Aké: The Years of Childhood
by Wole Soyinka
Random House, 230 pp., $14.95
It is not always possible to find the child again. Proust did, not only by reason of his genius but because the emotional force of the child-parent relationship was never exceeded by any other in his strange life. In this sense, he was never looking back; the child Marcel was with him. But other writers, even wonderful ones, are not as successful. Czeslaw Milosz finds his way back to the Issa Valley by what has never left him: the communion with nature that was the joy of childhood and—on the evidence of a recent interview—consoles the aging exile, honored far from home, who assures Americans that communion may be made just outside their violent cities. Yet the Issa Valley childhood is not reinhabited but consciously interpreted from the distance of the life that followed.1
As autobiographer of childhood the African writer has an advantage as special as, if very different from, that of Proust. His sense of self is au fond his Africanness. Adult experience as poet, novelist, playwright, often exile, is mingled with other countries, languages, cultures from which his color always distinguishes him. Childhood belongs to African experience and it is not over: it remains with him forever in his blackness, an essential identity never superceded by any other. The history of enslavement, oppression, and race prejudice secures this for him. The advantage extends to the reader. The old adage is paraphrased—one’s pleasure in the autobiography lies in that the child is not only father to the exceptional man, but still is the man. The Guinean writer Camara Laye’s Dark Child (“L’enfant noir“), published in the early Fifties, owes some of its status as a minor classic to this exoticism, which is more than territorial.2
Wole Soyinka of Nigeria is an exceptional man indeed. Poet, playwright, novelist, he has done something Camus despaired of seeing any activist achieve—lived the drama of his time and been equal to the writing of it. During the Nigerian civil war he defied his Yoruba loyalties for a greater one, and campaigned against the sale of arms to either side. He tried to stop the war; he was tortured, imprisoned by General Gowon for two years under ghastly conditions, and survived to fulfill magnificently, with The Man Died, the need (in his own words) for “a testimony of the political prisoner’s isolation in solitude that would become a kind of chain letter hung permanently on the leaden conscience of the world.”3
Soyinka, an elegant writer, has in his recent novels tended to be an overly self-conscious one. For the best of reasons—he is never complacent, always searching out the most striking and complete way to say what he has to say—he sometimes produces the bad result of making the reader aware of the writer’s unresolved choices. Too many words, too many inversions, too many clamoring clauses which punctuation cannot handle intelligibly. This is the opening sentence of Season of Anomy: “A quaint anomaly, had long governed and policed itself, was so singly-knit that it obtained a tax assessment for the whole populace and paid it before the departure of the pith-helmeted assessor, in cash, held all property in common, literally, to the last scrap of thread on the clothing of each citizen—such an anachronism gave much patronising amusement to the cosmopolitan sentiment of a profit-hungry society.”4
It is not surprising, then, that his approach to his years of childhood should have more in common with Tristram Shandy than with Proust or Laye, although Laye’s home was also in West Africa. For the first ninety pages or so, the tone is waggish. The “worked-up” anecdotal dialogue of his parents and others reads like inventions based on what are really family sayings—whose origin is germane, a whole view of life rather than a response to a single happening. It is hard to believe that a boy under five thought of his mother as “Wild Christian” although the fact that everyone referred to his father as “HM” (headmaster) would have made it natural for him to see that as a name for intimate use, and not a title. It is hard to accept that a three-and-a-half-year-old’s sassy ripostes were as well phrased as the supremely articulate adult now “hears” them in memory. And as for rediscovering the time dimensions of childhood, the scrappy organization of the first part of the book does not at all express the child’s extended time spans and the size of events that swell with these, measured neither by seasons nor by dates.
Perhaps this section of the book is a collection of previously written fragments. There is, at least, one good story among the usual sort of reminiscence of punishments and pleasures that adults “arrange” as the pattern of early years—the delightful tale of old man Paa Adatan, who, in return for the price of a meal from a market stall, undertook to defend any property against the arrival of “dat nonsenseyeye Hitler one time.” His striking-force capacity ranged from drawing a magic line in the dust before a shop front (“If they try cross this line, guns go turn to broom for dem hand. Dem go begin dey sweeping dis very ground till I come back”) to performing fearsome warrior dances. Like other wily misfits at different times and in different countries, he knew how to make of the world’s villainy an excuse for his layabout existence: “Na dis bastard Hitler. When war finish you go see. You go see me as I am, a man of myself.”
