the happiest on earth. It has the awards to show for it.

Soyinka, the first black African writer to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, has produced his first novel in nearly half a century since Season Of Anomy (available here) in 1973. The 87-year-old is most prolific as a playwright, though he has tried his hand at nearly every literary medium.

His return to fiction has been long-anticipated and he makes the reader work for it. This shaggy-dog story, starting from its mouthful of a title, is no picnic to parse.

There is a prevailing sense of chaos. The language deliberately obfuscates and the reader must dig through a great density of verbiage to excavate the plot, a whodunnit of sorts.

The plethora of characters is hard to distinguish, though some memorable figures rise to the surface: Dr Kighare Menka, a surgeon confronted with a grisly black market trade in body parts; his long-time friend Duyole Pitan-Payne, an engineer from a terrifyingly powerful family; and Papa Davina, a charismatic spiritual conman who holds sway over the country's leadership.

Soyinka's blazing wit and biting satire shines in his skewering of political hypocrisy, or in scenes like a blackly funny sequence involving the casual smuggling of decapitated heads.

The motif of dismemberment runs matter-of-factly through the novel, an allusion to how a corrupt society cannibalises itself.

If you like this, read: The Interpreters (Vintage, 1965, reissued 2021, $29.43, available here), Soyinka's debut novel set in post- independence Nigeria, as five young intellectuals return from studying abroad to start their careers in a nation struggling with its identity.

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