You have no items in your cart. Want to get some nice things?Go shopping
“Can’t we joke anymore? How do you think one keeps sane in this country?”
The question is posed to Dr Kighare Menka at his social club after the surgeon ruined a celebratory event by chastising club members for engaging in a little gallows humour. Menka’s nickname is Dr Bedside Manners but his calm veneer is cracked irreparably after he is paid a visit by several businessmen trafficking in the acquisition and selling of human body parts for medicinal purposes. A few days after this disturbing meeting, Menka can’t hold it together as his fellow petit bourgeois make light of yet another tragedy staring them in the face from the pages of the evening newspaper.
Satire is inherent in the title of Wole Soyinka’s novel Chronicles from the Land of the Happiest People on Earth. Anyone with a cursory knowledge of the Nobel laureate or his country of origin knows that neither the writer nor a fair number of Nigerians would refer to the country by that moniker (Would any body politic refer to its country as such?) Since gaining independence from the United Kingdom, the “Giant of Africa” has seen problems ranging from military coups and civil war to power outages and domestic terrorism. Soyinka has lived through all of it. Decolonization, Biafran independence movements, Boko Haram. He was imprisoned in the ’60s, fled the country multiple times in the ensuing decades, and, throughout it all, has remained an influential voice in Nigeria, Africa, and the world.
How has he managed to do so without losing his mind? By satirizing a country rife with hypocrisy and corruption, represented in the novel by the characters of Papa Davina and Sir Goddie respectively.
Papa Davina is a religious leader; an ecumenicist/Chrislamist/Zoroastrian who invented and re-invented himself after sojourns through West Africa and the United States. It is in the U.S. where Papa Davina, then known as Tibidje, learns the American art of hucksterism and finds inspiration for his final incarnation in the Harlem preacher Father Divine. Tibidje realises the importance of good branding, thus the name change to Papa Davina and the realisation that “prophesite” was a “mellifluous name for a spiritual quest.” Papa Davina builds his ministry, borrowing from any religion that can help him to become a “skillful, creative spiritual trafficker” and disposing of the ones that were “economic basket cases” like orisha. Before long Papa Davina has established himself as the go-to guru in top Nigerian social circles.
Papa Davina is not the only one obsessed with branding and nomenclature. Soyinka’s stand-in for corrupt politicians, Sir Goddie, is the prime minister of Nigeria, a position that hasn’t existed in the country since 1966. Perhaps changing the title of the most powerful person in the land is one more safeguard against those who might not appreciate Soyinka’s need to poke fun at a country he has grown tired of trying to understand.
For his part, Sir Goddie has no use for the title of prime minister or “His Excellency.” He prefers to be called the “People’s Steward”, an alias created after Chief Akpanga, a politician from Goddie’s own party, unwittingly usurps the position of “National Servant” when he refers to himself as such. The fallout from this slip of the tongue leads to an all-night brainstorming session for a new self-effacing honorific as well as a Catch-22-esque trial for the innocent Chief Akpanga cast in the role of Clevinger.
Why all this focus on names? Because in Soyinka’s Nigeria something is what it is called and not what it appears to be. Thus, the citizens of Nigeria are the happiest people on earth even if they are dodging jihadists trying to behead them at bus stops or policemen trying to extort them on the perpetually clogged roads of Lagos. The politicians, their pockets bulging from the withdrawal of funds from the nation’s coffers, are salt-of-the-earth public servants competing for The Yeoman of the Year and Common Touch Awards. Of course, those awards for the unassuming, incorruptible servants of the people are celebrated at costly fiestas, local and national, that allow citizens to revel in their happiness and prosperity. No need to believe what you read in foreign newspapers or see on your way home from work; who are you going to believe, the People’s Steward or your lying eyes?
