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Wole Soyinka: The Interpreters

Soyinka, of course, won the Nobel Prize and this book, his first major novel, was hailed as one of his key works and a major contributory factor to his winning the prize. Frankly, I just don’t see it. Change the Nigerian names and a few – very few – of the Nigerianisms and this could easily be a bog-standard New York novel of the late 1950s/early 1960s. Yes, I see the point – intellectuals struggling with corruption and how they are coping with their lives in a corrupt society. But graft and corruption, while not as rampant as in Nigeria, are still pretty much par for the course in New York.

We follow a group of Nigerian intellectuals as they cope with life in Nigeria in the period between independence and the Biafran War. There are the standard ones to be found anywhere – a doctor, a journalist, a university professor, a lawyer, an engineer. Soyinka has certainly done his guide to the liberal professions. Their concerns are the same as their New York counterparts – corruption and how to deal with it (though what we see is very mild to what Nigeria will become), how to cope with difficult bosses, relationship problems, the mysterious girl who walks into your life, intellectual one-upmanship, European travel, dealing with convention, death of acquaintances. The fact that one of them ends up in a lunatic asylum, another turns to a crank religion, they have to deal with annoying Americans (a problem many of us, Americans included, face), all these plot contrivances could have easily been written (and probably were) by long since forgotten Americans-in-Paris-back-in-New-York. A big disappointment.

Publishing history

First published 1965 by André Deutsch