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Nigerian author Wole Soyinka’s third novel, “Chronicles from the Land of the Happiest People on Earth”, has been released in French. The Nobel laureate tells RFI about his inspiration behind the book, which takes place in an imaginary version of Nigeria.
Nigerian writer and activist Wole Soyinka at RFI’s studios in September 2023. © Catherine Fruchon-Toussaint/RFI
This novel is the fruit of a long lived experience. “Anger, frustration and also puzzlement” are how this book came about, Soyinka told RFI’s Catherine Fruchon-Toussaint.
Anger against the country’s growing level of corruption and global dysfunction.
“The title comes from external sources: I read one of these Gallup polls conducted around the world, one about which are the happiest people in the world,” Soyinka explains.
“I was astonished to find that Nigeria was among the top six, maybe even top three or four. So I started asking myself how we came to earn such an unlikely title.
“That’s the question I tried to answer in that work.”
The novel follows the adventures of Papa Davina, a wannabe guru who comes back from the United States and finds an unlikely following as the creator of his own religion.
“They’re fascinating characters, these Papa Davinas of the world – whether they come from Christianity or Islam,” Soyinka says.
“They are really theatrical, even if it’s as very bad theatre. The question is how people are so seduced with what, for me, is just an act.”
Facing such developments are two friends, a doctor and an engineer, Dr Menka and his oldest college friend, bon vivant and Yoruba royal, Duyole Pitan-Payne, trying to stay sane in a country on the verge of social explosion.
With their adventures and dialogues, Soyinka tries to focus on the humane side of a morally collapsing society.
Described by Nigerian-British poet and novelist Ben Okri as a “shocking story of political corruption in a country much like his homeland”, the novel has already been lauded by the French press for its satirical elements mixing humour and horror.
Born in 1934, Akinwande Oluwole Babatunde Soyinka was the first writer from the African continent to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature, which he was awarded in 1986.
He grew in the pre-independence era when, as he told RFI, “religious conflicts were easily resolved inside communities”.
But corruption skyrocketed in Nigeria, to “an industry level”.
Since the mid-1960s, Soyinka’s voice has brought the most caustic criticism against dictatorships and bad governance in his country, which can be read as universal fables as well.
He has spent more than five decades using his writing to reflect, discuss and criticise the society around him – in his native Nigeria, but also elsewhere in Africa and the rest of the world.
It was first as a playwright that he managed to satire the social wrongs with works such as “The Invention” (1957), “The Swamp Dwellers”(1958), “The Lion and the Jewel” (1959), “My Father’s Burden” (1960), and “Kongi’s Harvest” (1965).
Encouraged by the immense success of his first plays in London’s theatre scene, Soyinka moved to the British capital and worked as a play reader for the Royal Court Theatre. He then returned to his homeland.
What followed were essays, poetry, then memoirs, operas, short stories and two novels: “The Interpreters” (1965) and “Season of Anomy” (1973).
A decade after Nigeria gained independence, Soyinka had became a well-known opposition figure. During the civil war, he was imprisoned for 22 months.
An involved activist, Soyinka even tried to launch a party of “progressives” in the late 2000s, and remains preoccupied with political plagues such as corruption and manipulation of the masses.
Soyinka has been involved with the Présence Africaine review for decades, meeting with other African intellectuals, writers and artists, especially from the French-speaking world, to exchange ideas on African cultures.
From these exchanges, he kept a keen interest in other African languages and writing styles, including references coming from the French language as spoken in West Africa.
Soyinka’s latest novel is ripe with French words and expressions that reflect the reality of the streets of cities such as Lagos, where many French-speaking West Africans work and live.