The distinguished Nigerian writer Wole Soyinka has just published his first novel in almost a half century, Chronicles from the Land of the happiest People on Earth-a scorching satire on contemporary Nigerian society that teems with life, rather like one of the big books by Charles Dicken(Bleak House) or William Thackeray(Vanity Fair) or even, if you want a more classic reference point, the effervescent social satire of Gargantua and Pantagruel by the Renaissance writer Franco Rabelais.
Soyinka’s use of the word “happy” is heavily ironic; his Nigeria is dominated by corruption, sleaze, self-enterest, and brutality upon brutality. “Happiness” is just a government PR slogan used to cover up numerous ugly realities to make.(One is reminded of the empty happiness in another satire, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World).Soyinka even invents some new ugly realities to make a point: in a dystopian Kleptocracy like his Nigeria, what could possibly beggar the imagination?
John Mullan, Professor of English at University College London is a literary polymath, but his most recent book, The Ariful Dickens, portrays Dickens as an ingenious satirists and “innovator who broke all the rules”. When asked if satire should set out to change the world, Mullan tells the Journal, “satire is a negative art art…..it does not tell you what you should do.” So political satire often sets out to do as much damage as possible, to sweep away; this perhaps accounts for its savagery.
Who will watch the watchers, indeed? There are direct echoes of Swift’s cannibalism in Soyinka’s Chronicles, where one of the central characters, a surgeon called Dr Menka, who spends his days dealing with mangled victims of the Jos region’s endemic violence, discovers a thriving underground market in human body parts for ritualistic purposes. Soyinka deplores the state of contemporary Nigerian society; he has spoken of “cannibalism, of strange kind……a society which is actually eating itself, sort of self-directed cannibalism and the deterioration of our humanity.
Cannibalism is the act of consuming another individual of the same species as food. Cannibalism is common ecological interaction in the animal kingdom and has been recorded in more than 1,500 species. Human cannibalism is well documented, both in ancient and in recent times.
The rate of cannibalism increases in nutritionally poor environments as individuals turn to conspecifics as an additional food source. Cannibalism regulates population numbers, whereby resources such as food, shelter and territory becomes more readily available with the decrease of potential competition. Although it may benefit the individual, it has been shown that the presence of cannibalism decreases the expected survival rate of the whole population and increases the risk of consuming a relative. Other negative effects may include the increased risk of pathogen transmission as the encounter rate of hosts increases. Cannibalism, however, does not as once believed-occur only as a result of extreme food shortage or of artificial/unnatural conditions, but may also occur under natural conditions in a variety of species.
In Chronicles, Soyinka cites a Yoruba proverb: “When we encounter an elephant, let us admit that we have seen the lord of the forest, not offhandedly remark that we have seen something flash across our sight. “He has dedicated his career to addressing the elephant in the room-as well as the circus around it.(Juvenal said that people long for just two things, “panem et circenses”, or bread and circuses.) The tricks is to avoid the elephant sitting on you.
It is quite another thing to devote a lifetime to needling Nigerian regimes and other elite cliques, as Soyinka has done: during the Nigerian civil war he spent 22 months in prison, and in 1994 he fled the country after enraging Sani Abacha, a military dictator who pronounced a death sentence on him in absentia. But Soyinka has always lived on the political brink. His 1986 Nobel Prize, his sheer stature, may or may not have afforded him some protection.Others have not been lucky: Chronicles is dedicated to two Nigerian political activists, the journalists Dele Giwa and lawyer and politician Bola Ige, “both cut down by assassins”.
Satire has a way of putting its practioners on the cutting edge of politics, and often that is a risky, not to say life-threatening, proposition. As Mullan points out, even the most fearsome, seemingly invulnerable leader usually can’t stand being laughed at.(Mullan cites Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin, both of whom have been accused of homourlessness.) it is one thing to, for example, remorselessly send up the British prime minister and cabinet using puppets, as the successful TV series spitting image did(it represented Margaret Thatcher as a demonic tyrant and even a pal of Adolf Hitler); such satirical targets traditionally have very little comeback in healthy democracies except to complain. President Reagan, repeatedly mauled by spitting image, is reported to have phoned NBC and asked them to cancel broadcast of the show, to no avail.