Excerpts from Reviews of Books by Wole Soyinka
Book cover: ©1981, Rex Collings.
Aké -- The Years of Childhood
London: Rex Collings, 1981.
Mr. Soyinka has already written one sort of autobiography, "The Man Died," and it was fine. But it was about adult life. "Aké," his account of his first decade, 1935 to 1945, is of another, higher order. It locates the lost child in all of us, underneath language, inside sound and smell, wide-eyed, brave and flummoxed...Mr. Soyinka remembers absurdity, friendship, ridicule, bedwetting, pomegranates, goats, bicycle bells, cutlasses cut from barrel hoops, weddings at which everybody arrived in clothes that didn't fit, snoring in the bedroom, wasps in the ceiling, shoes and cliches, medicine and prayer... His book is a confection that stings. By learning to know some of Aké, we are educated to appreciate a little of imperialism. After all the palm oil, kola nuts, cowrie shells, dead dogs, old coins and new blood, Mr. Soyinka chuckles so hard that we almost forget why birds died in his garden. Childhood is something from which he wants to graduate, because his questions haven't been answered and that kills him. Most of "Aké" charms; that was Mr. Soyinka's intention. The last 50 pages, however, inspire and confound; they are transcendent.
NYT Book Review
September 23, 1982
Full text of this review available online.
Wole Soyinka's plays, novels, poetry, and critical essays only peripherally prepare the reader for his autobiography. Rich description, elaborate scenes, and fascinating characters are interwoven in a narrative style laced with side-splitting humor and luxurious poignancy to a degree that is unmatched in his other works. In short, Soyinka's account of the first eleven years of his life is delightful. Soyinka excels at the difficult task of credibly capturing the child's point of view...The book ends rather abruptly at the height of the women's Union March, Soyinka's pending departure for Government College and the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. One can only hope that Soyinka will continue in this autobiographical vein to detail more of his life.
World Literature Today
E. E. Bell
Art, Dialogue, and Outrage: Essays on Literature and Culture
Ibadan, Nigeria: New Horn Press, 1988.
Wole Soyinka, Nigeria's most important writer, always seems to be in some kind of
trouble. In the 1960's, he backed the wrong side in his country's civil war and spent more than two years in prison, much of that time in solitary confinement. In the 80's, soon after he became the first African to win the Nobel Prize in Literature, the American news media attacked him as a crypto-Marxist when he dropped a stage production of Orwell's Animal Farm from a theater festival of which he was in charge. But in the contentious world of Nigerian cultural politics he has more frequently been criticized for not being radical enough, and it is in this context that the often difficult essays gathered in Art, Dialogue, and Outrage are best understood...This second edition of Art, Dialogue, and Outrage adds several new pieces to a volume first published in Nigeria in 1988. The book is invaluable for those already interested in the author's work. It is especially good to find seminal essays like "The Fourth Stage" and "Theater in African Traditional Cultures," both of them crucial for understanding the relations between Yoruba religion and Mr. Soyinka's own dramatic practice... What Art, Dialogue, and Outrage does best is to present the history of Mr. Soyinka's responses to the disputes that have always surrounded his work; responses in which he seems to be not so much on the defensive as launching a series of pre-emptive -- and punitive -- strikes...So the "Outrage" of his title is well chosen. Still, the most important essays here are not the polemical ones but those that speak directly to his career as a playwright.
NYT Book Review
May 15, 1994
Full text of this review available online.
[The collection] contains provocative readings of Shakespeare and Aristophanes, which illuminate Soyinka's own major dramatic works, notably Kongi's Harvest and Death and the King's Horseman. . . Stimulating as they are, these essays are sometimes hard going . . . Both Soyinka's written and spoken styles are highly parenthetical (often a sign of aggression, since enemies surface between clauses); and the laudably comprehensive introduction to this volume, by Professor Biodun Jeyifo, also suffers from outbreaks of academic jargon. . .The title of this collection speaks of "Outrage" and that emotion is most consistently in evidence. Long passages are devoted to butchering critics or defending Soyinka's own works under attack. . . Tormented by the ruin of a collective enterprise, Soyinka rages unavailingly. The lesson is basic: whatever the provocation, the artist is well advised to suffer in silence.
Times Literary Supplement
September 23, 1988
The Open Sore of a Continent: A Personal Narrative of the Nigerian Crisis
New York : Oxford University Press, 1996.
PR9387.9 .S6 Z473
Nobel Prize-winning Nigerian playwright and essayist Soyinka has been protesting the horrendous and tragic politics of his native country for more than 30 years, and the sting of his lashing wit, depth of his profound knowledge, heat of his rage, and beauty of his eloquence are all evident in this instructive and bracing jeremiad. Soyinka begins with the appalling 1995 murder of dissident writer Ken Saro-Wiwa....As he describes various forms of systematic humiliation, torture, murder, "ethnic cleansing," greed, ecological destruction, and all the other "spoils of power," Soyinka interprets his personal experiences of protest, harassment, incarceration, and exile within a broad framework of historical and literary references, ultimately exposing the injustice and folly, cruelty and evilness of Nigeria as a tragedy of global proportions.
Open Sore is a collection of three of Soyinka's public lectures. The tracts don't fit together tightly as one cohesive account. Still, the trio of essays is passionate, stirring, and chockfull of humor and insight. Its theme, whither the nation-state, is among the most compelling topics in sub-Saharan Africa and throughout the post-cold-war world....Soyinka's tendency to wander backward and forward through African and Nigerian history, and his rapid-fire recitation of players and events in Nigeria's complex political scene, is likely to befuddle newcomers to the topic. The book fails to provide a broader context that would make it more meaningful to a reader who does not follow Nigeria closely.
Christian Science Monitor
August 21, 1996
[This volume] is neither particularly well-organized nor even well-written but its anguish -- or rather, its very great anger -- is palpable, and easy to sympathize with. The greater part of the book consists of a passionate denunciation of the present Nigerian regime. . . . But Nigeria's plunge into autocracy and brutality hardly began with the new military government. Soyinka reflects here on the entire history of his country since independence from Great Britain in 1960, a history which in many ways is paradigmatic of sub-Saharan Africa in general. . . . [This book] is both useful and moving -- a "j'accuse" that bravely eschews the tactic of blaming all Africa's woes on racism, imperialism, and colonialism -- a ringing affirmation of humanity; and an instructive reflection on the moral foundations of nationhood.
Peter L. Berger
Though a short book, The Open Sore of a Continent is crammed with vivid observations that will add life to moribund, academic debates over national identity. Its narrative is applicable not only to postcolonial Nigeria but to the former Yugoslavia and the former Soviet Union as well, places where institutional and economic decline sharpened ethnic divisions and cracked the facades of imposed national identity. By the last page of Mr. Soyinka's book, I felt myself both enriched and exhausted.
NYT Book Review
Robert D. Kaplan