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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Chronicles From the Land
of the Happiest People
on Earth

Wole Soyinka

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To purchase Chronicles From the Land of the Happiest People on Earth

Title: Chronicles From the Land of the Happiest People on Earth
Author: Wole Soyinka
Genre: Novel
Written: 2021
Length: 444 pages
Availability: Chronicles From the Land of the Happiest [...] - US
Chronicles From the Land of the Happiest [...] - UK
Chronicles From the Land of the Happiest [...] - Canada
Crónicas desde el país de la gente más feliz de la Tierra - España

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Our Assessment:

B+ : in many ways impressive -- but also somewhat arduous

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Evening Standard D 30/9/2021 Tomiwa Owolade
The Guardian A 27/9/2021 Ben Okri
The Guardian . 14/10/2021 Helon Habila
The Lagos Rev. A 19/9/2021 Onyeka Nwelue
Literary Review . 10/2021 Frank Lawton
The NY Rev. of Books . 7/4/2022 Colin Grant
The NY Times Book Rev. . 17/10/2021 J.Gabriel Vásquez
The New Yorker . 20/9/2020 .
Publishers Weekly . 7/7/2021 .
The Spectator B 4/12/2021 Boyd Tonkin
The Straits Times . 25/9/2021 Olivia Ho
TLS . 15/10/2021 Nnamdi Ehirim
Wall St. Journal . 24/9/2021 Geoff Wisner

  From the Reviews:
  • "His reputation would be perfect if this book did not exist: the plot is too meandering, and the prose too mediocre, for it to qualify as a great novel. (...) Chronicles is a slog. The plot is often difficult to follow, as Soyinka winds his way through a thicket of characters and obscure aphorisms. Density can be successful if there are pay-offs: vivid characterisation, satisfying plot resolutions, or beautiful prose. But there is very little of that here. In fact, too many sentences seem laboured. " - Tomiwa Owolade, Evening Standard

  • "This is essentially a whistleblower's book. It is a novel that explodes criminal racketeering of a most sinister and deadly kind that is operating in an African nation uncomfortably like Nigeria. It is a vivid and wild romp through a political landscape riddled with corruption and opportunism and a spiritual landscape riddled with fraudulence and, even more disquietingly, state-sanctioned murder. This is a novel written at the end of an artist's tether. It has gone beyond satire. It is a vast danse macabre. (...) It is a high-wire performance sustained for more than 400 pages and it makes for uncomfortable and despairing reading, but always elevated with a robust sense of humour and the true satirist's unwillingness to take the pretensions of power seriously, even when it is murderous in effect. (...) It is Soyinka's greatest novel, his revenge against the insanities of the nation's ruling class and one of the most shocking chronicles of an African nation in the 21st century." - Ben Okri, The Guardian

  • "Chronicles is written in what critics would describe as a “late style”: a bit prolix, often dilatory and anecdotal. It is also courageous, and it does name names and point fingers. One of the delights is the ease with which Soyinka switches between registers, from the elevated to the absurd, along with his unapologetic use of “Nigerianisms” and Yoruba vernacular. (...) Chronicles is a good model for what the political novel should be(.....) In the end, it is a triumph of the novel as a form: its ability to accommodate all styles and approaches." - Helon Habila, The Guardian

  • "Breezy, sometimes, punchy, it is typical Wole Soyinka: brimming with wisdom and full of words you may never have heard or seen or read anywhere. You have to polish your vocabulary with it. (...) This storytelling technique is very muscular. I have never seen anyone write about the political/religious class with so much dexterity. And perhaps, accuracy! His wealth of experience from different strata of life, reflects fully in this masterpiece. His mindscape is broad and it shows here. Not to sound patronizing, here is a book that is not for everyone. Only the intellectual elite will have the pleasure of sitting through this bundle of wisdom and humour." - Onyeka Nwelue, The Lagos Review