When the people in his village of Aké begin to be aware of the distant 1939-1945 war, the small boy Wole does seem to take over the interpretation of his own experience, maybe because by then he was just old enough to have sorted the hot and cold of sensuous impressions into some order available to memory. One forms the oblique picture of him for oneself, without the interference of the adult Soyinka’s artifice. Wild Christian and HM are no longer ideograms of idiosyncrasy, but those most mysterious beings of our lives, parents. In the loving daily battle between the mother (who dispensed Christian charity and discipline as practically as the contents of her cooking pots) and father (scholarly agnostic toward both Christian and Nigerian gods) and their unpredictable child, he emerges as original innocence; not original sin, as his parents sometimes seemed to believe. Paying a family visit one Sunday at the palace of the Odemo, the titled head of HM’s home village of Isara, the eight-or nine-year-old outraged the assembled African nobility by failing to prostrate himself before one of them. “Coming directly from the Sunday service probably brought the response” to the child’s head—”If I don’t prostrate myself to God, why should I prostrate to you? You are just a man like my father aren’t you?”
Original innocence was still with the grown man when, knowing well, this time, he was defying the might of chauvinism and the world armaments industry, he took on his own “side” as well as the Biafran “side,” identifying the only enemy as the war they were waging.
Parents are generally the scapegoats for all our adult inadequacies. Was there, then, something about Wole Soyinka’s childhood, some security that produced the courage both physical and intellectual, and prepared him for the outlandish demands his era was to make of him? Yet his environment is revealed not as the natural paradise lesser writers edit, out of black yearning for a preconquest state of being or white yearning for a pre-industrial one, from the footage of reality. To begin with, his parents were middle-class, his mother a shopkeeper and debt-collector as well as a wild Christian, his father more interested in books than traditional status possessions; and the middle, in modern African societies, is the ground of the tug between the African way of life and the European way in which, as Chinua Achebe has definitively chronicled, things fall apart.
The tally of beatings, administered by every Aké adult in every kind of authority, is positively Victorian, although there’s no suggestion that the British imported this style of punishment. In the 1940s in Nigeria even adolescent maidservants (black) were beaten by their mistresses (black) for wetting their sleeping mats; and, indeed, the high incidence of bed-wetters reported by the young Wole, who suffered creeping damp when sharing a communal sleeping mat, would in the West more likely be attributed to the beatings rather than “cured” by them. Thirty-six strokes for an adolescent schoolboy who had “made” a schoolgirl pregnant was regarded neither as cruel punishment nor as an injustice singling out one of the two it takes to make a baby.
Perhaps the trauma of all these beatings was dissolved in the witness that accompanied them? They did not take place in camera, between victim and castigator, alone with sin, but in the tumble of crowded households and even in a kind of dance through the streets. The purpose may have been public humiliation, but since every spectator had been or next time might be victim, there must have been a balm of fellow feeling flowing toward the wounds even as they were being inflicted. At any rate, the child never doubts that he is loved, which means that although he chafes against incidences of parental lack of understanding and a kind of sadistic, cock-fighting adult playfulness (setting him against his younger brother), he never seems to regard himself as unhappy, or rather seems never to have expected to be happier. Again, this may have something to do with the strong sense of community, not only with other children but with the particularly wide range of relationships the society provided—”chiefs, king-makers, cult priests and priestesses, elders….”
Like a piece of etú, the rich locally woven cloth, social relations were a garment whose ceremonial weight was at the same time cosily enclosing. The child was never overawed by it; could snuggle up there just as the bedbugs (to the amused surprise of this middle-class white reader) had their own homely interstices in the Soyinka middle-class household with its servants and library. The different coordinates—which style of life goes with which class, which conventions with which kind of respect, which snobbishness with which pretension—are the source for non-Africans, who (of course) know only the styles of life that go with their social categories, of a fascination that takes hold with the hand of the child.
When the not-quite-heaven that was Wole’s natal village of Aké extends, along with the parental relationship, to his father’s natal territory at Isara, the fascination becomes complete. The grandfather, with a painful scarification ceremony, puts the boy in the care of the god Ogun just as Wild Christian has put him in the care of Christ. Again, the result is not a trauma but greater security for the child. And the writer finds his way to him with a felicity of evocation and expression on the “axis of tastes and smells” along which the preparation of foods provides a family genealogy, a wonderfully sensuous first sense of self, other, and belonging. The whiff of identical flavor in dishes prepared by different hands, different generations, is the child’s own historiography and system of kinship. Just as the visitors and supplicants to HM’s yard, despite the particular “tang of smoke and indigo” they bring, remind one of Isaac Bashevis Singer’s father’s court in the Polish ghetto, so the patterns of living perceived through the tastebuds evoke Günter Grass’s culinary interpretation of Europe’s disasters and survivals. The pleasures of entering Wole Soyinka’s childhood, for a stranger, consist not only in differences but in correspondences as well.