Is blood really thicker than water? Should a father be afraid of his son? How far should a man go in search of success? Is it really essential to have a long spoon before dining with the devil? What drives men who marry kids? Should we accord religion the importance we currently give to it? Does suffering and smiling make a people the happiest on earth? And more and more are the questions that may cross your mind while reading the tome released last October by one of Nigeria’s gifts to the world, Professor Wole Soyinka.
Soyinka called his new baby ‘Chronicles of the Happiest People on Earth’, an allusion to a controversial report which, some years ago, claimed Nigeria is the home of the happiest people on earth.
This is a work with sometimes dense passages. If you allow yourself to be intimidated by this, you will lose its goodness and joy. But, if you are patient enough to see through this, you will marvel at the gem— Soyinka’s third novel about four friends, one of them a mystery till almost the end of this work. He wraps this narrative in beautiful elegance that drips with poetry and its attendant beauty. It is steeped in the sights, colours and smells of Nigeria and Austria (the novel’s settings), and with living expressions such as “bottles of multinational breweries breathed their last”, Soyinka forces a smile on the reader’s face with this social realist narration. You will see someone who is clearly former late Oyo State Governor Abiola Ajimobi decreeing Ibadan into several kingdoms , Senator Rochas Okorocha appointing an aide for happiness, and Kano State Governor Abdullahi Ganduje balkanising the ancient Kano kingdom into fragments. Okija shrine, Boko Haram, and Guru Maharaji’s Lagos-Ibadan Expressway also breathe effortlessly in this fascinating, rousing novel. The experts in the dispensation of frivolous awards also get their ‘honour’ in WS’s signature parody.
The four friends in this work are Menka, Badetona, Duyole and Farodion. They are thrown into the murky waters of life, and embedded within their experiences, and the forces against them are codes or cryptic messages that anyone familiar with Nigeria can decode.
Menka is a celebrated surgeon who, as a Corps member, was made to cut the wrist of a thief for violating Sharia. 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. Farodion is the mystery in this work.
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 great.
Danfere 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.
At a stage in the book, Menka leaves his audience at the Manor House 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.
The Manor House inferno leads 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. It is drama galore from here. Soyinka’s handling of the drama is bound to keep the heart racing, with skilful writing. 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, will keep a reader turning the pages. These chapters are absorbing chapters, especially Menka’s quest to unravel the mystery behind the Pitan-Paynes’ acts after Duyole’s tragic experience. Menka wonders if his friend’s siblings and father hate him, he wonders if there something hidden from him, he wonders if there is an awful family secret he doesn’t know about, and he also wonders if his friend commits an abomination, some unspeakable act.
All in all, ‘Chronicles of the Happiest People on Earth’ is 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.
My final take: Unquestionably exuberant and teeming, Soyinka’s achievement with this harmonic presentation with several voices, is truly, truly remarkable, and confirms his place as a storyteller that is sui generis. He 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 whatnot. His treatment of religion and its link with men in power is caustic.