  • "Chronicles is energetic and sets off at quite a pace. The ambition is admirable but the book bulges with a superabundance of characters barely sketched beyond caricature; as a consequence it soon becomes unbalanced and unwieldy. Even a significant character such as Papa Davina is absent for long passages. Nevertheless, a lacerating satirical sharpness propels the book, and if at times it appears overwritten, that is consistent partly with the feeling of hysteria and a country careering out of control (…..) Finally, the tone of Soyinka’s writing, as he looks squarely at the terrible truths of his homeland, is one of weary impotence as the ghoulish details unfold and the story grinds to its end. Though the rendering of violence is not pornographic, the novel reveals a dispirited population resigned to amoral leaders who are quietly constructing a state governed by a kind of cannibalism. (...) It is very dark; depictions of postcolonial Nigeria don’t get much darker." - Colin Grant, The New York Review of Books

  • "Chronicles is many things at once: a caustic political satire, a murder mystery, a conspiracy story and a deeply felt lament for the spirit of a nation. The plot -- convoluted, obscure at times, often tying itself in too many knots -- turns on the aptly named Human Resources, a sinister online business that sells human body parts for private use in rituals and superstitions. (...) But the novel is not merely interested in indignation; it is after bigger game. (...) But for all its sarcastic undertones, for all its puns and plays on names, Chronicles From the Land of the Happiest People on Earth is a pessimistic novel, the work of a man with none of the illusions suggested, in full irony, by the title." - Juan Gabriel Vásquez, The New York Times Book Review

  • "With caustic wit, Soyinka’s carnivalesque depictions of venality ferret out hypocrisy from behind its elaborate guises and condemn crimes that challenge “the collective notion of soul.”" - The New Yorker

  • "Those with a solid grounding in current Nigerian politics are most likely to pick up on allusions to events and personalities that will elude the lay reader. Still, the imaginatively satirical treatment of serious issues makes this engaging on multiple levels." - Publishers Weekly

  • "Frequently as diffuse as its full title, Chronicles is hard to recommend as a spruce and tidy novel — a well-trimmed Salzburg cemetery of fiction. It sprawls and it sags. Yet its tragicomedy of excess has a crazy, wayward grandeur. (...) His untamed brio reminds you that, after their elevation, Nobel laureates don’t invariably shed energy or talent. What they lose, you suspect, is a decent editor." - Boyd Tonkin, The Spectator

  • "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. (...) Soyinka's blazing wit and biting satire shines in his skewering of political hypocrisy" - Olivia Ho, The Straits Times

  • "(A) devastatingly detailed examination of Nigerian society. (...) Outside the circle of friendship are many unforgettable characters, potential stereotypes forged into vibrant and credible beings. (...) Chronicles is as much social commentary as fiction. (...) The narrative is at its best when it moves beyond history and politics, and into the daily intrigues of its principal characters." - Nnamdi Ehirim, Times Literary Supplement

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 'land of the happiest people on earth' of the title of Wole Soyinka's sharply and darkly satirical novel is Nigeria, which, unsurprisingly, doesn't quite live up to that bold, cheery claim in these pages. Much that Soyinka chronicles here is closely based on fact -- and part of the considerable challenge he faces is that much of the reality he's working and riffing off already borders on the -- sometimes almost too -- comically absurd.
       Politicians and the system in which they thrive are a prime target here. Early on there is a mention of: "an innovation that came from one of the most impoverished states within that federated nation", a 'Ministry of Happiness' -- an idea that isn't so much delusional as, essentially, another creative scam, and opportunity, at least for those already in power, as:

