Monday, October 4, 2021

The Interpreters by Wole Soyinka

Needlessly confusing and obscure
Nigerian author Wole Soyinka, winner of the 1986 Nobel Prize in Literature, is best known as a playwright, poet, and essayist, but he has also published three novels to date. The first of these, The Interpreters, was published in 1965. The novel centers around a handful of characters who had gone abroad to study in England or America, but have now returned to lives and careers in Nigeria’s capital city of Lagos. None of them are literally professional interpreters, but presumably Soyinka sees them as interpreters of Western culture in modern Nigeria, or of Nigerian culture to Western visitors, hence the title. Sagoe is a journalist, Egbo is a government bureaucrat, Bandele is a professor, Sekoni is an engineer, and Kola is an artist. There is also a woman among the group named Dehinwa, but little is revealed about her other than she is girlfriend to one of the gang. On the surface, one can facetiously look at The Interpreters as a sort of Nigerian St. Elmo’s Fire, especially since the characters spend large portions of the book hanging around drinking together and pursuing love affairs.

The plot ventures off into other directions, however, and in fact, too many directions all at once. The narrative is a collage of disconnected scenes not necessarily arranged in chronological order, each one of which seems to open in mid-conversation, with the reader being expected to know what’s going on. All sorts of plot lines are introduced, with few of them followed up. Just when you think you’ve found something interesting to grab onto, it’s off on another tangent. In addition to the core coterie of friends, Soyinka is constantly introducing new characters, far too many to care about. The cast includes a few white visitors from America and England who get far more attention than they deserve, thus distracting the reader from any notable growth or change among the key Nigerian players. In a newly independent Nigeria, these young members of their nation’s intelligentsia must come to terms with their traditional Nigerian heritage while navigating their homeland’s transition to modernity. This is illustrated through minor culture clashes between Black and White, old and young, rich and poor, European and African.

The language employed is equally as confusing as the kaleidoscopic plot. The prose often resembles beat poetry more than narrative text—a barrage of adjectives hunting for a verb. I was ready to blame the translator for this illegibility until I found out that Soyinka himself wrote the novel in English. The Nigerian author clearly has a mastery of the English dictionary and thesaurus; he just chooses to use his words in a way that deliberately obscures the straightforward relation of any plot events, dialogue, or meaning. Soyinka does employ some native African terms, for which a glossary is provided, but they are not very obtrusive within the prose. More difficult to get accustomed to is the pantheon of gods that are constantly referred to metaphorically, plus the fact that one of the characters seems to have invented his own religion, the details of which are, like so much of the book, only hinted at.

The overall impression left by The Interpreters is that of an author trying just too hard to be unconventional. The book is really bogged down in the self-indulgent modernist conceit that the author’s originality, cleverness, and artistry are more important than the story being told. As a result, if there was a point to all of this, it was lost on me, though I imagine Nigerian readers would have an easier time making sense of it.
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