Adventures of an African Giant ; You Must Set Forth at Dawn by Wole Soyinka METHUEN [Pound]19.99 (626Pp)

By Niven, Alastair | The Independent (London, England), July 13, 2007 | Go to article overview
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Adventures of an African Giant ; You Must Set Forth at Dawn by Wole Soyinka METHUEN [Pound]19.99 (626Pp)


Niven, Alastair, The Independent (London, England)


Shortly before he left the National Theatre, Richard Eyre held a public session to discuss his period as director. He gave a strange reply to the question I put, asking why the National's record for putting on plays outside the European and American repertoire was so poor. "It's a question of choosing what you know about and sadly I don't know anything about African or Caribbean drama," he said.

I was struck by the ingenuousness of his response. If the National has not the resources to explore non-Eurocentric plays, who has? Wole Soyinka, Nigeria's Nobel laureate though he is, has only had one play performed at the National, in 1973 when his version of The Bacchae of Euripides was staged. I put it to Soyinka recently, in conversation at the Hay Festival, that he might be mildly offended by this apparent disdain for his work by our national companies. He, was disarmingly relaxed about it, mentioning the productions of his work that do take place around the planet. British insularity was not the end of the world.

Soyinka seems to be in a mellow phase, not just in rain-sodden Hay but in his current writing. You Must Set Forth at Dawn is one of his most accessible books, a long but utterly engrossing account of his own adventures between approximately 1960 and the present.

The cloak-and-dagger undertone of his title, implying daybreak flights to avoid arrest, captures the urgent energy of this absorbing memoir. It is a series of tales, some shocking, some funny, some - such his attempt to be an art thief by bringing back to Nigeria from Brazil the iconic Ori Olkun mask, which was in secret private ownership - baggy (in every sense) and tense with the excitement of a thriller.

This memoir takes its name from a poem of Soyinka's, "Death in the Dawn": "Traveller you must set forth/ At dawn/ I promise marvels of the holy hour/ Presages as the white cock's flapped/ Perverse impalement - as who would dare/ The wrathful wings of man's/ Progression". The book supplies those marvels and has the defiance of a campaigner for human rights who will never accept that Progression can be thwarted by politicians or bureaucrats. This is what makes Soyinka so uplifting a writer. Gowon, Obasanjo, Babangida, Abacha: each Nigerian leader seems a deterioration, but nothing defeats Soyinka's passionate commitment to justice and the progress of his people.

What we witness is the emergence of a world citizen.

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