A political, rarely personal, tale of exile from Africa

Review Autobiography

April 16, 2006|By STEPHANIE HANES | STEPHANIE HANES,SUN REPORTER

You Must Set Forth at Dawn

By Wole Soyinka

Random House / 497 pages / $26.95

The Yoruba god Ogun is never far from Wole Soyinka. The deity's powers of conflict and creativity swirl around the Nobel laureate - in theater, in prison, in the caldron of dictators and rebels and human rights activists that was 20th-century Nigeria.

In the first lines of his new memoir, You Must Set Forth at Dawn, Soyinka denies that he is possessed by this god, as he says many have suggested. In fact, Soyinka writes of himself, he is "a closet glutton for tranquillity." But as he moves readers through his adulthood - from the heady, African renaissance days of post-independence through the sadistic regime of Nigeria's Sani Abacha - tranquillity is a rare commodity.

Soyinka's life is stunning. He is a playwright, often referred to as Africa's best, and the first African to win the Nobel Prize for literature, in 1986. He has also been involved in every twist and turn of tumultuous Nigeria: the wars, the coups, the popular revolts.

Although his book never quite explains how he became so connected, Soyinka tells us of numerous secret meetings with high-powered political leaders, of his efforts to broker peace talks here, takeovers there. And although the reader learns little of his two-year imprisonment - that is the focus of Soyinka's 1972 book, The Man Died: Prison Notes of Wole Soyinka - the risks of this life are clear.

"Flirting with fate and emerging relatively unscathed tend to go to one's head," Soyinka writes. "Which might partially explain why one appears to travel down the same mined road again and again."

This is not a tell-all autobiography, or a particularly easy one to follow. The chapters are not chronological, and Soyinka seems to expect that the reader already knows his exploits, background and achievements. Although he writes often of working-class Nigerians recognizing him in the street - almost always with stunned delight - we never really learn why this literary professor is such a well-known figure in his country.

Despite his public persona, Soyinka writes that he is quite private, most comfortable alone in the wilderness or eating dinner with a friend. He writes of the agony of public engagements after winning the Nobel Prize, and refers to the attention of well-wishers and journalists as the dreadful price he must pay to balance the windfall of the prize.

This predilection toward privacy might explain why the reader doesn't learn all that much about Soyinka's personal life. During the years described in this lengthy book, the playwright gets divorced, remarries, has children and smuggles his family out of Nigeria. But the reader can only piece together these facts from asides in unrelated passages. There is no revelation of his emotions when it comes to family.

There is more emotion in politics, particularly when it comes to Abacha, the brutal dictator who ruled Nigeria from 1993 to 1998.

"I knew him," Soyinka writes. "I had studied him. I made it my business to follow the careers of a number of the military players on the Nigerian political field. Sani Abacha was a psychopath, certifiably so."

Under the Abacha regime, facing increasing state-sponsored violence and personal threats, Soyinka fled Nigeria. During his exile, he taught in the United States and helped opposition groups. He used his capital as Nobel laureate to try to draw attention to the devastation in his beloved country.

In some ways, Nigeria itself is the best-developed character in Soyinka's book. This is no small feat. Despite coups and counter-coups, the multisyllable names and the sometimes confusing history, Soyinka's memoir gives a new understanding of a country that, because of oil, terrorism and geopolitics, should be of growing interest to U.S. readers.

Stephanie Hanes is a Sun reporter currently on leave and living in South Africa.

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