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What the Swedes Read: Wole Soyinka

by Daniel Handler
Illustration by Charles Burns

What the Swedes Read: Wole Soyinka

Daniel Handler
17 Snaps
  • LAUREATE: Wole Soyinka (1986, Nigeria)
  • BOOK READ: Death and the King’s Horseman

There’s something depressing about foreign literature that doesn’t feel foreign. It’s like the McDonald’s in Reykjavík, or the radio of the Senegalese taxi playing “Beat It”—it’s hardly worth the journey if the destination feels the same. There is a dispiriting heap of literature, from far-flung locations and authors of intriguing cultural fingerprints, that aims to remind us of our vast similarities. This seems like a lousy argument for reading literature from far-flung locations and authors of intriguing cultural fingerprints. War is hell? Mothers are pushy? The government tells lies? I can get that at home. I prefer books like Suketu Mehta’s Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found, a sprawling rush of nonfiction about a city that felt to me, a lifelong San Franciscan, like a druggy dream. There’s a memorable scene describing a courting ritual in which lovers park an automobile, roll up the windows, set free some songbirds, and then chase them around the enclosed space until the birds die of exhaustion. I held the book in my hands and thought, I’m basically made of the same genetic material as the people he’s describing, and am no stranger to Indian culture, and yet I’ve never, never have I ever, done anything like that. It was bracing to think about.

My copy of Death and the King’s Horseman, largely regarded as Soyinka’s masterpiece, is about two hundred and fifty pages long. Fifty-eight pages are the text of the actual play, with the bulk of the book taken up by maps, chronologies, and bibliographies, a similar play by Duro Ladipo (oh yeah, him), and critical essays by the likes of Henry Louis Gates, Gerald Moore, and, um, Wole Soyinka. That’s a low the-thing to things-about-the-thing ratio, and it worried me that it would be one of those situations where the commentary is trying to convince you that you’re having a better time than you are, the way everyone says Molière is still hysterically funny as long as you learn all about seventeenth-century French social conventions. And it is true that Death and the King’s Horseman is a weird read, even incomprehensible at times. But it is not the sort of incomprehensibility that sends you to a glossary, or the sort that makes you throw up your hands. It’s the sort that reminds you not that it’s a small world, but that it’s a large one; not how connected the world is, but how broken.

The play is set in 1946, in the Yoruba city of Oyo in Nigeria, which is under British occupation—but the Brits are more occupied with other things in 1946. Nevertheless, the British government decides to interfere when, following the king’s death, the king’s ­horseman Elesin announces his intention to follow tradition and accompany his master to the afterlife. Pausing only to take a new child bride—one of many—Elesin begins a lengthy ceremony, with lots of drumming and chanting from the Praise Singer, at the end of which he’ll will himself out of existence. The British government, represented by District Officer Simon Pilkings and his slightly less odious wife, Jane, decide to try and stop him.

It’s quite an entanglement, but so’s Nigeria. ­Soyinka’s life is full of the stuff of political turmoil—poems written on tissue paper during an unjust imprisonment,
escaping a death sentence via motorcycle, seizing a radio station to broadcast his views—but Death and the King’s Horseman isn’t what I expected from an activist. It’s not a polemic, at least not a clear one. It’s fierce, but it’s complicated. As the committee said, citing Death and the King’s Horseman specifically for the prize, “The drama goes so deeply into human and superhuman conditions that it cannot be reduced to something that teaches us about breaches between different civilizations.”

That’s for sure. Pilkings, for example, first seems to be something of a stock villain, an imperialist with no comprehension of the indigenous culture he’s busy squashing. If it seems a bit heavy-handed—we first see him with his wife, dancing in some confiscated Yoruba ceremonial funeral garb that they’ve refitted to wear to a masquerade party—it’s still a comfortable way for a modern audience to think about colonialization. The trouble is, Pilkings isn’t a proud upholder of the traditions of empire, but an exhausted bureaucrat:

RESIDENT: Nose to the ground Pilkings, nose to the ground. If we all let these little things slip past us where would the empire be eh? Tell me that. Where would we all be?

PILKINGS: (low voice) Sleeping peacefully at home I bet.

and rather than humanizing Pilkings, and garnering our sympathy, it just makes him worse. In aligning with neither of the major forces clashing around him, he becomes a man utterly without honor in a fight where honor is precisely what’s at stake.

If Pilkings is a strange villain, then Elesin is a stranger hero. It’s tempting to think of his ritual suicide as a noble act, particularly in a play that has many of the hallmarks of classical drama. But Soyinka never stops reminding us that the horseman isn’t a stand-in for beautiful traditions endangered by imperialism, because the traditions don’t seem so beautiful close up. Elesin is lusty, angry, and slippery, with the enormous mystery of his self-willed death, following his plan to get laid with a child one more time, making him seem hollow inside. He manages to kill himself, but not in the way he planned, so the play ends on a note of deep failure—“Elesin, we placed the reins of the world in your hands and yet you watched it plunge over the edge of the bitter precipice,” the Praise Singer tells him—that I found fitting, if not quite graspable.

Of course, it’d likely be graspable if I were Yoruba, and so I turned to all these supplementary materials, only to feel that they were showing me the same truth that Death and the King’s Horseman was showing me: how utterly tremendous the gap is between the cultures at war in ­Africa and the utter unknowability of an indigenous tradition to someone sitting around watching it, whether in Oyo or in some theater. (Soyinka’s plays aren’t performed much in America, though of course everyone seems to admire them.) The maps and charts of the other two hundred pages in my book filled me with the same sad ­exhaustion as when I stop halfway through some newspaper article about Africa, feeling that I grasp nothing about the place except that it’s fucked. Soyinka’s play frustrated my instincts, honed by many readings of Western tragedies, to pin blame or to believe that everyone was acting with the best of intentions, the better to present a vision that I knew was there but couldn’t quite see. I’ve expected some of these Nobel reads to be opaque, but it never occurred to me that I’d find something opaque on purpose: that the best way to demonstrate the enormity of the clash between cultures in Nigeria was to show me how little I know about such things. It’s a kind of read I hadn’t thought about, a firm but non-angry rebuke, and it made me feel grateful, if stung, like the few times someone has said to me, just when they should have said it: Shut up. It’s a big world and we’re not all alike. Get that in your head, and then maybe we can go someplace. 

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