Duyole Pitan-Payne is one of those who choose to believe the latter. He is an engineer, the scion of a powerful and rich family, and the creator of the carefully named “Brand of the Land.” His friend group from his university days, which he punnily dubbed “Gong of Four”, includes the aforementioned Dr Menka, another Nigerian citizen who can’t quite understand how to be happy. This puts them at odds with Sir Goddie and his spiritual adviser Papa Davina.
Sir Goddie versus the Gong of Four is ostensibly the central conflict in the book, but for much of the novel that conflict is subterranean. There are interactions between the principal characters but less time is spent on plot development and more on describing the current and past Nigerian milieu. With each new character, the novel feels congested (like the Lagos traffic Soyinka continually bemoans) and weighed down by introductions and side stories. Soyinka ventures down off-roads and byways, taking every opportunity to point out gross contradictions and absurdities. He is the tour guide for the last sixty years of Nigerian history and there is so much to see: instances of falsification, atrocity, and criminal neglect. Unfortunately, these detours often come at the expense of the plot. The funny anecdotes and insightful observations often disrupt the narrative rather than add to it. Those disruptions result in Part I of the book being around 200 pages longer than Part II.
Due to the various asides, the story really begins a third of the way through the novel when Dr. Menka loses his bedside manners at the Hilltop Mansion. The chapter is indicative of what happens throughout the book. Soyinka sets the scene: Menka is the poor villager from Gumchi who has worked his way up the professional ladder, accepted his government post in Jos and now is being honoured with the Independence Day Award of Pre-Eminence. He is surrounded by people who have less humble beginnings and less day-to-day interaction with the world to which Menka is exposed. It is Menka who treats the physically marred victims of Boko Haram and so he cannot join in their mirth when the club treasurer Kufeji reads aloud an account of the killing of a housewife by 13 “ritual gang members.” Menka stews, his ire rising, as Kufeji reads the report egged on by friends and passers-by. Soyinka builds the scene, priming it to explode, but before it comes to fruition the chapter flashes back to Menka’s stressful day. The interlude goes on for pages. Slowly the tension begins to ebb; by the time the narrative is resumed, it has all but dissipated. Eventually, Menka does unload on the club members but only in fits and spurts, struggling to get his point across before deciding that he’s had enough and calling quits on the whole affair. Menka’s momentum, and the scene’s, had stalled. The end of the chapter is acceptable but lacks the satisfying climax that should have been.
The crux of the matter is that after 60 years of independence Soyinka has more to say than ever. He’s bursting at the seams with critiques and condemnations. There is a story to be told about the Gong of Four but inevitably in telling that story he finds reason to mention that Sani Abacha has a hospital named after him or that the Maitatsane were the uncredited predecessors to Boko Haram. It is Joyce recreating the streets of Dublin from memory while in self-imposed exile only Soyinka has returned home, more than once, and what he has seen has left him at a loss. As Pitan-Payne says after reading about a separate gruesome event in the newspaper, “This is different. This, let me confess, reaches into… a word I would rather avoid but can’t—soul. It challenges the collective notion of soul. Something is broken. Beyond race. Outside of colour or history. Something has cracked. Can’t be put back together.” One can almost hear the author wondering aloud if Nigeria can recover from this fracturing of the spirit.
Chronicles from the Land of the Happiest People on Earth does not allow the reader to escape the history and reality of Nigeria today. The reader is strapped in and exposed to Nigeria as Soyinka sees it. You can laugh to keep from crying but you’ll have to see it all the same as Soyinka tilts reality ever so slightly to showcase how mad his world has become. The book is bursting with humour and irony, and there is much to be admired in Soyinka’s writing and use of language. Unfortunately, those elements are scattered across a disjointed narrative weighed down by side stories and a strenuous history. There is, however, value in simply being exposed to Soyinka’s viewpoints and wisdom. Riding along with Soyinka there will be points of interest but more than once the question will inevitably bubble to the surface: where are we going?
Chronicles from the Land of the Happiest People on Earth
By Wole Soyinka
464 pages, Bloomsbury