Soyinka’s stirring narrative probes earth’s happiest people-Olukorede S. Yishau

About midway into Wole Soyinka’s third novel ‘Chronicles of the Happiest People on Earth’, there is a fire outbreak on a hilltop real estate in Jos, the Plateau State capital. The early morning inferno occurs the night after a member of the Gang of Four, who the novel is largely about, has regaled members of the Hilltop Manor, a social club with British roots, with tales about the existence of a human parts supermarket.

Menka, a celebrated surgeon who as a Corps member was made to cut the wrist of a thief for violating Sharia, leaves his audience spellbound as he recalls how he was approached by merchants of human parts with a partnership. He was distraught to find out his staff (nurses, cleaners and others) had been selling menstrual pads, pre-operation shaved pubic hair, clipped toe-nails, washed down blood from emergency room and other intimate stuff from patients to these merchants who assumed he was in on the business. He resigned after this encounter and decided to leave Jos.

He is woken up the next morning by a member of the Gang of Four, Duyole, who tells him about the fire at the Hilltop Manor, which overlooked his apartment. As residents pass buckets of water from hand to hand to salvage their home, Menka returns to his apartment to pack his possessions. The novel cruises on an amazing ride from this point.

As you progress to the core of this luminous, complex narrative, certain things are bound to become clear: This is largely a tale of four friends thrown into the murky waters of life and embedded within their experiences and the people trying to wreck them are codes or cryptic messages that anyone familiar with Nigeria can decode.

‘Chronicles of the Happiest People on Earth’ unfolds a narrative of modern Nigeria — encompassing the hand-sanitiser-cum-nose-mask era as well as a bit of its early years — through the successes and failures of the Gang of Four: Menka, Badetona, Duyole and Farodion.

Duyole is a brilliant engineer whose work in public service is above board. He soon gets a big job at the UN, which the Prime Minister is not happy about.

Faro is perhaps the biggest dreamer of the Gang of Four. Long before Nollywood, he dreamt of launching a film industry. The man, who is described as tending to speak in riddles, dropped out of sight and had the rest of the clan wondering what became of the smooth talker whose popularity with the ladies was legendary.

Badetona, the finance guru, is a moderate drinker. His gripping ordeal in the hands of the security agents is howl-inspiring. A series of events, including a bloody one on Ikorodu Road, forces him to visit the Ekumenika, the enclave where Papa Davida, who also answers to Teribogo, is the lord and saviour; he is a con man on the pulpit with links to the seat of power. He is close to Prime Minister Godfrey Danfere, another character who makes the plot tick.

The Number 2 man is petty and cherishes his ego being massaged. He is a good example of men who should be far away from power because of the evil they use it for. His shenanigans over Duyole’s UN job are cringe-worthy.

The inferno at the Manor House lead Menka to relocate to Badagry on the invitation of Duyole, who it would later appear was led by some invisible forces to take that step.

The author’s handling of the drama is bound to keep the heart racing, due largely to both the skilful writing and the eagerness to find out if that is the end of Duyole or whether he will survive or die like Dele Giwa, one of the trio the book is dedicated to.

One or two tears may drop reading these absorbing chapters, especially Menka’s quest to unravel the mystery behind the Pitan-Paynes’ heartless acts after Duyole’s tragic experience. The mystery gives the impression that the family is hiding something and the quest to find out the secret adds to the suspense of this prodigious piece of fiction. 

Particularly moving is this rant from Menka: “Do you all hate him this much? Is there something I don’t know? Is there an awful family secret I don’t know about? Did my friend commit an abomination, some unspeakable act that would make the earth of Badagry spew him out if we tried to lay him in its bosom? Are the people of Badagry going to retch and spit on the coffin if they knew he was being buried here? Is there some unpardonable crime he has committed that his funeral procession will not pass peacefully through the streets of Badagry, past the ancient slave baracoons, past the shacks and colonial houses? How can Duyole’s remains not pass through the house that he built…Just what gods do you serve, if any? What crime has Duyole committed, I want to know now! What is the unspeakable secret? No matter, the body within this casket is mine. I brought him home and I have taken charge of him. Duyole is going through Millennium Towers, and no one is getting in the way….!

Aside being (in one breath) the story of the Gang of Four, Soyinka has rendered in harrowing details the story of Nigerians and how they have come to be known as the happiest people on earth despite decades of failed leadership, nepotism, corruption, favouritism and what not.

Soyinka cloaks this saga in beautiful elegance that drips with poetry and its attendant beauty. He evokes the landscapes of Nigeria and Austria (the book’s settings) hauntingly and he brings smiles to the face with expressions such as “Bottles of multinational breweries breathed their last”.

 He, no doubt, delivers a fascinating, rousing novel, which evokes history from the people’s memories in a way no textbook can. Glaringly, Soyinka’s achievement with this harmonic presentation with several voices, is truly, truly remarkable.  He is a storyteller in a class of his own.

Olukorede S. Yishau is author of Vaults of Secrets and In The Name of Our Father.

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