Wole Soyinka, Isara, A Voyage Around Essay

Reviewed by Jane Tompkins

Over the past year or two I’ve been reading African writers, mainly Nigerian, most recently Wole Soyinka, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1986. I’d heard of Soyinka as a playwright and political activist but didn’t know he wrote novels, memoir, and non-fiction as well. Not only does he, but he excels at it: Isara (1989), the lightly fictionalized account of a  period in his father’s life, is a small masterpiece, composed with such wisdom and understanding, such love and attention to detail, that one is ashamed to have known nothing about it all these years. When, not long ago, I finally read Chinua Achebe’s famous novel Things Fall Apart, I thought I had come into contact with a towering genius whose like one meets only seldom in a lifetime. Now I realize there are not one but two such African writers and Soyinka is the second.

This is not to minimize the value of other work now being produced: Chimimanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah (2013), a brilliant commentary on American culture as much as on Nigeria, is now receiving the attention it deserves; NoViolet Bulaweyo’s We Need New Names (2013), a harsher view of contemporary African life than Adichie’s, and Chigozie Obioma’s The Fishermen (2015), even more frightening in its implications, are strong and compelling. It’s just that the older and more experienced Soyinka delivers not only a close up picture of his subject, his father’s circle in Nigeria (the “Essay” of the title stands for his father’s  initials, “S.A.,” Isara being the name of his home village), he also captures a key historical moment in Africa’s transition from tribal to modern life. Soyinka, heir to the changes he recounts in Isara, presents them with pride and regret, and, like Achebe, makes us feel the loss involved. Yet in the end his view is comic, in the broadest sense.

The passage from a society that was essentially communal to one that is individualistic, from illiteracy to literacy, from magic to science, rural living to urban, native religion to Christianity, and from religion itself to secularism—all this could have been treated as the tragic destruction of an ancient culture, or, conversely, as a triumphal progress from savagery to civilization, darkness to light. Soyinka does neither. Rather than lamenting these transitions or glorifying them, he uses humor to highlight their poignancy and awkwardness. The great thing is, there’s a history lesson on practically every page but most of the time you don’t realize it. When people argue over whether folk medicine or Western medicine is better for a sick family member, then tiptoe around one another’s opinions so as not to offend, it sounds like typical generational disagreement, and it is. But at the same time, in the 1980s, the issue is part of the sea-change that’s taking place all over about-to-be-post-colonial Africa. When a character misses his best friend’s wedding because of bus and automobile breakdowns, it not only damages his reputation for always being in control of whatever  situation he’s in, it symbolizes the growing pains of a transportation system in its infancy.

With an apparently effortless grace, Soyinka dramatizes the collision of cultural traditions, intellectual paradigms, and economic systems through the interchanges and carryings on of people in daily life. His experience as a playwright stands him in good stead: the dialogue that carries the messages he wants to get across is natural, spontaneous, and fluid. As in real life, much is left unsaid. His methods are oblique. Never seeming to be doing or talking about anything of great importance, his characters back into situations that are full of cultural significance. What it feels like in town when people come home for the holidays. A head school teacher’s faithfulness to his responsibilities. For a man who spent years in prison and in exile for his political beliefs, Soyinka’s perspective on his country and the changes it has undergone is astonishingly mellow, due, perhaps, to the love for his father which gently pervades the book.

The narrative attitude is relaxed, curious, and appreciative. Almost whimsical in its unfolding, the story never seems to be going anywhere in particular. The author’s light touch, eye for the ridiculous, and crafty sense of timing keep the reader entertained while waiting for the shoe to drop. But when you reach the end, and at least one shoe finally does drop, you realize that all the little nothings it has been about are everything and that you’ve been witness to a moment in a country’s gigantic social and cultural upheaval that is still going on.~