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the Complete Review
the complete review - lectures

The Burden of Memory,
the Muse of Forgiveness

Wole Soyinka

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To purchase The Burden of Memory, the Muse of Forgiveness

Title: The Burden of Memory, the Muse of Forgiveness
Author: Wole Soyinka
Genre: Lectures
Written: 1999
Length: 197 pages
Availability: The Burden of Memory, the Muse of Forgiveness - US
The Burden of Memory, the Muse of Forgiveness - UK
The Burden of Memory, the Muse of Forgiveness - Canada
The Burden of Memory, the Muse of Forgiveness - India
Die Last des Erinnerns - Deutschland
Il peso della memoria - Italia
  • Three lectures originally delivered at Harvard in April, 1997

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Our Assessment:

B : decent lectures, though perhaps of limited appeal

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Neue Zürcher Zeitung . 11/7/2001 Erika von Wietersheim
New Statesman . 5/2/1999 Stephen Howe
The NY Times Book Rev. . 17/1/1999 Caryl Phillips
Salon . 26/1/1999 Anderson Tepper
San Francisco Chronicle . 31/1/1999 Akin Adesokan
TLS . 4/6/1999 Robin Cohen
World Literature Today . Summer/2000 James Gibbs
Die Zeit . 19/4/2001 Andreas Eckert

  Review Consensus:

  Generally not too impressed

  From the Reviews:
  • "Leider ist die Übersetzung so mangelhaft, dass es leichter ist, den englischen Originaltext zu erahnen, als die deutsche Übersetzung zu verstehen." - Erika von Wietersheim, Neue Zürcher Zeitung

  • "The text veers between acute insights and portentous generalisations. (...) Soyinka brings to his political writings the same taste for polemic and satire that make his plays so compelling. He is a forceful, scathingly funny critic of his literary and political opponents; but he is not a discriminating or magnanimous one." - Stephen Howe, New Statesman

  • "In the end, it is clear that the task of formulating a strategy for reparations lies beyond the scope of this single essay and, for all his political acumen, beyond the brief of Wole Soyinka, writer. (...) When Soyinka yokes the literary to the political, and explores the reasons why negritude never took hold in the English-speaking world, he is both inspiring and original." - Caryl Phillips, The New York Times Book Review

  • "Though at times Soyinka's language can be cumbersome (as in most lectures, there are spells that inspire heavy-liddedness), he concludes with a lively discussion of the pitfalls of Negritude's African humanism." - Anderson Tepper, Salon

  • "The text of the book was given as lectures (...) -- hence the tone, which oscillates between the factuality of journalism and the discursiveness of scholarly writing." - Akin Adesokan, San Francisco Chronicle

  • "(C)hilling tales written in limpid, unremitting prose pervade this book." - Robin Cohen, Times Literary Supplement

  • "More seriously, inaccurate observations about, for example, the number of Ghanaians executed and the operation of French colonial policy create a feeling of distrust which affects the reader's reaction to the bold assertions Soyinka makes on a wide range of topics. This feeling is compounded by the inadequacy of academic support and the absence of evidence of close reading of recent texts or events. The Soyinka who emerges from this volume is a characteristically trenchant critic -- he has attitude -- but he is much better on literary than political matters, much better on the platform than on the page." - James Gibbs, World Literature Today

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Burden of Memory, the Muse of Forgiveness consists of three lectures originally delivered at Harvard in 1997. The central concern in them is the question of how historic wrongs might be righted, the focus being on the terrible injustice the peoples of Africa have been subjected to: slavery, apartheid, and the misrule of post-colonial dictators.
       The Introduction to these lectures begins in a way that will raise the eyebrows of American (and informed) readers:

     In the 1992 presidential elections, it would appear that the United States stood a reasonable chance of acquiring a new president in the person of a certain Mr. David Duke.
       Soyinka quickly draws back from this bold statement, acknowledging that Duke has since "declined into a state of well-earned obscurity in the United States", and even though he has good reason to bring up Duke (noting his efforts to spread his nasty white-supreme message in Germany and South Africa) the initial over-statement is hard to forget. It makes Soyinka seem a less than reliable surveyor of at least the American scene -- Duke stood absolutely no chance of becoming president in 1992 -- and likely casts doubts in the minds of his American readers as to what he says about Africa (especially as many of his statements are similarly bold-sounding). This is a shame, because he is far more careful (or better-informed) with his African examples.
       The first lecture, on Reparations, Truth, and Reconciliation, is the longest, using the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings as a starting point regarding how (or even: whether) one can overcome or deal with something like apartheid. From the question of whether slavery can be made good, on some level -- through reparations or some other process -- to the way in which African and other nations have dealt with previous regimes that perpetrated outrages (and how future one's might deal with them), Soyinka considers some of the historic successes and failures and possible consequences.
       The second lecture is on L.S.Senghor and Negritude, Soyinka finding that in the forgiving poet: "Today, we are inclined to recognize in Senghor the poetic anticipation of South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission." Here, and then also in the final lecture, Negritude and the Gods of Equity, Soyinka presents many verse-examples from the movement, and a decent overview, the focus here more on the artistic surmounting of colonialism (though the political aspect was generally integral to this as well).
       Soyinka's call for reparations appears to have been taken very literally, perhaps because he has made a case for them elsewhere as well -- including, as he mentions, once having suggested
that the slaving nations simply annul the the debts of the African world and we, in turn, would annul the incalculable injustice done to that world by today's beneficiaries of the slave commerce.
       No surprise that this "did not appear to make much impression (...) on the hard-headed executives of the World Bank to whom it was addressed". As a purely theoretical starting point, however, or a Gedankenexperiment -- which is how it comes across in these lectures (though clearly not to all readers) -- it seems a worthwhile idea to work with (especially as it not the only one he offers). Soyinka acknowledges that reparations are not a comprehensive solution (even leaving aside questions of feasibility) and that other hurdles -- including the corrupt governments that now oppress so many Africans and stand to be the main beneficiaries of any debt-cancellation -- would remain. Certainly, it does not come across that he believes this to be a simple solve-all; far from it.
       As lectures, these pieces don't cover the material in sufficient depth to consider all facets of the issue. Nevertheless, Soyinka raises interesting questions and guides the reader through the central points quite well. Senghor and Negritude are perhaps of more limited interest, but these relatively quick, fairly well presented surveys are also worth a look.
       If taken not as a final word or easy prescription, but rather as a starting point for discussion, these lectures -- particularly the first -- are certainly of interest and value.

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The Burden of Memory, the Muse of Forgiveness: Reviews: Wole Soyinka: Other books by Wole Soyinka under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Nigerian author Wole Soyinka was born in 1934. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1986.

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