Chronicles from the Land of the Happiest People on Earth review – Nigeria unmasked | Fiction

Wole Soyinka won the Nobel prize for literature in 1986, the first black person to win the award. He is perhaps the most versatile of African writers, equally at home in all genres; his dramatic masterpieces, such as Kongi’s Harvest and Death and the King’s Horseman, have been produced all over the world. His poetry anthology, Poems of Black Africa (1975), remains the most authoritative showcase of the writings of the first generation of postcolonial African poets, from Agostinho Neto to Léopold Senghor to Dennis Brutus – a generation that is fast dwindling, with Soyinka, now 87, one of the few left, still publishing books year after year. He makes the perfect poster figure: imprisoned, exiled, perpetually seeking to reform his country by turning out books critical of the corrupt rulers who, after the euphoria of independence from the colonial Europeans, have continued exactly where they left off, using the same playbook of divide and rule.

His two novels, The Interpreters (1965) and Season of Anomy (1973), were less celebrated than his poetry and drama. But nearly 50 years later, we have Chronicles from the Land of the Happiest People on Earth – written, Soyinka has said, to stave off boredom during the pandemic. The title nods to one of those mysterious internet surveys that some years back ranked Nigeria No 1 in the world on the “happiness index”. The irony of this permeates the entire book.

Making the people believe they are happy is done in a typical Nigerian fashion, with extravagant, televised award ceremonies. Another way is to keep the public in thrall to religion – again, one of those online surveys found Nigeria to be the most religious country on Earth. One of the most energetic and enigmatic characters in the book is Bishop Teribogo, whose genealogy readers of Soyinka will easily trace back to Brother Jero of the Jero plays. Stylistically, the book reprises The Interpreters. It is largely plotless, held together by a series of incidents and characters, and their relationships and interactions with one another. The four lead characters were educated in English universities, where they first met, and returned to Nigeria with the dream of giving back to their country. Most of the book’s conflict is generated when this idealism comes up against societal indifference and material pursuit.

We meet them in a moment of transition. Duyole Pitan-Payne, a gifted electrical engineer, is on his way to the UN as Nigeria’s representative. Dr Kighare Menka, a surgeon who has just won a prestigious award, is forced by circumstances to relocate to Lagos, where he is hosted by Pitan-Payne and his wife. Prince Badetona is a creative accountant lured into dangerous circles of money launderers. He ends up in prison, a subplot that echoes Soyinka’s own experiences. And, finally, there is Teribogo, the self-reinventing preacher whose mission is to bring under one ecumenical umbrella, for his own personal gain, the different religions of the country: Islam, Christianity, traditional faiths and even Zoroastrianism.

Chronicles is written in what critics would describe as a “late style”: a bit prolix, often dilatory and anecdotal. It is also courageous, and it does name names and point fingers. One of the delights is the ease with which Soyinka switches between registers, from the elevated to the absurd, along with his unapologetic use of “Nigerianisms” and Yoruba vernacular. There is a long monologue in pidgin English near the end of the book where a steward, Godsown, gives a hilarious account of a crime he has witnessed. Perhaps the writer’s personality looms larger than any character he portrays, but then, as most readers will tell you, that is exactly what they want from Soyinka: the witty anecdotes, the digressions, even the famous linguistic obscurity and bombast. There is a restless intellectual energy here that belies the age of the author.

Chronicles is a good model for what the political novel should be: fearless, disdaining formal constraints, sparing no one, leaving behind it a scorched earth littered with the burnt figures of corrupt politicians and military dictators and religious charlatans and social parasites, and even the masses who, in the name of religion and tribe, are made tools of the elite. In the end, it is a triumph of the novel as a form: its ability to accommodate all styles and approaches. How lucky we are that Soyinka has decided to give that form another go.

Helon Habila’s latest novel is Travellers (Penguin). Chronicles from the Land of the Happiest People on Earth by Wole Soyinka is published by Bloomsbury (£20). To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.

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