Review by Brian Tanguay
When I began reading Chronicles from the Land of the Happiest People on Earth by Wole Soyinka, the Nigerian writer who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1986, I was immediately struck by the timbre of his narrative voice and how by turns it could be satiric, irreverent, or wise. Soyinka is a protean artist whose corpus of work includes novels, memoirs, poetry, and plays. He’s also a high profile political dissident whose criticism of Nigeria’s government landed him in prison for nearly two years. A man of unwavering conviction, Soyinka destroyed his US green card when Donald J. Trump was elected president in 2016.
As one would expect from a master novelist, Chronicles contains multiple interconnected layers and subtext. On one level it’s a withering indictment of the way political and social corruption becomes normalized through indifference. On another it’s the story of fraternity between a quartet of Nigeria’s best and brightest who came of age when the country earned its independence. They go abroad to be educated and with the solemnity and idealism of youth make a pact to return and contribute to their new nation. Referring to themselves as the Gong of Four, they are led by the charismatic Duyole Pitan-Payne, a gifted engineer and bon vivant from a prominent family. Kighare Menka is a celebrated surgeon. Badetona, also known as the Scoffer, is a genius accountant and money man, and the enigmatic Farodian, the outsider who periodically drops off the others’ radar. The core relationship, however, is between Pitan-Payne and Menka, friendly rivals trying to outdo each other. As Pitan-Payne prepares to depart for a post at the United Nations, Menka wins a prestigious award for his work with the survivors of Boko Haram attacks, but these high points of their respective careers are marred when they find themselves in the middle of a grisly whodunit: someone in their orbit is selling human body parts harvested from car accidents, gas-line eruptions, and terror attacks. Not only that, but they have the audacity to try to entice Menka to join their illicit enterprise.
Soyinka’s characters are finely drawn, in particular the crafty, cunning, and opportunistic Papa Davina, also known as Teribogo, a harvester of souls, whose most famous saying is, “Perspective is all.” The shape-shifting Davina’s true calling is that of a “skillful, creative spiritual trafficker” with an instinct for survival and the ability to land on his feet. Davina knows that the misfortune of others can be lucrative, provided one is associated with the right people, those who wield power, influence and protective cover.
Avarice and corruption among political and religious figures isn’t unique to Nigeria, although the country is known for its endemic corruption. “It’s two sides of the same coin,” the People’s Steward tells Papa Davina. “Yours the spiritual side, mine the political. The meeting point is business.” The People’s Steward — a euphemistic title if ever there was one — pays lip service to his constituents while enriching himself and scheming against rivals; he has eyes and ears everywhere, a finger on every pulse point. Papa Davina and the People’s Steward share one attribute necessary to save souls or win votes: belief in the power of dramatic public spectacles and pageantry, the more garish the better. It’s the diversionary trick common to grifters everywhere: look here, not there.
When Duyole is grievously injured in a bomb blast, Menka uses all his connections to fly his friend to Austria for medical treatment. There Duyole dies from his injuries and a desperate struggle ensues between Menka and the Pitan-Payne family over the repatriation of the body, with the family strangely insistent that Duyole be buried in Austria. Menka is equally insistent that his friend’s body be returned to his native land. The family’s fierce opposition is baffling and Menka is determined to find out what is behind it. Although Menka prevails in this tug-of-war, there are other twists and turns to come. Farodion pops up again, or has he been present all along, hiding in plain sight?
Avarice, vanity, jealousy and the lust for power is present in all human settings, even in the land of the happiest people on Earth, but, fortunately, so is integrity, friendship, and the thirst for justice.