TLR exclusive: Onyeka Nwelue reviews Wole Soyinka’s “Chronicles of the Happiest People on Earth.”

With a few days to the release of Wole Soyinka’s eagerly anticipated new novel, Chronicles of the Happiest People on Earth, we bring you Onyeka Nwelue’s unique thoughts regarding the octogenarian’s first novel in over four decades. Onyeka describes it as a “tasty and pulchritudinous satire.”

Wole Soyinka is back with a bang to the World of Fiction!

And not just with any kind of fiction, but with ‘realist” fiction, which I want to call “Class” fiction, also, as it takes an unexpected detour such that when you read it, you can pick the characters from real life folks, filched off from the political class, in a narrative, that is told by a member of the upper class. You’d find out that this book is all about class; even though sometimes, religion overshadows politics in Chronicles of the Happiest People on Earth 

Let me brag: I read this book in manuscript. I was one of the chosen few to read it (and not share with anyone). I was too excited, such that it was all I read for two weeks. Breezy, sometimes, punchy, it is typical Wole Soyinka: brimming with wisdom and full of words you may never have heard or seen or read anywhere. You have to polish your vocabulary with it.

What comes across is the fact that you cannot deny that Soyinka is a master when it comes to telling stories. In real life, he is not boring and on a sheet of paper, the mastery shows. He writes with the fury of someone, angry, but relaxed and sitting on his throne. 

I am an ‘unabashed Soyinkaphile.’ I have read everything I can find, written by him. Perhaps, 38 of his books. But, then, this is a very different book. It took me a while to get through so much so that the characters, began to appear in my dream, especially Tibidje, for reasons I can’t tell. Chief Oromotaya as well.

For some reason, the opening chapter reminds me of The Trials of Brother Jero. However, there is something particularly different about this book, something that sets it apart from his other works that I have read: many years of living, deeper wisdom, unleashed in a very lasting narrative technique and a narrator’s voice that is familiar.

I am not sure whether this is right to say, but as I read, I could hear his voice – here is a book that is not for everyone, because of his perfect mastery of language. At some point, I stopped and played some videos of him on YouTube, to try to differentiate his voice from that of the narrator. The voice of a King, sitting on his throne and narrating a never-ending tale to his people, going back and forth, mesmerizing them.

I say this not because Soyinka wrote this book, but it is one of the greatest satires I have read. Through the lush and poetic narrative, I found myself thinking of the stories Gabriel Garcia Marquez wrote and then, Marcel Proust, yet, the voice remained strikingly Soyinka.

This storytelling technique is very muscular. I have never seen anyone write about the political/religious class with so much dexterity. And perhaps, accuracy! His wealth of experience from different strata of life, reflects fully in this masterpiece. His mindscape is broad and it shows here. Not to sound patronizing, here is a book that is not for everyone. Only the intellectual elite will have the pleasure of sitting through this bundle of wisdom and humour. 

To tickle you, you will find real characters from Aso Rock, making cameo appearances in the book, with shady names. But, if you are observant enough, you will know them by the way Soyinka tweaked their names for quick recognition. 

The treatment of the political class is well-realised. I think because of his background; coming from an aristocratic family, he is, perhaps, incapable of writing about the working class. I might be wrong, but Soyinka has written flawlessly about the Upper Class – even though I don’t think the Political Class is Upper Class – because the Political Class is full of people from the Working Class, who were pressured by their people to murder the Middle Class, take their money and try to climb the ladder of success to become rich, thinking that money buys class. 

In Chronicles of the Happiest People on Earth, there are all kinds of people, but one gets the feeling that the world is devoid of violence and sex. Yes, it will be forgiven, simply because this is coming from him. At a point, I was reminded of Chinua Achebe’s Anthills of the Savannah.

Do ignore my comparisons; my analogies may be lazy. It is just the way my mind worked from the very moment I picked up the book but dont take my word for it, find this book, read it and find out for yourselves.

Onyeka Nwelue’s new novel, The Strangers of Braamfontein is forthcoming from BlackBird Books, South Africa.

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