After 50 years, Wole Soyinka returned to fiction

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Chronicles of the land of the happiest people on earth. By Wole Soyinka. Pantheon; 464 pages; $ 28. Bloomsbury Circus; £ 20

WRITORS, LIKE most people tend to slow down with age. Not Wole Soyinka, the first African winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature. After focusing for almost 50 years on theater, poetry and activism, at 87 he returned to fiction, which he last published in 1972. As the narrator of the mysterious enterprise puts it at the heart of his new book, it’s not a jumbo operation, cockatoo feather, dried leather thong, cowry shells and tortoiseshell ”. As eccentric as the story may seem, it is a tense and well put together novel made up of several stories that come together in the last pages.

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Four old friends go back a long way. As boys, they made a secret pact, vowing to support each other no matter what. They called themselves “Gong o’Four”. “Four for one, one for four, gung-ho!” they rehearsed when they met. Farodion was the first to lose contact, but he’s always been a bit of an underdog. Badetona had a similar character, marked by her passion for numbers. Grégaire Duyole, they all agree, had the most fertile mind, a mine of “shared, not accumulated” ideas. His bond with Kighare Menka, now a renowned surgeon, has always been special.

Dr Menka relates. He works in northern Nigeria, working on victims of Boko Haram bombings; the people in his chronicles are hardly happy. When he finds out that a trade in human body parts is being run from his own hospital, his professional demeanor cracks. He embarks on a search that will transform his life and those of the rest of the Gong o’Four.

Famous as a playwright, Mr. Soyinka enjoys playing with words, and his prose is full of puns and witticisms. Above all, however, he enjoys dramatic settings, in which Nigerian society abounds; it brings fundamentalist funerals and prayer meetings to life in all their sinister splendor. But his goal is not simply to ridicule his Nigerian compatriots. During a scene in which a suspected thief is attacked by a market crowd and almost beheaded, Duyole turns to the narrator. “Something is broken,” he told the doctor. “Beyond the race. Exterior color or story. Something has cracked.

On some level, it’s a sophisticated thriller. On the other hand, it is a scathing moral satire on the vanity and corruption of the Nigerian political class, with its business buddies and kleptocratic preachers. In Soyinka’s words, the country is not so much a failed state as it is a sick state. Infected by greed, vanity and self-delusion, his body politic appears, in his novel, incurable.

This article appeared in the Books & Arts section of the print edition under the title “Coups de corps”


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