'You Must Set Forth at Dawn: A Memoir,' by Wole Soyinka

New York Times, April 23, 2006
Exile's Return
Norman Rush is the author of the short story collection "Whites," and of the novels "Mating" and "Mortals." He is at work on a new novel, "Subtle Bodies."

IT was never going to be easy for Wole Soyinka. An aspiring playwright with deep roots in his Yoruba home country, highly educated, with passionate expectations for a free and democratic Nigerian state, he was at university in Britain during the years just preceding the independence that would be brokered into existence in 1960. As he shows early on in his new memoir, "You Must Set Forth at Dawn," the portents were bleak from the beginning:

"The nationalists, the first-generation elected leaders and legislators of our semi-independent nation, had begun to visit Great Britain in droves. We watched their preening, their ostentatious spending and their cultivated condescension, even disdain, toward the people they were supposed to represent. . . . Some turned students into pimps, in return for either immediate rewards or influence in obtaining or extending scholarships. Visiting politicians financed lavish parties for one sole purpose - to bring on the girls! They appeared to have only one ambition on the brain: to sleep with a white woman. . . . One scandal after another was hushed up by the British Home Office."

The 1959 elections that led to the First Republic of Nigeria were manipulated by the British, with consequences that would afflict Nigerian politics for years to come. As Soyinka writes: "The elections that placed a government in power at the center were rigged - by the British! . . . On instruction from the British Home Office, even the Nigerian census was falsified, giving an artificial majority to the North, which was largely feudalist by tradition and conservative in political outlook. . . . Specific instructions were issued. . . . The final results of the election to the federal legislature must be manipulated, where necessary, in favor of the political conservatives."

In 1960, at age 25, Soyinka returned to Nigeria with a grant to pursue research in traditional West African theater. Beginning in 1962, true representative democracy went into eclipse, and in 1966 the first of nine military dictatorships (separated by brief intervals of civilian rule) usurped power. This would be the hard terrain in which Soyinka would define himself, wresting from his engagements with it the works of enlightened art for which he has become world famous.

His creativity has been prodigious, encompassing a sequence of remarkable plays, two novels, poetry, polemical writings, critical essays, a classic memoir of his early life ("Aké," 1982) and a memoir devoted to his father. In 1986, he became the first African to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature. Soyinka's unceasing political activism has been carried out within Nigeria when that was possible and overseas when it wasn't, utilizing the connections and institutional support his growing academic stardom and literary eminence afforded him.

This memoir covers Soyinka's life from young manhood to the present. It is a substantial account, linear but not crushingly so, and lightened by a certain amount of thematic skipping around. "You Must Set Forth at Dawn" is a political memoir, and should probably have been subtitled that way. There is necessarily more to learn about the political Soyinka than about the man of letters, if only because so much of his political activity was undertaken discreetly or secretly, and he is only now - with the re-establishment of civilian (if increasingly undemocratic) rule under Olusegun Obasanjo - free to recount his history more fully. Soyinka's imprisonment in the late 1960's under the Gowon dictatorship, much of it under conditions of solitary confinement, is a part of his legend (he has written about it elsewhere), as is the death sentence in absentia pronounced against him in 1997 by another dictator, Sani Abacha. But the fine detail of his oppositional activity, involving clandestine border crossings, strange bedfellows and secret diplomatic missions, is presented here for the first time. Adding it up, one wants to set him in the right company. Victor Hugo, Yeats, Byron and Alessandro Manzoni all come to mind. The parallels are inexact, but the neighborhood is right.

The struggle for democracy in Nigeria has been protracted, bloody and complicated, with critical actors changing sides, foreign powers machinating and the discovery of oil in 1956 yielding a new prize to fight over. Soyinka has played his part in the struggle honorably, with good sense and good will. He seems to have evaded seduction by the reigning political religions of his time. In his enthusiasms, he has been ecumenical: at one point he planned to form a volunteer brigade to fight on the side of the African National Congress in South Africa, at another he joined a group that intended to infiltrate Hungary to fight on the side of the anti-Soviet rebels in 1956. In Nigeria, he has stood for a democratic, progressive, undivided nation. He has been an opponent of romantic violence. He has endorsed and engaged in nonviolent public activity: his imprisonment resulted from an attempt to work out an arrangement to prevent the Biafra war. In 1998, Abacha, arguably the most villainous in the long line of Nigerian dictators, provoked Soyinka (then in exile in the United States) to contemplate support for the ultimate resort of armed resistance, but Abacha's death mooted that prospect.

