Wole Soyinka

Wole Soyinka

THE LAUREATE: Wole Soyinka is a prolific playwright, essayist and poet. He was and remains an outspoken opponent of third world dictatorships of all kinds. He was also the first African to win the Nobel. You can read more about him here.

WHAT I’M READING: Well, I tried to read his first novel, The Interpreters. I liked it a lot, but I couldn’t focus on it as much as it deserved. I ended up picking a few of his plays up. Actually, it ended up being a perfect used bookstore run: I realized that I didn’t have a strict translation of the Bacchae, so I found that, and then the next shelf down, I saw two of Soyinka’s other plays (including the only one that is still in print on its own) and the three of them cost the exact credit card minimum purchase amount. Score.

REVIEW: The Bacchae is a loose interpretation of Euripides’ last and strangest play. Normally, I approach “loose” translations as “mostly garbled or made up” translations (Here’s looking at you, David Slavitt!), but Soyinka clearly knows what he is doing. In his mind, the play represents a revolution of the lower classes as they try to free themselves from the oppressive constrictions of Pentheus and his obsession with order. So, it’s Nietzsche’s tired old Apollo/Dionysus dialectic, but with a little class. Dionysus has come to Thebes, and King Pentheus refuses to acknowledge him. Cadmus (his grandfather and the founder of Thebes) and Tiresias (blind prophet and Theban advisor) are taken with the new cult. Meanwhile, the slaves of the fields have known of Dionysus’ arrival and welcome his powers to free people from social ties. Also meanwhile, the Theban women have gone up to celebrate the new rites in the mountains, where they were seen by a group of cowherds and tore their cattle apart in mantic frenzy. Dionysus convinces Pentheus to go up and see what the women are up to himself, and he is torn apart and his head is put on a pike (Fun fact! When the Romans finally beat Mithradites IV, a production of the Bacchae that happened to be going on in Cilicia that day used Mithradites’ head for this part. The Romans were so metal.) Soyinka’s additions to Euripides are primarily the material about the slaves and the accompanying interpretation: to him, Dionysus is, again, a release from social constraints. The most superficial version of this is that Dionysus is the god of wine, and when you’re drunk you don’t care about whether or not what you do is okay. More importantly, Dionysus becomes a sort of plan of social action: the stories people tell about him are instructions for what they should do themselves.

The Road is about people scrambling around at the bottom of Nigerian society trying to survive. After a bus wreck, a bus driver who lives in a shanty town decides to quit driving. His attendant (tout) does his best to convince him otherwise. The local gang leader is around but offstage, a reminder of the way of life that inevitably awaits anyone without some other livelihood. Naturally, he keeps the police paid off. The last important character is the Professor, an old educated man who is not as crazy as he makes himself out to be. To really understand the play, you need to know a little about Ogun, the Igbo god of travel, wine and war. Before the English invasion, Ogun was worshipped very much the way Dionysus was: men danced around a circle of worshippers with staves topped with loosely tied lumps of iron. At the climax of the ceremony, the frenzied participants would sacrifice and then tear apart a dog. Apparently in this late colonial period, truck and bus drivers would honor Ogun by running over any dog they could find. Kotonu, the driver I’d mentioned at the beginning, swerved to avoid dogs, and he was worried that Ogun might have taken offense at this. I dunno. I am explaining this poorly. I liked it, though.

RECOMMENDED: Absolutely. If nothing else, Soyinka has convinced me that I need to read more African literature. I’ve still got one of his plays and The Interpreters to read, though.

WHAT’S NEXT: Elias Canetti’s only novel, Auto-da-Fe

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