A life shaped by a larger cause

Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka chronicles his adult life in the second half of his memoirs.

Some readers may know Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka best as a playwright, author of works like "Death and the King's Horseman," which give dramatic voice to the clash of Western and African values. Others may instead associate Soyinka with politics and remember him as the Nigerian author who endured both jail and exile for decrying tyranny in his homeland.

But among those who feel they know and love him best will be readers of "Aké: The Years of Childhood," Soyinka's 1981 memoir about his childhood in colonial Nigeria in the 1930s and 40s. "Aké" tells the story of the author's life up to the age of 11 - an enchanting and humorous tale about a curious, irrepressible African child brimming with curiosity about life outside the walls of his family compound. Those who have read the book will be tempted to cherish Soyinka less as a Nobel laureate and more as an eager 4-year-old so enthralled by his first glimpse of a parade that he followed it - barefoot - all the way to the next village.

"Aké" ends just as young Wole is heading off to study at a school run by Nigeria's colonial government, old enough to feel the way that British rule chafed at his elders. So it is fitting that You Must Set Forth At Dawn, the second volume of Soyinka's memoirs, picks up his story in 1960, the year of Nigeria's independence, and also the moment at which Soyinka, now a young adult, is returning to Nigeria after studies at a British university.

It was a time, Soyinka tells us, when "the gods were still only in a state of hibernation." As the recipient of a Rockefeller fellowship, Soyinka was given the means to travel throughout Nigeria, studying traditional festivals and forms of drama. Soon, however, he tells us, political tyranny (along with increasing Westernization) began to threaten what he cherished about his homeland.

Most of this book, in fact, is about Soyinka's struggle to preserve the land and culture that he loves. "You Must Set Forth at Dawn" does not so much tell the tale of Soyinka the playwright and Nobel laureate, or even that of Soyinka as the adult extension of the child in "Aké" (although the humor, charm, and curiosity of the young boy do recur throughout the narrative). Rather this is the story of Soyinka as a Nigerian, a descendent of the Yoruba people, an African, and a world citizen - a man for whom public events overshadow the private.

For Soyinka, there has been nothing distant about politics. The ugly strife of Nigerian politics has shaped his life for decades.

Soyinka has also played a role in global affairs, and it is fascinating to read of his efforts to reconcile Nelson Mandela and the Kwa' Zulu Chief Buthelezi even as it is rather sadly humorous and to read of his unusual efforts to repatriate Nigerian art from foreign shores.

Throughout the course of "You Must Set Forth at Dawn" readers do get some glimpses of the private Soyinka: the man who smuggled frozen wildcat into Italy to cheer the cast of one of his plays with authentic Nigerian cuisine; the playwright who ritually sacrificed a cockerel in a Chicago theater hoping to stem a tide of bad luck; and the public intellectual who woke in his hotel room in Paris on the eve of the Nobel prize announcement to discover a Swedish journalist watching TV in his sitting room.

There is also a moving tribute to his friend Femi Johnson, a Nigerian insurance agent, interspersed throughout the narrative, in addition to a brief but fascinating explanation of the creative paralysis that overtook Soyinka after receipt of the Nobel Prize.

But overshadowing these insights into the personal Soyinka is the theme of what it means to live out an ongoing battle for human rights.

"You Must Set Forth at Dawn" is not an easy read. Those unfamiliar with Nigerian politics will find some events confusing (although a chronology at the front of the book helps) and Soyinka's narrative style is not always as accessible as one might wish.

The rewards offered, however, are considerable. For readers who like to shelve their books by subject it will be hard to know where to place this one. Is it mostly a literary memoir or more of an insight into the postcolonial Third World - or perhaps most accurately simply an African profile of courage?

Whichever, the book's ending certainly marks a moment unique in literature, as Soyinka, Nobel laureate, ends a period of exile and flies into Lagos to discover that his presence has unleashed a riot of joy. When he tries to leave the airport in a Jeep, his fellow Nigerians cling to the fenders and throw themselves on the hood as they celebrate the man they know as "Prof."

It is only too easy to understand Soyinka's closing line: "I am back in the place I never should have left."

Marjorie Kehe is the Monitor's book editor. Send comments to Marjorie Kehe.

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