It's been almost 50 years since Wole Soyinka published a novel — 48 years, to be exact. Soyinka — a playwright, novelist, and political activist, among other things, has ensnared the literary world with his genius, going all the way back to 1986 when he became the first Black African writer to win the Nobel Prize in Literature.
Soyinka has only written two previous novels, The Interpreters (1965) and Season of Anomy (1973) — now, to great fanfare and high expectations, he has released his third, Chronicles from the Land of the Happiest People on Earth.
The novel is not-so-loosely set in Soyinka's home country Nigeria, and it takes readers on a wild, funny, ride through a mystery that encompasses charlatan preachers, corrupt politicians, upper-class scholars and more.
The parts of the novel that are good are immensely good — and in true Soyinka fashion, the writing tosses you right into the middle of Nigerian life, for better or worse: "Ignoring the pandemonium that ensued, the assailant fastidious wiped the machete on the clothing of the prostrate trunk, calmly restored it to its improvised paper scabbard," he writes. "A car drew up ... the vehicle swallowed the killer and zoomed off."
Chronicles follow a cast of characters entwined in a maelstrom of plotlines that eventually form up around the mysterious murder of a popular and well-respected engineer, Duyole Pitan-Payne. He's been offered a position at the UN representing Nigeria, which seems like the opportunity of a lifetime to Pitan-Payne and his family. But it is, in fact, a ploy to get him out of the country — and away from any possibility of inserting himself into the corrupt affairs of the nation's leaders. "This terminal departure was handed to us on a golden platter," the prime minister quips.
Before he can leave, Pitan-Payne finds himself in the crosshairs of a nefarious scheme by prime minister Godfrey Danfere (also known as Sir Goddie, and the People's Steward), and the false prophet Papa Davina — whose ecclesiastical scams see him change identities several times throughout the novel. A bomb planted in Pitan-Payne's house ensures he won't trouble either of them anymore.
Such an unhappy bunch, the people of Soyinka's Chronicles, but they're determined to show the world that their land is indeed the happiest of all, a title plucked from a real-life Gallup survey in 2011 showing Nigeria as one of the happiest countries in the world. The planning of the country's annual Festival of the People of Happiness galvanizes the novel and serves as a glaring irony.
In the second half of the novel, Pitan-Payne's best friend begins to take center stage. Dr. Kighare Menka is an award-winning surgeon, famous for his work with mutilated victims of the Boko Haram militant group. There is a moment where Menka suspects the attack on his friend and Pitan-Payne's family's subsequent, adamant refusal to follow Nigerian funeral customs may be related.
Menka knows there is a black market for human body parts — an underground business gruesomely known as Human Resources — that seems to be connected to the country's most visible leaders. It's a lucrative business that thrives on the people's cultural belief system that human organs have properties to aid in charms used to gain success and power, or bring about an enemy's downfall. All superstition — but powerful enough to birth such a business venture.
It is a difficult storyline to follow. Soyinka writes in a conversational tone — if the conversation were between scholars and not barstool buddies — and neglects to introduce his central character, around whom the murder mystery swirls, until five chapters in. Chronicles — though it flashes with Soyinka's sharp social and political humor, takes a herculean effort to read; it's littered with far too many names to keep track of. (And even after reading over 440 pages of this whodunnit story, it's still unclear why Pitan-Payne's family insists he should not be brought back to Nigeria.)
And behind the ongoing circus of the political and religious ambitions of the corrupt, there's yet another story taking place in the background — that of a friend's unwavering commitment and love for a man he considered a brother. That story between Menka and Pitan-Payne deserved to be fleshed out and appreciated more.
It's painful to suggest that Soyinka's new novel might be anything less than a work of art — after all, he has been percolating on the idea for quite some time. But Chronicles is largely inaccessible to non-intellectuals, and florid beyond reason at times. More than that, the story's complexity makes it easy for readers to disengage if they're not intimately familiar with the inner workings of Nigerian politics.
Chronicles seems effortful; it reads like a novel with something to prove. And perhaps, after all these years maybe the incomparable author does. Nevertheless, though he's a great writer, this book does not reflect the brilliant canon of work Soyinka's known for.
Keishel Williams is a Trinidadian American book reviewer, arts & culture writer, and editor.