It is a dance of the macabre in Wole Soyinka’s latest book
What you need to know:
- Chronicles from the Land of the Happiest People on Earth is the story of four college friends, also known as the ‘Gong o’ Four’.
- What Soyinka poses in this novel is an obvious philosophical question: how does one become happy?
It is always seductive to convert a story about a specific African country into the story of Africa. Is there a Kenyan, Nigerian, Egyptian, South African or Libyan story that can stand on its own, and defy the logic that would rename it ‘African?’
Here we are not talking about the good old debate about what is African literature; what is an African story; or even who is an African. We are referring to how specific country or cultural experiences are made into generalizations about more than a billion people.
The consequent oversimplifications then become ‘truths’ or ‘fact’s, whichever one likes, about a continent that is so big in size, so diverse in its languages and cultures, so disparate in its foods, clothing, music, skin color or even the physical size of the people. But the logic to totalise experiences from the particular to the general of Africa remains a very powerful one.
One struggles to escape the tendency to speak about Africa when they should be talking about Nigeria – or even just a part of Nigeria – after reading Chronicles from the Land of the Happiest People on Earth by Wole Soyinka (2021).
After waiting for decades for a book from Soyinka, he has obliged his readers with a book that is a mix of drama, poetry, the essay and fiction, among other things literary. This is a book that reminds readers of Soyinka’s previous works in a very seductive sense – for instance, there are vestiges of The Interpreters, The Man Died, The Road and You Must Wake Up at Dawn, among others of his works.
Chronicles from the Land of the Happiest People on Earth is the story of four college friends, also known as the ‘Gong o’ Four’ – Menka, Farodion, Badetona and Duyole. Menka is a successful and nationally celebrated medical doctor; Farodion simply disappears after the foursome graduate from college and little is known about his whereabouts; Badetona is a dishonored civil servant; and Duyole is an engineer. The lead characters in the macabre drama of the story are Dr Kighare Menka and Duyole Pitan-Payne. The former is an orphan; the latter is a scion of a successful family in Lagos, although originally from Badagry.
In this part dark comedy, part thriller, part mystery, the author pulls together many strands of modern life in Nigeria – an economy that has sharply separated the poor from the village; a thriving religious industry made up of latter day preachers, miracle makers, revivalists etc; a political world of behind the scenes scheming and conniving; a socio-cultural world of local traditions mixed with foreign practices; and a generally ‘on the move’ society. This is the land in which everyone seeks happiness, irrespective of the costs or consequences. It is also a land in which the ruling class will go to all lengths to ‘manufacture’ happiness, whatever one takes it to be.
It is in this land of happiness where Dr Menka is visited at his workplace one day by a team with an offer to join them as a partner in a business. What business? They run an outfit called ‘Primary Resource Management.’ What exactly do they do? They are ‘United Against Waste.’ What does that mean? They ‘prevent waste.’ They ‘… engage and maximize resources.’ What kind of resources? ‘Human resources.’ One would imagine that the company hires, trains and supports workers in different industries. No. The company actually trades in human body parts. It stores and sells all kinds of body parts.
But why would any sane man or woman set up an enterprise that deals in human body parts? Because if there is demand, someone needs to supply. There may be a trade in body parts because they are needed in surgery for those who are sick. But there is also trade in body parts because they can be used in charms by those who wish to be rich – and happy. Or some parts could be pound and used to reinvigorate the living who have weak systems – and make them happy. How would these individuals come by these body parts? Motor vehicle accidents? Inexplicable killings? Ritual killings? Abductions and murder?
When Menka discovers what his would-have-been business partners do, he is horrified. And he decides to share his discovery with members of a social club he belongs to. His revelations trigger a whirlwind of events that drive the story to its dramatic conclusion. The club burns or is burnt down. He resigns from his work. He decides to relocate to Badagry. He becomes a guest of Duyole. Thereafter a bomb explodes in the Duyole house causing the host severe injuries. Duyole’s condition worsens at the hospital. A decision is made to fly him to Salzburg, Austria, where he dies in three days.
Ultimate prize of happiness
Then the thrilling and macabre drama turns darker when Duyole’s family insists that he be buried in Salzburg. Menka cannot understand how the celebrated son of the family could be buried abroad. Why, he keeps asking himself? The entire Duyole family seems to be determined to have their son, brother, father, buried abroad. How can that be for a man who was well-known, had a successful business, had consulted for the government and was recently nominated to go work at the United Nations? Well, Duyole is buried in Salzburg. But Menka is determined to bring home his friend’s body.
The ensuing tussle between Menka and the larger Duyole family is almost a life and death struggle. It is a struggle of wills between the doctor and the family, led by the patriarch, Pitan-Payne. The family cedes some ground in the end and Duyole’s body is brought back home for burial, and he is buried with little involvement of the family. But why? What secrets are being protected by the family that doesn’t want anything to do with its own? What forces are at play in the seemingly unnecessary refusal to return the body of a family member home?
Soyinka weaves a chilling tale of a modern Nigerian – or should one say Lagosian – society that is under the spell of cults and secret societies. All the drama of Chronicles from the Land of the Happiest People on Earth is built around the intrigues of secret groupings that are found around political, economic, cultural, religious, or academic communities.
If the Gang o’ Four was a secret group of four young men with good intentions, at what point did one of them become evil, despite hiding behind the cloak of spirituality? How does society degrade to such an extent that a father would rather abandon his child in ill-health and death in service of a cult? What dark forces would convert a child into a co-conspirator against his own father in a matter of life or death?
What Soyinka poses in this novel is an obvious philosophical question: how does one become happy? Obviously there is hardly a fully happy character in Chronicles from the Land of the Happiest People on Earth. Therefore, maybe there is another question behind the one above: what is happiness? But considering that even this question might be moot, then we need to rephrase it: what is the cost of happiness? What does the individual or the community have to sacrifice to gain the ultimate prize of happiness? Or, is it even worth chasing after happiness?
The writer teaches literature and performing arts at the University of Nairobi. [email protected]