An `Essay' to Envision The Future in the Past

WOLE SOYINKA'S sequel to his childhood memoir, ``Ak'e: The Years of Childhood,'' (1982) maintains a steady, almost detached mood of contemplation in which comedy is always just around the next tragic corner. Soyinka won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1986 but appears to have topped himself with ```Isar`a.''

It's about the author's father and takes place in the late 1930s in `Isar`a, a small Nigerian town.

As a head teacher, trained at a missionary school run by the British (Nigeria would not be independent until 1960), Akinyode Soditan connects the past and the future, the local, non-Christian Yoruba culture and that of the protectorate longing for self-determination.

As the annual homecoming approaches, `Isar`a must chose a successor for its local king. Akinyode compares the moment to the era of the Greek demos - the emergence of democracy, perhaps leading to independence. Hardly touched by the economic troubles of the big powers, `Isar`a still must supply soldiers for the Allied front.

``Well, Teacher,'' a visitor asks Akinyode, ``the question I have is this: Whose war is this? What is our stake in this quarrel between white people?''

``Soditan smiled ruefully. `I wish I could tell you. All I know is that we are caught in it. Unfortunately, we cannot even choose between two evils; one of them has already enveloped us.'''.

A ``stagnant backwater'' by-passed by the railroad, ```Isar`a simply wanted to be left alone.'' For some, any contact with white culture amounted to pollution. Soditan's own father mixes Christianity and spiritualism in an ``evenhanded style of communion,'' as does his friend Sipe, less evenhandedly.

Sipe, like Soditan, was top of the class but as his nickname ``Righteous Rooster'' implies, he made trouble and was invited to leave early.

He dreams of being a ``merchant prince'' but his reading is limited to mail-order catalogs from London; he is responsible for the get-ups of some of the locals - Western cowboy outfits, for example!

Sipe is foil for the pensive Soditan. Elegantly dressed, he experiences ``pure happiness, a soulful enlargement as he relished the frank stares of admiration from the townspeople.''

At a crucial stage of royal negotiations, only a combination of Soditan's prudence and Sipe's chutzpah keeps `Isar`a from toppling into the abyss of civil war.

Rich in voice (Soyinka the dramatist excels in interior monologue) and incident (the economy is that of a classic play), ```Isar`a'' is indeed a ``voyage around `Essay.'''

``Essay is the head teacher's nickname, but the subtitle (an echo of a play by the quintessential Briton John Mortimer) points to Soyinka's profound sense of play. This tribute to his father, Essay, is a symbolic attempt - an ``essay'' - to envision the future in the past.

Governed by a Virgilian sense of piety toward the fatherland, ```Isar`a'' begins and ends with the African-sounding name of a town in Ohio - Ashtabula.

Soditan ruminates as he reads letters from an American he met at school. The image of Wade Cudeback touring America by car haunts the homebound Nigerian; but the phrase ``strolling through his own history and others'' suggests Wade's comic limits, too.

By novel's end, such is Soyinka's art that we come to see Ashtabula as a realm of the imagination where black and white, past and future mingle to create the only possibility of fulfillment open to Soditan - a homecoming in truth.

The final pages of this triumphant work have a tragic precision and comic grace that take the reader's breath away.

Reading ```Isar`a,'' one becomes a citizen of both `Isar`a and Ashtabula. It's a privilege and a pleasure.

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