When driving in Lagos on the mainland towards the lagoon’s offshore islands, a cross-section of modern Nigeria passes by the car window, from corrugated iron shacks and ocher-colored dirt streets to the gleaming facades of skyscrapers on Victoria Island. All these opposites exist side by side and make up the country as such, and so it is not surprising that they also play a role in Wole Soyinka’s new novel The Happiest People in the World. Many paths of life cross every day on the crowded streets of the metropolis, many of them can also be found in the 650 pages of Soyinka’s novel.
The preacher takes a lot of money
The very first character looks down on the mob from atop a hill while self-proclaimed preacher Papa Davina lectures her about how everything in life is just a matter of perspective. He takes a lot of money from his visitors for such wisdom. They still come in droves, as Papa Davina promises to fix any problem for a reasonable fee. His connections in the highest circles of government also help him in this. In it, the Prime Minister, whom everyone just calls “Sir Goddie”, holds the reins and tries to use his power to his advantage and that of his friends. And then there is the surgeon Kighare Menka, whom three shady businessmen are trying to persuade to get into the flourishing body parts business – after all, he has had more than enough of it thanks to the attacks by Islamist groups in his hospital in the north of the country. The surgeon refuses, shortly afterwards the club where he spends his evenings goes up in flames. It is this Doctor Menka who emerges from the multitude of characters as the protagonist. He wants to follow the trail of the perverted robbers, contacts his closest friends and quickly gets himself and everyone who helps him involved in a deadly game.
Soyinka, who was the first African author to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1986, is known for his political commitment. During Nigeria’s civil war, he gave speeches against government corruption and denounced electoral inconsistencies. Arrested in 1967, he spent two years in solitary confinement while writing down his criticism of the government in the form of poems (“Poems from Prison”). Many of his plays and essays deal with the grievances of his home country. And not only there he criticized.
Back to Nigeria when Trump came
In America, too, where he lived for many years and taught at the major universities, he drew the consequences of his political attitude. When Donald Trump was elected President, the writer tore up his green card and traveled back to Nigeria.
“The Happiest People in the World” is only the third novel in Soyinka’s literary oeuvre, which spans almost seven decades. He wrote the last one about half a century ago. The fact that at the age of eighty-seven he has lost neither his anger at injustice nor his keen eye for social injustice is proven by the wealth of themes he has woven into his crime story. Similar to his powerfully eloquent essays, the thematic transitions are elegant and fluid. Soyinka touches on postcolonial debates about looted art as well as Islamist terror, corrupt politicians, religious charlatans and the manipulation of the masses through fake news on social networks. All of this could seem overloaded and collapse like a wedding cake stacked too high, but the choice to tell what angers the author in the crime genre also gives structure to the affect.
On the one hand, Soyinka asks his readers to trust that all the intertwined plot threads will come together in the end, and on the other hand he asks them to be able to remain attentive while reading. It is not without reason that his characters often refer to Charles Dickens. As skilfully as he interweaves the time levels when telling the adventures of his numerous characters, using forwards and backwards views, Soyinka does so most of the time. When the fire eats up the Surgeon’s Clubhouse and stands in a blazing wall of flames over the hills, one suddenly remembers that the same image had been observed by another person a few chapters earlier.
That is not the only thing they have in common with Dickens, the two authors also share the clear view with which society is dissected. When Menka questions a house servant as a witness, he also tells his life story, gives an insight into the world of those who come to Lagos from the remote villages to earn money for their families and are treated by the rich like inventory. And when a woman mourns the loss of her husband, the author uses this to denounce traditional structures of torture-like widow questioning by the deceased’s family. Some real problems are ironically exaggerated: The “happiest people in the world” live here, and they are prescribed by the state with their own ministry, which in turn awards contracts and posts to the families of the members of the government.
Slowly, a panorama of a state that is constantly sliding along the path of failure unfolds. And just when you almost forget about the investigation in a subplot, Soyinka picks up the arc of suspense again, feeding it with secret codes and paranoia. After that, you not only understand Nigeria a little better.
Wole Soyinka: “The happiest people in the world”. Novel. From the American by Inge Uffelmann. Blessing Verlag, Munich 2022. 656 p., hard copy, €24.