Wole Soyinka: The Books That Really Change the World?

Who is really going to watch the guards? There are direct echoes of Swift’s cannibalism in Soyinka’s Chronicles, where one of the main characters, a surgeon named Dr Purposes. Soyinka deplores the state of Nigerian society today; he spoke of “cannibalism, weird kind, … a society that eats itself up, kind of self-directed cannibalism and the decline of our humanity”.

In Chronicles, Soyinka quotes a Yoruba saying: “When we meet an elephant, we admit that we have seen the Lord of the Forest and do not casually notice that we see something flashing before our eyes.” He has dedicated his career to addressing the elephant in space – and the circus around it. (Juvenal said that people only crave two things, “panem et circenses” or bread and games.) The trick is to avoid the elephant sitting on you.

Dangerous fiction

Satire has a way of bringing its practitioners up to date with the latest in politics, and that is often a risky, if not life-threatening, endeavor. As Mullan points out, even the most formidable, seemingly invulnerable leader usually can’t stand being laughed at. (Mullan quotes Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin who were accused of lack of humor.) It is one thing, for example, to mercilessly send up the UK Prime Minister and Cabinet with puppets, as did the hit television series Spitting Image (represented Margaret Thatcher as demonic tyrants and even as a buddy of Adolf Hitler); such satirical goals traditionally have very little comeback in healthy democracies other than complaining. President Reagan, who has been repeatedly attacked by Spitting Image, reportedly called NBC asking them to cancel the show to no avail.

Shaking hands with Nigerian regimes and other elite cliques for a lifetime is an entirely different matter, as Soyinka did: he spent 22 months in prison during the Nigerian Civil War and fled the country in 1994 after enraging military dictator Sani Abacha who pronounced a death sentence against him in his absence. But Soyinka has always lived on the political precipice. His 1986 Nobel Prize, his sheer stature, may or may not have given him some protection. Others were unlucky: Chronicles is dedicated to two Nigerian political activists, the journalist Dele Giwa and the lawyer and politician Bola Ige, “both struck down by assassins”.

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