In 1965, five years after Nigeria had gained its independence, the playwright Wole Soyinka was already known as an opposition figure. Authorities falsely accused him of armed robbery, and, before the country’s civil war, in the late sixties, Soyinka tried to avert fighting. He was accused of conspiring with rebels and imprisoned by the Nigerian government. He’s a writer with an astonishing history of putting himself on the line for his political and social commitments.
Soyinka has received the Nobel Prize in Literature. He has written more than two dozen plays, a vast amount of poetry, several memoirs, essays, and short stories, and just two novels. His third novel is out now, nearly five decades after the last one. Called “Chronicles from the Land of the Happiest People on Earth,” it’s both a political satire and a murder mystery. It involves four friends, a secret society dealing in human body parts, and more corruption than any one country can bear. The staff writer Vinson Cunningham spoke with Soyinka at his home in Nigeria.
I really want to talk to you about “Chronicles from the Land of the Happiest People on Earth,” a title that I love. I heard that you’ve been thinking about this story for many years now. How does it feel to have it out in the world?
It’s been a little bit overwhelming, I think. I wasn’t expecting the standard reception of it. I mean, it’s just part of my own creative continuum, in a different format—you know, like taking time off from theatre to write a novel.
This is your third novel, and, of course, you’re known most prolifically for your works of theatre. But what is it that the novel does for you that theatre doesn’t? This change in form—are there necessities that it meets that theatre doesn’t, and vice versa? What’s the form about for you?
What the novel does for me as a medium of expression is to assuage the masochist in me, because the novel is very taxing—taxing in the sense that it’s tempting to go in so many directions. Theatre, for me, is more focussed. When you’re a narrator, you’re juggling a number of characters, and they insist on wandering very willfully in directions which you did not preview, you know? And then you forget where you last saw them, and so on. I really praise novelists, those whose métier is a novel. I have a hard time at it.
You offer us this total panoply of great characters. There’s a crooked religious leader. There are politicians, a sort of earnest diplomat, a famous doctor. Did you, in the course of writing this book—was there a favorite character that you alighted on? Was there one who was especially willful and sort of surprised you in different ways?
There’s no question at all that a number of the characters were “inspired” or “triggered” into being by personal encounters. I took great pains to insure that some of the villains knew that they provided the base material—and, in fact, I’ve even met one of them since the novel came out. He came up to me and I said, “Well, you’re coming to me. I hope you realize that you were this in the novel.” It was a politician and, like a good politician, he said, “Oh, Prof, that’s O.K. But I really want to discuss a certain issue with you in the novel. Forget that character.” So the novel does give one that latitude, I must confess, and then you can play variations, far more than in theatre. I think theatre is almost pre-written. By that I mean they are more constricted in the case of the theatre, and that is one of the reasons why tackling a theme like this human tumult in which I’ve been existing, watching others survive—me, too, surviving in my own way, watching that deterioration of society—the novel intuitively struck me as the only medium in which I could actually purge myself of this oppressive sense of society going haywire.
It’s interesting: there is this sense, this dark sense, of, as you say, a society going haywire, and it’s contrasted against this wonderful title, “The Land of the Happiest People on Earth.” Now, I heard that this was inspired by the “World Happiness Report,” where Nigeria was rated one of the happiest countries in the world. First of all, is that true? And what did that reality present to you artistically?
Well, when I saw that world report, I thought, Look at these people laughing at us. Why are they so cruel? Why are they doing this? And then I realized it was supposed to be a serious poll, a serious estimate. It was supposed to be objective, analytical, even scientific. And so I looked into this—I said, Maybe I’m in the wrong place, but when I looked around it was still a society which I recognize as my own, as the one in which I function. So it stuck in my head for quite a while. This was some years ago. And, when I began working on it, it actually began with other titles. Eventually, I slowly realized, Oh, wait a minute. That estimation, that analysis, is the exact title I’ve been looking for.
You know, happiness is such a fraught idea. Here in America, of course, we’ve sort of encoded it into our national myth—you know, the “pursuit of happiness.” What does it mean for you? Because, of course, it can be totally vapid, fun-seeking, surface—sort of epicureanism, I guess. But it can also speak to a real joy. What does it mean for you, and why did it fit so well?