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Literary criticism, The Interpreters: Soyinka's prose style.

A writer's first task is to make himself understood by his intended audience so that he may stimulate and motivate them into intellectual, social or political action. To do this, the writer must be committed to his subject of discourse to the extent of producing literature that is engage. Soyinka's The Interpreters fires the imagination both intellectually and politically by exposing the socio-cultural seepage, the colonial decadence and the post-colonial moral decay in modern Nigeria. His prose style reflects the growing rift between the past and present, between action and inaction, between abandonment of social responsibilities and commitment to progress and change finally between individualism and group solidarity.

Chinweizu, Onwuchekwu Jemie and Ichechukwu Madubiuke criticize Soyinka for this obscurantist style, which is seemingly derived from his poetry. There is some merit to their argument if Soyinka is writing for the masses, which clearly he is not doing at all times, since vast numbers of Nigerian are illiterate. I would argue that the syntactic complexities, the difficulty in understanding some of his diction and the deliberate manipulation of English prose patterns, give Soyinka's prose that sometimes hard and sometimes brittle and pliable quality that best symbolize the economic, political and social realities of present-day Nigeria. This prose style is sustained by language that is iconographic, language that shows a society in transition and language that reveals the moral bankruptcy of leadership in Nigeria.

Niyi Osundare refers to Soyinka as a "rugged wordsmith" whose forge casts words with cryptic hardness packed into sentences whose compactness strikes like a thunderbolt." Soyinka's manipulation of language shows the malleability of language and demonstrates how best the writer can use language to unravel and reveal his deepest mysteries and most private philosophy. In this paper, I shall explore some of the language forms that Soyinka employs in his prose style.

To begin then, we must agree that language is a multi-purpose tool in society and that its primary function is affording a means of communication among the members of that social entity. Language is also provides a group with an identity and a sense of solidarity. People who do not belong to a particular linguistic community, but who acquire its speech, gain acceptance and are able to function with a degree of ease. These people are said to have the 'common touch.'

Language is classified according to its usage, by linguists and others, as standard, dialect, idiolect, register, slang, vulgar, colloquial, regional, local, international, and the classification goes on. Language is also used to distinguish social class, status and even racial and cultural backgrounds. The writer's choice of language for his writings creates a situation for an interesting analysis. At any given point in his/her career, the writer might use some or all of the above forms of language. However, no matter what linguistic form is appropriated in a piece of writing, the writer has a commitment and a social responsibility to facilitate the comprehension of his works.

I would caution the reader at this point that Soyinka uses language in a very complex way in -ret~. The language is tailored to suit h is particular needs. It has specific icons, rhythms, nuances and references that easily recognized as distinct from Englishes. I agree with Kenneth Ramchand that writers cultivate languages of their own. That is why the literatures of the various Commonwealth regions differ drastically although similar motifs cut across them. A European language cannot sustain what Ramchand calls the "sub-phonemic responses to language." It is for this reason that a non-native users of English are forced into their own culture for equivalents to express a particular consciousness, and h s results in a hybridization of language forms.

Chinweizu et al seem to think that Soyinka deliberately sets out to baffle his readers and that:
 Soyinka's obscurantism would seem more
 readily explainable in terms of his fidelity to
 Hopkins butchery of English syntax and
 semantics, and to his deliberate choice of
 Shakespearean and other archaisms as models
 for his poetic diction.

In an interview that I conducted with Wole Soyinka in Montreal, he counters this criticism by stating:

Language is a tool and therefore I manipulate language anyway I like, anyway that seems to me appropriate to the very theme which I am concentrating on that particular moment. Yes, I agree that I use language in a complex way sometimes. I agree that I use it in a complex way as, in the same way, it is obvious, that in certain writings, I use it in a far more straightforward manner. It depends on the burden which that language is supposed to carry at any given time.

Looking at the range of language used in the novel, there is pidgin, poetic prose and West African English, to name a. few elements. Soyinka uses lexical, emotive and poetic meanings in a fusion to create and convey his own philosophical point of view. A few passages will amplify this:

'Still!' Egbo bellowed. 'Still! 0 still that passeth all understanding. Transcendental stillness of the distanced godhead! The maid of Sango after possession is still. A bed after impassioned loving is still. Still! From the deep vast centre of love--still?'

The language here contains elements of the musical and ritual forms of Yoruba society. The impassioned plea for stillness releases an orgasmic tension that builds up in Egbo as he watches the dancer, Owolebi, perform. Here Soyinka fuses physical and emotional tensions into a religio-ritual act of worship of the dancer by Egbo. In this passage, the writer uses constricted syntax as a means of focussing on the emotive quality of words. Sometimes what appears between two periods is not necessarily a prose sentence, but rather a poetic image.