Its pioneer minister, known as commissioner, was the spouse of the imaginative governor, while other members of the family and relations filled the various positions generated by the unique cabinet installation.
       And, in fact, in 2017 Imo State governor Rochas Okorocha did establish a Ministry of Happiness and Purpose Fulfilment -- and appointed his sister to run it. (Soyinka doesn't even bother with the "typographic error" (so then the official explanation) that led to the actual ministry originally being called the 'Ministry of Happiness and Couple's Fulfilment', though later in the novel there's quite a to-do about an underling-politician 'stealing' the People on the Move Party's (yes, POMP) leader's "identity handle", the catchy sobriquet of 'National Servant', forcing prime minister Sir Godfrey 'Goddie' Danfere to re-brand as the "People's Steward'.)
       Though a single country -- "known as the Giant of Africa" -- Soyinka points out the proliferation of provinces in Nigeria, which established little fiefdoms and elevated local "village heads and petty chiefs" to powerful monarchs in their own rights, as governors of these provinces. What had once been Ibadan -- the south of Nigeria --: "was delivered of twenty-four new kingdoms one day in an era of democratic attestation", while northern Kano saw: "the parturition of fourteen emirates". (Starting with three regions, Nigeria was divided into twelve states in 1967, then nineteen in 1976, continuing to be occasionally parceled up, most recently in 1996 into its current thirty-six states.) With elections coming up when the novel opens, the latest jostling for power, on both the state and national level, plays a significant role in the story. One character acknowledges: "You know there are no elections. Everything is decided in advance"; nevertheless, there's still a lot of jockeying for positions and favor, and a great deal of finagling to be done.
       The central figures in Chronicles From the Land of the Happiest People on Earth are the members of a quartet of old schoolfriends, the Gong o' Four, now all around sixty years old. Two are at the fore of the narrative: the engineer Duyole Pitan-Payne and the surgeon Kighare Menka. A third in the group is Prince Badetona, "scion of a royal house" (though: "it would not be the turn of his royal line for another century"), a talented numbers-man (and, it turns out, money-handler) who, shortly after being promoted to an important chief executive director position, makes the unfortunate decision to ... take a bus, and is in for the shock of his life has he waits in the queue; this and the duties he performed -- which have caught up with him -- have left him practically a shell of his former self, "his razor-sharp mind scrambling in a void for a hold on reality". Finally, there's the shadowy fourth member of the gang, Farodion, who had been: "the live wire, heart and soul of the group" but whose trail they had lost sight of decades earlier; he had: "dropped out of sight completely ! Simply vanished" -- or so it seems to Menka, anyway ..... (At one point Duyole -- always slightly more clear-eyed than Menka -- chuckles: "Farodion ? He'll show up. I don't know why, but I just sense that he's gainfully active somewhere around, preparing to spring a surprise and show up the rest of the quartet. People like him don't just vanish".)
       As to the two from the quartet that play the central roles in the novel, the first is Duyole Pitan-Payne, a very successful engineer from a prominent family who has just gotten a prestigious appointment to the UN Energy Commission and is to leave shortly for this new posting in New York. It was the UN that selected him, rather than the local powers that be -- and the current regime under Sir Goddie still wants to throw a spanner in those works: they can't have it that merit could trump nepotism, not to mention that Duyole has proven quite the irritant to the (corrupt) way they like to run things.
       There's also Dr.Kighare Menka, resident surgeon in Jos at the start of the novel, who has just been awarded a National Medal of Honour. (Prestigious, the honor nevertheless had a tough time competing with the various people's choice-type awards that have also been proliferating, such as the: "Yeoman of the Year -- YoY -- a people's recognition of public service over and above the call of duty, gain, or praise" (which has conveniently proved to be: "a brilliantly elastic concept"), or the "People's Award for the Common Touch, PACT", not to mention: "The much-craved super-category of the Common Touch Award" which was: "in a class of its own".) Menka dutifully does his job, despite the horrors he is confronted with daily -- notably, here, treating the horrible injuries of a constant flow of victims of violence perpetrated by various insurgent and terrorist groups. And beyond the carnage the "religious fanatics and deluded millenarians" are responsible for there are also the: "domestic, noninsurgency wounds that depleted his reserves" -- the household horrors of violation and brutality, which really get to him.