Soyinka has almost nothing to say about his intimate life. We know from other sources that he has had three wives and produced "many" children. (The book is dedicated to his third wife, Folake.) We can conclude that two grown sons are comrades in the pro-democracy struggle. There is no real portraiture of family members, except of a brother who sold much of the imprisoned Soyinka's treasured collection of masks and other tribal crafts without his permission. There is no mention of reactions by his wives or children to his imprisonment. One lifelong male friend, Femi Johnson, a schoolmate who became an insurance magnate, is richly characterized, but generally Soyinka is parsimonious with revelations of his feelings on nonpolitical matters.

It's a little strange. There is no backward-looking evocation of his time in jail. And there is a certain distance between Soyinka, the man, and his writings. A few of his earlier works are noted in passing, but only with reference to their political dimensions. As the book opens, Soyinka is flying back to Nigeria after his last painful period of exile, and asking himself why his emotions are not stronger, why they seem to relate so strictly to the Nigerian landscape. I wondered at times if Soyinka's dramaturgical instincts were in command, leading him to highlight the political and to cut from the script those personal matters that - as he may have judged them - had little bearing on the central action, the political narrative.

Soyinka's style is oral, fluctuating among the conversational, the oratorical, the declamatory. The expansive metaphors, the relaxed use of exclamation points and hyperbole, the verbal inventiveness, all sustain the conversational mode. Here Soyinka is describing mealtime with the gourmandizing family of his friend Femi Johnson:

"The table went totally native. Eba, amala, iyan, with half a dozen stews to choose from - this is where I first knew that food was more than simply getting something down into the stomach as fusslessly as possible, that eating actually involved a self-surrender that rendered homage to Opapala, the deity of hunger. The family - and this included his British wife, Barbara - ate! . . . It became a challenge. I could not accept that even mere children - the oldest was then no more than 12 - should consume more than I did. I went without food for a full day before joining them, then two days, after which I refused to push that particular remedy any further. Would stomach exercises help? It always ended with my gasping for breath while Femi and others carried on as if the world of food were on the verge of extinction."

Overall, the style is winning, taking the reader through a heavy schedule of political moments, where unfamiliar characters with strange names must be efficiently sketched, their political significance crisply indicated. And there are special revelations along the way. One is a long passage in which he philosophizes over his intermittent but friendly meetings with the dictator Babangida (who seized power in a bloodless coup in 1985), meetings arranged to solicit relief for political victims of the despot. Others concern Soyinka's secret diplomatic exercises. For example, we learn that Soyinka met with Shimon Peres in 1998 in an attempt to persuade the Israelis to withdraw assistance to Abacha's security forces. (It was during that trip that he heard the news of the dictator's death.) And we follow Soyinka's efforts in 1991 to arrange a cease-fire between the A.N.C. and the Zulu leader Mangosuthu Buthelezi, during a time of murderous factional violence. The details of exile politics are presented unsparingly. Soyinka survives the infighting, and when he returns to Nigeria after Abacha's death, receives serious appeals to run for the presidency. (He declines.)

Soyinka is what might be called a democratist. His efforts have been based on the conviction that with democracy achieved, humane content will flow into the created form. Soyinka fought from situation to situation, managing to make time for a prodigious output of literary art. It's probably unfair to feel disappointment that in this memoir Soyinka has not done more to directly address bedeviling questions like: Why did it go so horribly wrong for Nigeria, with all her manifest advantages over other African countries? Why didn't the country better resist the plagues of bad governance, lethal venality and virulent sectionalism? What has kept the forces of reform from pulling themselves together? And what implications does the deepening division between Christians and Muslims have for the democratic project?

Soyinka has not moderated his demands for full democracy in Nigeria. He is engaged in the movement for a new constitutional convention, and has spoken out about the sharpening menace of religious division. According to the Nigerian National Commission for Refugees, since the restoration of democracy in 1999, some 14,000 people have died in communal conflicts and more than three million have been driven from their homes. The Ogoni and Ijaw people of the oil-producing Niger Delta region, whose cause Soyinka has long supported, are in continuing revolt. For all the determined hopefulness of Soyinka's title, it's still dark in Nigeria.