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Chronicles From the Land
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B+ : in many ways impressive -- but also somewhat arduous
See our review for fuller assessment.
From the Reviews:
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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.
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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Nigerian author Wole Soyinka was born in 1934. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1986.
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