       Menka has reached his cracking if not completely breaking point. It was an offer to join a management board, made shortly after the announcement of his receiving the national honor, that pushed him to the brink. A trio approached him, and tried to sell him on their undertaking. They explained how they: "Prevent waste. We engage and maximize resources. Human resources". They're certainly not kidding when they say:
It is not one of your run-of-the-mill businesses, not something you come across every day, but it's gaining ground.
       They invite him to tour one of their nearby facilities, and he takes them up on it -- flabbergasted then by what he is shown:
I was given a guided tour, all businesslike. The goods were on display. Rows and rows of body parts -- thighs, ankles, necks, breasts, and fingers, hunchback tissue, well preserved. Foetuses and reproductive organs. There were entire ribcages suspended from hooks -- that seemed strange to me at first. But apparently if you imprison an infant within the ribcage and leave it there to die naturally -- yes, that was the word -- naturally, that is from starvation, the baby's vital organs produce a double, triple potency for something -- I forget what precisely, but it had to do with longevity. Yes, all neatly arranged in refrigerated glass display cases. Preserved in alcohol. Sometimes in coconut oil. Professionally labeled. They even have a vault. Access granted to a very limited clientele.
       They want Menka to join them because, as a surgeon, he of course has easy access to the body parts that they need: supply wouldn't seem to be that big a problem for them, but demand still seems to outstrip what they can readily get their hands on. (There's also that early blot on Menka's career, when he helped carry out the local Shariah law judgement of an amputation -- just the kind of body-part-procurement procedure this organization is clearly a big fan of.) However, Menka's job prospects at this establishment go south quickly when it becomes clear to them that he's not on board with the program.
       It turns out to be a large-scale enterprise, a carefully nurtured and built up market -- though:
The success of the new enterprise and the rapidity of its growth were a surprise only to those who failed to give credit to specialist marketers who were masters of the profession, had done their feasibility studies across vastly different strata of society, including even the new science of consumerist simulation.
       The finishing touch had been to add an: "air of scriptural authority", as:
Once the new commodity market acquired a tinge of religiosity, any lingering reservations among the weak-minded vanished. Trade blossomed under the aegis of spirituality.
       Menka wisely quickly abandons Jos after he had made it clear that this was something he did not want to be involved in -- and that he's more interested in bringing to (public) light this outrageous business.
       Menka takes up Duyole's offer to stay with him, near Lagos, for the time being. As someone who perhaps knows too much, Menka is obviously in some personal danger; certainly, the message he got in Jos as to what he might be up against if he pursued things seemed quite loud and clear.
       He's not alone, either: simmering in the background, there's also the countdown to Duyole's departure for New York, to take the UN position. For all of prime minister Sir Goddie's warm words when he spoke with the engineer -- after making him wait pretty much the whole day for the audience --, Duyole remains a thorn in the government's side -- "a walking insult to this government", even, as one person denounces him to the People's Steward. They think he's not deserving of the posting -- earned on merit, and not as a favor (which is the government's preferred way of filling any and all positions) -- and apparently are willing to go to great lengths to prevent his ever taking up the position.
       Central to the novel, too, is the idea of one's true home, a connection to land and family. It is most pronounced in Menka, who hails from the : "completely anonymous rockhill village" of Gumchi -- "virtually in the dead centre of the nation", though now very much in the shadow of nearby Abuja, the planned city which became the capital of Nigeria in 1991. For Menka: "The pull of the home village overcame all competition"., and his dream is to settle back there again, perhaps running some kind of rehabilitation clinic. It is somewhat similar for Duyole, who's hometown is Badagry, not too far from Lagos, and site of the center of his well-established family's empire, his business headquartered at his Millennium Towers. Among the main plot-points of the novel then is also the tug-of-war about where one of the characters who dies should be buried, his family wanting to see him quietly buried abroad, to the shock and outrage of most everyone else: any and all Nigerians are expected to be buried in native soil, and to do otherwise seems a terrible failing.
       A number of other characters also figure prominently, not least the nation's prime minister, the smooth-talking Sir Goddie -- who, among much else, also has his own interests in Gumchi. There's also Duyole's wayward son from a very short-lived first marriage (to a foreigner), Damien, a figure who long seems to shy away from taking any initiative or action but turns out to be rather more involved in things than expected. Finally there's the man called Teribogo -- "known more affectionately as Papa Davina" --, who has built up a large-scale religious operation and empire and has the ear of Sir Goddie, and his fingers in much that is going on in the country.
