Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 24, 2021

Chronicles from the Land of the Happiest People on Earth, by Wole Soyinka: combined reviews

Finer minds than mine have raved about the brilliance of this book, and Soyinka is a Nobel Prize winner and all, but … it took ages for me to read this book and even now I’m not sure that I’ve made sense of it.

So here are some reviews from expert reviewers:

You will have noticed that both Okri and Habila are Nigerian, which means they are ‘closer to home’ so to speak, about some of the satirical elements in the novel, elements which might pass some of us by.  But then there’s this one by

  • Juan Gabriel Vásquez in the NYT: Vásquez is from Colombia so he also knows what it’s like to live under poor governance.  He writes that the novel is a caustic political satire, a murder mystery, a conspiracy story and a deeply felt lament for the spirit of a nation.

He also identifies the problem that I had with keeping track of proceedings:

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. As often happens in satire, the outrageousness of the fictional premise comes from its proximity to the truth: The belief that human organs have magical properties, leading to business success and political power, has been known to lead to ritual murders in Nigeria…

But, he says, the real interest in the novel lies elsewhere: it interrogates the state of a nation where these kinds of things can happen. That makes Chronicles more than just a satire, but for me, it got lost along the way.

The plot, such as it is, focusses on the fate of “The Gong [sic] of Four”, idealists educated in England who wanted to ‘give back’ to their country.  Dr Menka who specialises in amputating the limbs of suicide bombing victims and the engineer Duyole Pitan-Payne are all that’s left of this student bond, and they are hopelessly compromised.  They are, what’s more, no match for the country’s leaders, the pseudo spiritual leader Papa Davina and and Godfrey Danfere for whom I can find no more appropriate word than slimy.  These two preside over circuses without the bread, ignoring poverty, corruption, Boko Haram and the complete failure of the nation to transcend its colonial period because of poor governance.

The trouble is, that although it’s often very funny in a macabre and sometimes undergraduate kind of way, Soyinka’s style is so baroque, discursive and verbose, that it’s hard to follow the thread of proceedings.  There’s an overlong section about the conflict over one of the four who dies in Austria: his family wants him buried there and Dr Menka wants him buried in his homeland, and for quite a while I wasn’t sure exactly who it was who had died and how, nor did I understand why his family didn’t want to repatriate the body. (The Vasquez review explains how this is personal for Soyinka, but I didn’t know that when I was reading it, and it just seemed interminable.)

Keishel Williams at the NPR, is a Trinidadian American book reviewer.  He sums up my problem with the book:

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.

Still, I’m not sorry I read it.  Soyinka has been ruthlessly honest about the shortcomings of his country; he’s not into blaming colonialism for its flaws.  If the prominence of this novel makes Nigerian readers more aware of what needs to be done, perhaps some lasting beneficial change might come of it.

Author: Wole Soyinka
Title: Chronicles from the Land of the Happiest People on Earth
Publisher: Bloomsbury, 2021
ISBN: 9781526638236, pbk., 444 pages
Source: review copy courtesy of Bloomsbury


Responses

  1. Sounds tricky… I might give it a miss 😉

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    • Even though it’s difficult, I think it would be good to read if you’ve never read anything from Nigeria.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I suspect I would struggle with this, although it does sound as if it has rewards.

    Like

    • Yes, that’s exactly it.
      I think my timing was bad: with a month of reading novellas for #NovNov, I have a renewed appreciation for the short novel. Chunksters have to make every word earns its place too.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I’ll pass … for now :-)

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I do my (limited) best to read some African Lit. I think Famished Road is still the best I’ve read. At the moment I’m struggling with This Mournable Body

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    • I was impressed by TMB, but I’m not sure how it would work as an audio book.
      Have you checked out the African Writers Series? I’ve read some of them and they are generally very worthwhile (and not too long either!): see my reviews at https://anzlitlovers.com/tag/heinemann-african-writers-series/ and the ?complete list athttps://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Heinemann_African_Writers_Series

      Like


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