Ben Okri

A Celebration of Wole Soyinka

 

There can’t be many people who care for literature, for all round excellence, who wouldn’t be moved by the fact that Wole Soyinka has, at last, been awarded the Nobel prize. In my opinion he entered that class in 1965, when he was thirty one years old, with the publication of his play, The Road. That same year saw the publication of his first novel, The Interpreters, which opens with the sentence: ‘Metal on concrete jars my drink lobes.’ A British critic compared that with the first sentence of Joyce’s Ulysses. Anyone who takes the trouble to read Soyinka’s collected plays, his two novels, his four volumes of poems, his book of essays, and his recently published autobiography, will understand exactly why he has been overdue for the highest international recognition.

He studied at the University of lbadan. In the late fifties he continued his studies at the University of Leeds under Wilson Knight and Dobrey. After leaving Leeds, he hung around London and became a script reader at the Royal Court theatre. Much has been made of that period, especially his relationship with writers such as Wesker, Arden, Delaney, Osbourne. But when I interviewed him two years ago he stressed the fact that at the time he was undergoing his apprenticeship in the theatre and not with the writers. He remembers that his only refuge from the iciness of the weather was sneaking into the warm auditoriums of theatres and watching endless rehearsals.

By the time he returned to Nigeria in 1960, shortly before independence, he had written three plays. The last of these, and his first major work, was The Dance of the Forest. It was performed as part of the Nigerian independence celebrations. A country couldn’t have a more oracular and uncomfortable play to usher it into nationhood. It is a work of startling power and it signalled the presence of a unique poetic sensibility. It was with his return to Nigeria that the most significant aspect of his career began. With a Rockefeller scholarship, he travelled round West Africa studying the techniques of traditional theatre. In the late sixties, when he had already emerged as an indispensable modern playwright, he was imprisoned for attempting to bring about a ceasefire during the Nigerian Civil War. His prison notes, The Man Died, leaves an incandescent record of his incarceration. He has been a tireless campaigner against tyranny and injustice, the gadfly of Nigerian governments. And he forged a new mode of literary and social consciousness. This could sometimes mean being involved in politics, or holding up a radio station with a gun to correct election rigging in his state. It may come as a surprise that when he was charged to appear in court because of the latter event he was defended by no other lawyer than John Mortimer.

Wole Soyinka’s contribution to literature has been the fusion of the mythic with the social, in a language of fierce erudite intensity. There aren’t many societies in the world ·today where the gods are taken seriously. But in Africa, gods are still real. Soyinka has made extraordinary explorations into African mythic prototypes, forged alliances with the old Greek gods, and thereby created the possibilities of a new and relevant classicism. To have contained in the body of his work the fullness of individual vision, the potency of myth, the corruptions of power, and the misery of the oppressed, is a rare feat. Weaving continuities, bridging the gaps between the turbulent world of human being and the numinous world of the gods has made it possible for him to express lyric comedy, the confrontations between history and reality, and great dread. His personal patron is Ogun, Yoruba god of war and creativity. His exposition of African religions as valid paradigms of existence had led many underground organisations to embrace him. In Africa this accounts, in a small way, for his legendary status. When I last interviewed him, I asked about his many-sidedness, and about his cultic aspects. He said: ‘I can’t answer the latter part of the question. On the one hand I am accused of being an individualist, and on the other I am accused of inspiring, and heading, subversive movements. I think the problem is that people expect human beings to correspond in totality with whatever is apparent. For me it is all a continuum.’

His love of hunting bridged over to a translation of Fagunwa’s The Forest of a Thousand Daemons, a hunting tale of Yoruba legend. His effecting of a lyric meeting between Ogun and Shaka (the famed amaZulu warrior and king) made it clear that the revolutionary condition must also draw on myth. And his play, The Road, was partly inspired by the escalation of accidents on the Nigerian roads. This also led him to become the unpaid commissioner of his State’s Roads Safety Corps. He says: ‘There is a quantum position in which you are pushed into taking action. ‘

He has enriched the world’s stage with some fifteen plays. From his first produced work, The Lion and the Jewel (1959) to his most recent, A Play for Giants (1984), there has been a fearless wrestling with forms and a bewildering diversity of material. His is a fictional universe where inventiveness brushes with tragic grandeur, and where tyranny co-exists with myth. He speaks for as many levels of human existence as his metaphoric temper can allow. His wildest ideas are made worthwhile by his unfailingly satirical eye and all his subjects benefit from the elastic verve of his writing. His most widely accessible work is his autobiography, Ake, The Years of Childhood, published five years ago. It is a delightful, impish evocation of a childhood in a twilight period of modern Nigerian history. When it was published it brought glowing reviews from both sides of the Atlantic. Nadine Gordimer compared him with Camus. I wouldn’t compare him with anybody else.

It is a shame that the British literary establishment had to be so mean about his winning the Nobel prize. But that is hardly surprising. In 1975, he was due to deliver a lecture at Cambridge University. To Soyinka’s chagrin, he found that he was being made to appear at the Department of Anthropology. This attitude also, probably, explains why his plays are not widely produced on the British stage. One hopes that will change. But nothing can take away the fact that he is a deserving winner of the prize. Mythopoecist, vigilante of liberty, songwriter, film-maker, medievalist, and one of the most important playwrights in the world today: to take the full measure of the man by attempting to compress him into a single frame is begging to get knotted in confusion. He is a Renaissance man, firmly rooted in Africa, at home in the world.

Sign Up to our newsletter

Receive free articles, highlights from the archive, news, details of prizes, and much more.

Follow Literary Review on Twitter