       There long seem to be only loose connections between some of the chapters and characters as Soyinka unfolds his story, but ultimately almost everything is much more closely tied together than it initially appears. Soyinka toys quite a bit with his readers, especially in dosing out what he reveals and explains: the chapters are mostly very much in the moment, and there's quite a bit of fill-in information that he long holds back, only sprinkling it in along the way (and saving quite a bit for the final reveals). Yes, as one of the characters eventually notes: "Well, you were bound to work it all out soon enough" -- but that only happens in the novel's closing scene. Much remains unclear for most of the novel, and so readers may well long feel like the surgeon does:
Menka felt increasingly baffled. This went beyond mystery. He felt he had been landed in the middle of a fierce battle whose causes he could not remotely guess at.
       Menka also notes about events at one point: "No, something was screwy", and that too applies more generally, to much of the goings-on. It does all come and fit together reasonably neatly, but Chronicles From the Land of the Happiest People on Earth isn't quite a thriller. Soyinka manages some suspense, but also often saps it -- not least with a style that does, bit by bit, hold the reader rapt but also stunts the action. Soyinka's sentences are wonderfully expressive, but he -- and his story -- can get too wrapped up in them; it makes for a sometimes sloggish read.
       Soyinka does not go all-out in twisting this into absurdist satire; there is humor here, but he doesn't force comic effect. No small part of his point is how very much too close to real-life Nigerian circumstances his story is; indeed, despite its satiric and absurdist-seeming edge, Chronicles From the Land of the Happiest People on Earth is, in feel and substance, very much realist fiction.
       Soyinka sums up the situation he is trying to capture well in Duyole's comparison of his homeland with the United States, where:
Occasionally, yes, there does erupt a Rodney King scenario. Or a fascistic spree of 'I can't breathe.' America is a product of slave culture, prosperity as the reward for racist cruelty. This is different. This, let me confess, reaches into ... a word I would rather avoid but can't -- soul. It challenges the collective notion of soul. Something is broken. Beyond race. Outside colour or history. Something has cracked. Can't be put back together.
       Early on already, Soyinka had pointed out the political fragmentation of Nigeria, its subdivision into so many provinces, individual fiefdoms and power-centers, multiplying opportunities for corruption. One reason he has Menka focus so (and come from) Gumchi is that it is literally (at) the heart of the country -- even as it is almost completely overshadowed by the artificial heart that was built nearby, the seat of government, Abuja. Menka sees all his hope in Gumchi -- so also his grand ambition is to build a rehabilitation center, meant for individuals but symbolically of course also for the nation as a whole -- but this heart of the nation struggles to beat even faintly here. Then there is the obscene commercial business that figures so prominently in the novel, which revolves around literal dismemberment: not only the nation, but even individual bodies are ripped apart -- and yet there are those who gain financially from even something as outrageous as this. Corruption extends well beyond the political; it hasn't just wormed its way into the spiritual but seems to dominate and drive it now as well.
       Chinua Achebe wrote the first great Nigerian novel, Things Fall Apart, and Soyinka's Chronicles From the Land of the Happiest People on Earth similarly echoes Yeats' poem, the Nigeria he describes seemingly insistent on proving that "the centre cannot hold".
       Chronicles From the Land of the Happiest People on Earth is an impressively-wrought work, but the intricacies of its sentences and its plot are challenging. Framed loosely as a kind of thriller, Soyinka only very occasionally allows things to proceed with any kind of breathless urgency. Instead, for better and worse, everything Soyinka does here feels very deliberate -- at times, almost painstakingly so; it is, ultimately, a lot, for a novel of this heft. While certainly satisfying, piece by piece along the way, the larger picture remains frustratingly hinted-at but long opaque; the way in which Soyinka holds back does not always work to good effect.
       Chronicles From the Land of the Happiest People on Earth is well worthwhile, but is not an easy -- much less easy-going -- read.

- M.A.Orthofer, 19 September 2021

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Chronicles From the Land of the Happiest People on Earth: 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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© 2021-2022 the complete review

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