Boyd Tonkin

A broken nation: Chronicles from the Land of the Happiest People on Earth, by Wole Soyinka, reviewed

A laborious plot and clotted prose sadly hamper this exposé of the cruelty and corruption engulfing Nigeria

Wole Soyinka. [Getty Images]

One of the best episodes in Wole Soyinka’s third novel (his first since 1973) takes place not in Nigeria but in Salzburg. An engineer-turned-entrepreneur has died in hospital there after a bomb attack back home. His grasping clan descends from Lagos to parade their last respects — and stake their claims. The drive to the cemetery triggers a ‘torrent of eulogies to Austrian horticulture’. In a ‘concerted sibling gush’, plutocratic relatives swoon over the contrast between these clean, green vistas and the choking inferno of Lagos — an urban nightmare aggravated by their own mercenary scams.

Soyinka’s characters often hide behind such ‘straw masks’ of pretentiousness, hypocrisy and fakery. The ghastly good taste of these Alpine obsequies raises his game; after all, ‘the dead are a free-for-all for the world to feast on’. Russian authors spent generations trying to skewer the nation-defining blend of kitsch, snobbery, bad faith and hi-falutin vulgarity they called poshlost. From Gogol to Nabokov, they would have felt at home with Soyinka’s Nigerian elite.

It’s 35 years since Soyinka became the first sub-Saharan African writer to win the Nobel Prize in literature. If he escaped the post-Nobel curse of vacuous seniority, his later non-fiction — above all, the quartet of memoirs that began in 1981 with the wonderful Aké — takes much of the credit. He’s now 87: the drama and poetry that made his name before and after Nigerian independence has understandably slowed to a trickle.

‘We thought about transitioning to cleaner energy, but you just can’t beat a real fire…’

Yet here comes this whopper of a 450-page satire on the misdeeds of an entitled ruling class and the horrific miseries of the land they misgovern. Frequently as diffuse as its full title, Chronicles is hard to recommend as a spruce and tidy novel — a well-trimmed Salzburg cemetery of fiction.

Already a subscriber? Log in

Keep reading with a free trial

Subscribe and get your first month of online and app access for free. After that it’s just £1 a week.

There’s no commitment, you can cancel any time.


Unlock more articles



Don't miss out

Join the conversation with other Spectator readers. Subscribe to leave a comment.

Already a subscriber? Log in