The Writer and the Tyrant

Neal Acsherson reviews You Must Set Forth at Dawn by Wole Soyinka, in the New York Review of Books:

SouinkaWole Soyinka is a titan, not only in Nigeria and not only in Africa. Playwright and poet, novelist and pamphleteer, editor and autobiographer, cultural impresario and unofficial diplomat, democratic conspirator and ferocious, unappeasable warrior for justice, he has earned his Nobel Prize many times over. The world’s good and great beg him to drop in for lunch. The people in the streets and villages of his own country call out to him as “Prof” or “Kongi,” and feel for a moment happy to be Nigerian.

Now Soyinka is old, and—like Auden’s “Voltaire at Ferney”—he is “very great.” But he must not rest. That poem, written in the time of earlier fascisms, reaches out to him in twenty-first-century Africa:

…The night was full of wrong,
Earthquakes and executions. Soon he would be dead,
And still all over Europe stood the horrible nurses
Itching to boil their children. Only his verses
Perhaps could stop them. He must go on working…

So Soyinka works on, and the background to his book is the succession of horrible African nurses he has known and fought and who, on several occasions, narrowly failed to boil him. This is an autobiography, but not from his beginnings. Aké: The Years of Childhood, published in 1981, recalled his rich Yoruba upbringing, his extended family, and his parents: “Essay,” his teacher-father, and “The Wild Christian,” his exuberant market-trader mother. You Must Set Forth at Dawn is set later, in the turbulent decades following Nigerian independence in 1960. It is not a work of history, but a selective voyager’s tale about a man and his spirit traveling through forty years of “earthquakes and executions.”

More here.