Book Review: "Chronicles from the Land of the Happiest People on the Planet", by Wole Soyinka

Such a conversation takes place halfway through the book, between the two main characters – Duyole Pitan-Payne, engineer and bon vivant, ...


Such a conversation takes place halfway through the book, between the two main characters – Duyole Pitan-Payne, engineer and bon vivant, and a surgeon named Kighare Menka – whose “old” friendship is the most moving story of the world. novel. As young students in England, together with two other Nigerians, they formed the ‘Gong of the Four’, a sort of ironic secret society with coded language and a common dream: to return to Nigeria and try to give something back. to their country – or, in their own words, “Come back and make a difference! It was an abstract mission, but it took on a more concrete form by Menka’s plan to build a hospital in her small, disadvantaged hometown. Decades later, one member of the group has disappeared without a trace, another has been jailed for money laundering, and Duyole is leaving the country for New York as a representative to the United Nations.

As for Dr Menka, he has become a reluctant local celebrity: at a time when terrorism is ravaging the country, with Boko Haram killing hundreds of civilians every month, he has specialized in amputation, operations on victims. suicide bombings, and even received a civilian honor for his dedication to these survivors and their injured bodies. After the most recent atrocity – the murder of an unarmed officer by an angry mob – was reported in the media, Menka comments on how lucky her friend Duyole is not to have to see these images again in America. Although “they have their equivalents there,” Menka says. “Ask the black people.” Duyole does not agree: “Not like that. Every once in a while, yeah, there’s a Rodney King storyline that pops up. Or a fascist “I can’t breathe” madness. America is a product of slave culture, prosperity being the reward for racist cruelty. This is different. This, let me confess, touches on… a word I prefer to avoid but cannot – soul. It calls into question the collective notion of soul. Something is broken. Beyond race. Exterior color or story. Something has cracked. Cannot be reassembled.

Something has cracked: It is in this fracture that the novel takes place. On one side are the Duyoles and the Menkas, honest human beings trying to expose a criminal enterprise in a corrupt society. On the other side are the Powers That Be, represented primarily by two men: Papa Davina and Godfrey Danfere. The first is a self-taught religious leader who realizes, after several picaresque failures à la Moll-Flanders, that “he had only one product to offer: spirituality”. The second is the least interesting of Soyinka’s characters: Beggar and hypocrite, ambitious but petty to the core, he is a caricature of political power gone wrong. Both are disturbing individuals, and their possible involvement in the body parts trade is never far from the surface. But at the same time, they are the object of constant derision. When Papa Davina builds a site for prophecy, he calls it a “prophesis”; and Sir Goddie is the leader of the “People on the Move Party”, but he never acknowledges the fact that the acronym spells POMP.

What I mean is this: I can understand why Soyinka would have chosen satire as a means of exploring the crossroads between corruption, religious fanaticism, endemic resentment and a legacy of colonial division. Humor is a proven defense mechanism. But for all its sarcastic nuances, all its puns and name games, “Chronicles of the Land of the Happiest Peoples on Earth” is a pessimistic novel, the work of a man without any of the illusions suggested, in ironically, by the title. This perhaps explains why the best section of the book has only a fortuitous connection to the often wordy and artificial main plot: A Nigerian died on Austrian soil, sparking a confrontation between several members of his family, who want to that he is buried where he died, and Dr. Menka, who wants to bring the body back to Nigeria. The novel seems to change tone and rhythm during these chapters: it becomes serious, touching, strangely intimate. What happened?

It is here that longtime Soyinka readers will remember the aforementioned memoir, “You Must Set Forth at Dawn”, the most moving pages of which are dedicated to his friendship with Femi Johnson, a Nigerian who died in Frankfurt, and to Soyinka’s efforts to repatriate his body. against the will of the family. “Chronicles” virtually reproduces these real events; we hear the voice of the writer freeing himself from the demands of the genre and the restrictions of the complex argumentation he has conceived. When an undertaker feels close to a doctor because “they both worked on the same material,” you hear Wole Soyinka, the human intellectual, thinking about mortality. The fragility, the vulnerability of the human body: yes, you say, that’s what the novel was always about.

Juan Gabriel Vásquez is the author, more recently, of “Songs for the Flames”.

CHRONICLES FROM THE LAND OF THE HAPPiest PEOPLE ON EARTH
By Wole Soyinka
444 pages. Books from the Pantheon. $ 28.

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Newsrust - US Top News: Book Review: "Chronicles from the Land of the Happiest People on the Planet", by Wole Soyinka
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