Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Soyinka at Hay

Wole Soyinka was at ‘The Guardian Hay Festival’ over the week-end, drawing capacity audiences for much-appreciated sessions. The sponsoring newspaper provided valuable coverage with a profile by Maya Jaggi, entitled ‘The voice of conscience’, in today’s edition. It included the following observation: ‘While the actor’s resonant voice now seems fainter, his convictions remain just as firm’.

Jaggi summarized Soyinka’s political activities and quoted him on the vexed issue of protest marches in Nigeria: ‘The police insist they have the authority to decide who walks the streets. …. How can they decide whether I can protest against government policy or not? It's unacceptable. If they say I need a police permit, I'll tear it up.’ This reveals that he remains combative and controversial, both militant and adept at giving hostages to those who accuse him of anarchism.

On Friday, he delivered the Raymond Williams Memorial Lecture, ‘Walls of Silence’, and this was followed by a brief question and answer session chaired by Nik Gowing. Libby Brooks has summarised what Soyinka said in a précis that begins: ‘In a passionately argued and wide-ranging lecture, the Nobel laureate railed against our inability to learn from the past, and closely examined the mammoth hardships facing those who continued to challenge silence with truth.’

The Guardian’s ‘commentisfree’ site that carried this report generated an animated discussion: Soyinka’s remarks on Darfur started a ‘thread’ that quickly gathered momentum.

On the afternoon of Sunday the 27th, Soyinka was ‘in conversation’ with Alastair Niven, a session that covered both familiar and new ground. New in that in answer to questions from Niven, Soyinka spoke of the areas in which he might have made a career (architecture and music), of his adaptations of Aristophanes, and of the call he had just received from Ibadan where his brother was treating the victims of violence instigated, Soyinka asserted, by the government in power. (Still Obasanjo’s at that stage.)

The UK / Methuen edition of You Must Set Forth was in Niven’s hand and was on sale at the Festival Bookshop. It is a much bigger volume than the US Random House production: it runs to 626 pages rather than 500; it includes 34 photographs, and, hurray!, it has an index. Editorial work has been undertaken and some of the errors in the US edition have been corrected. For example MOSOP is no longer unpacked as the Movement for the Salvation of the Ogoni People. ‘Survival’ is in its rightful place. (cf Random House, 421, with Methuen 498.) Spellings of some names that I take to be slips remain.

It was names that featured in Soyinka’s ‘senior moments’ at Hay. During the Memorial Lecture, he ascribed the ‘wind of change speech’ to Edward Heath rather than Harold Macmillan. And Gowing allowed it to pass uncorrected. Such, it would seem, is the status of Nobel laureates!

Niven introduced his session with an apt reference to Soyinka’s play ‘The Swamp Dwellers’ – it was raining hard and the site was fast becoming waterlogged. He followed up by saying that in ‘signing’ his copy of You Must, Soyinka, who has known him for some time, inscribed it to ‘David Niven’. Soyinka was asked to amend this fascinating mistake. That is to say, he was asked to undertake the kind of editorial work that can reasonably be expected of a writer, Nobel prize winner or not.

In the ‘Acknowledgements’ to You Must, Soyinka refers despairingly to the possession of a ‘kaleidoscopic mental gadget that sometimes pretends to the function of memory.’ While celebrating Soyinka as ‘The voice of conscience’ and as the author of a ‘passionately argued and wide-ranging lecture’, while delighting in the narrative brio of You Must , there are moments when it is necessary to pause and ask Soyinka to give his ‘mental gadget’ a shake. It is important to sort out Harold Macmillan from Edward Heath, David Niven from Alastair Niven, and, of course, salvation from survival.

James Gibbs


Waffarian 10:17 pm  

Hmmmmmmmmm, I think when the brain is saturated with more important matters, such things, such as names, abbreviations, etc, become trivial.

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