The Interpreters is the first of two novels written by the prominent Nigerian intellectual Wole Soyinka (1934– ). He is best known for his prolific career as a playwright, already well established at the time of the publication of The Interpreters, as well as for his poetry and literary criticism. Educated in Nigeria and the United Kingdom, Soyinka has worked as a dramatist, lecturer, and professor at numerous universities in both countries as well as in Ghana and the United States. In 1986 he became the first African writer to be awarded the Nobel Prize in literature.
The Interpreters is a complex work that has often been overlooked in favor of Soyinka’s other literary forms, derided for what some regard as its lack of organization, and hailed as the first modernist African novel of exquisite intricacy and innovation. The novel portrays a group of friends, recently graduated from the university, as they try to find their way through a complicated and often contradictory Nigerian society toward an authentic sense of self. Each is faced with difficult choices through which he or she must work out a relationship to society, in all its diverse and troubled forms.
A thoughtful and often heavily satirical novel, The Interpreters does not have a traditional, linear plot, but moves around in time, often incorporating flashbacks, in a way that is minimally signaled and sometimes difficult to follow. Yet this technique has the effect of isolating experience from fixed chronology, perhaps challenging our reliance on predictable sequences of cause and effect and reflecting the sometimes confusing inundation of messages and experiences the characters themselves are subjected to as they struggle to make sense of their world.
The novel is likewise unusual in that it does not have a clearly identifiable single protagonist, but shifts around from character to character in its focus. Egbo is the grandson of the king of Osa, a rich creek-town, and now that he is grown he is heavily pressured to return and take the throne. He is torn between undertaking this responsibility and keeping his comfortable job at the Foreign Office; although he decides on the latter, he is never fully comfortable with his choice. He must later face another troubling choice: whether to leave his girlfriend, Simi, for the undergraduate whom he hardly knows but has made pregnant and who holds a certain elusive fascination for him. In many ways Egbo seems caught between past and future, and no easy solutions offer themselves to him.
Sagoe has created a bizarre philosophy, which he terms voidancy, centered on death and excrement. Moreover, although as a journalist he executes incisive criticism of society, he nonetheless seems to exhibit a certain escapism as his response to life’s stresses. His eventual development toward engagement with the world, manifested directly through maturity in his relationship to his girlfriend Dehinwa, ultimately brings some measure of resolution to his character.
Sekoni, on the other hand, possesses an idealism and creative force so strong as to be nearly impossible to negotiate within his immediate contexts, and in fact he dies midway through the novel. He is deeply spiritual and full of vision, which unfortunately is only frustrated by engagement with the petty and often mundane world around him. He leaves a legacy, however, through the compelling sculpture he creates: “The Wrestler.”
The principled Bandele, although quiet, is a powerful character in that he often helps the others to be reconciled to their own lives, while at other times drawing attention to their internal conflicts and contradictions. Meanwhile, Kola, devoted to art, provides a rich locus of symbolism for the novel through his painting of a Yoruba pantheon, in which each character is depicted in the form of a divinity.
Throughout The Interpreters, Soyinka deploys a trenchant critique of Nigerian society along with a sophisticated contemplation of the predicament of the individual struggling to find a tenable position within it. The author often focuses his satire on the superficiality of society, the unexamined contradictions inherent in the lives and conduct of many, and the pervasiveness of corruption. He does engage the tension between traditional and modern values and practices, but for him it is clear that neither offers wholly satisfying treatments of life’s quandaries. Instead of championing one over the other in a simplistic manner, Soyinka pushes for a critical examination of both as crucial to honest engagement in a complex world.
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