In an article, "Words of Iron, Sentences of Thunder: Soymka's Prose Style," Niyi Osundare illuminates some of the complexities found in Soyinka's prose style. Osundare feels that Soyinka's use of poetic language creates a problem for the reader. I do not subscribe to this, although I would concede that the reader must spend a longer time trying to get at the message than would otherwise be necessary. A few scrambled metaphors will indicate some of the difficulties in grasping the essence of Soyinka's prose the first time around:
 Metal on concrete jars my drink lobes (T.I., p.7)
 And (ii) late corn stalks dragging their heads on the copper laps
 of floods. (T.I., p. 221)

Osundare explains that in the first example the auditory and the alimentary are yoked through the quaint collocation of 'ljar" and "drink lobes." In the second example, there is a metaphoric twist which is compounded by personification in the lexical items: "corn stalks" have "head" which they drag, and "floods" have "laps" with a "copper" complexion. Osundare also discusses compounding that Soyinka employs, the hyphenate and the unhyphenate: "thigh-high" (p.7), "root-strand" (p.9) "cloudburst"p.7) and "houseboats (p.23). Compounding is economical in much the same way as metaphor. Metaphor in The Interpreters helps the novelist to effectively delineate the tensions that exist between language and reality, the object and its meaning. The following passage elucidates the point:
 A futile heap of metal and Sekoni's body lay surprised across the
 open door, showers of laminated glass around him, his beard one
 fastness of blood and wet earth. (T.P., p. 155)

Like his metaphors, Soyinka's simile is very forceful and is controlled to gain maximum comparative effect:
 Across the floor, an albino sat slanted Like a leprous moonbeam
 without the softness. (T.I., p. 157)

The image conjures up sickness in a very sharp and shocking manner. It continues to build up by accretion until its final pitch is reached:
 Freckles on hi s face like poisoned motes, dark scabs, and they
 floated on sheer phosphorescence of the skin.

The metaphors and similes used in this novel draw on patterns of the Yoruba language for their colour, flavour and meaning.

Like most African writers, Soyinka intersperses his prose with native language phrases which capture expressions that cannot be easily rendered in English. Some of these words and phrases have specific functions within their particular contexts. Sometimes they create tension, produce fear, or simply express a ritual:

Oyekoko moniran ... oyekoko noniran oyeroba, oyeroba.... (p. 157).

This meaningless gibberish signals the entry of the witchdoctor and forces the audience to take note of the ceremony. In the case of a person who is taboo, like the albino, it serves as a warning for people to get out of the way, lest they be contaminated. Yoruba elicits a response more readily here than English.

In his prose style Soyinka also uses the proverb, though he uses it with less regularity than Achebe. The proverb instructs or imparts some kind of wisdom. Winsala uses the proverb to remind Sagoe of his place in the social and tribal hierarchy:

'My boy, it never does to try your elders. When a cub yields right of way to an antelope, first look and see if Father Leopard is not a few trees behind.' (p.85) and again:

What makes a small boy laugh will make him weep. (p. 127)

These strands of proverbs interwoven in the text help to restrict long narrative explanations of particular actions or scenes. Another component of Soyinka's prose style is pidgin English. In the novel it is used satirically or to demonstrate the social class of a character. Many of the servants use pidgin English, for example Mathias:
 Mathias entered with a sweaty bottle in either hand. 'E say e no
 wait till mont ending. Na up to dis week-end e gree give me for

 'All right, sit down'
 'Make a open dem lust oga.' (p. 96)

Mathias is a panderer and falls fawningly at his master's feet in blind obedience. This master-servant relationship is set up in the English pidgin responses of the two characters. Although Sagoe abhors this kind of relationship, it becomes more obvious in Chapter Five where Mathias is forced to sit patiently and listen to Sagoe's philosophy of Voidancy.

Soyinka uses language in a variety of ways: to instruct, revile, castigate or satirize. When Sagoe did not see the sun for days, the author puts into his mouth some damning words against negritude:

'I could do with some negritude, anything to keep me warm.' (p. 107)

As a moralist, Soyinka is very severe on any forms of excess:

For pleasure must be sinful and excess pleasure is damnation. (p. 60)

Soyinka, the essayist, also emerges in The Interpreters, specially in Sagoe's discourse on the philosophy of voidancy. In that expostulation we find the well-crafted prose sentence, and the erudite diction which falls attention to Sagoe's theory. This excerpt illustrates the fine quality of the novelist's essay style:.

Functional, spiritual, creative or ritualistic, Voidancy remains the one true philosophy of the true Egoist. For definition, ladies and gentlemen, let this suffice. Voidancy is not a movement of protest, but it protests; it is non-revolutionary, but it revolts. Voidancy--shall we say--is the unknown quantity. Voidancy is the last uncharted mine of creative energies, in its deepest paradox lies the kernel of creative liturgy--in release is birth. I am no Messiah, and yet, I cannot help feel that I was born to this role for, in the congenital nature of my ailment lay the first imitations of my martyrdom and inevitable apotheosis.' (The Interpreters, p.71)

The language used here is highly rhetorical and exploits the art of oratory to its fullest. First, there is the proposition or definition of what Voidancy is. This is followed by a declamation which states what it is not. Following this is the exposition which explains the various tenets of the philosophy. The final statement is a disclaimer which affirms the speaker's role in propounding the theory.

Those who ape middleclass standards and values meet with Soyinka's most trenchant satire. When Oguazor dares to make the moral judgement that "the college cannot afford to have its name dragged down by the moral turpitude of irresponsible young men" (p. 250), Soyinka quickly exposes the culprit for what he is, an immoral moralist who has a child from his housemaid, she being "tucked away in private school in Islington" and the child being his favourite child and the plastic apple of his eye." (p. 149).

The final point that may be raised here about Soyinka's use of language is his effective employment of the sermon and religious songs or hymns in the narrative. These do two things: they highlight the hypocrisy of the interpreters in relation to their spiritual transformation, and secondly, they make a commentary about the role of the church in society.

The entire Pentecostal revivalist church practices come under close scrutiny in Chapter Twelve. The characters use language that appeals at the level of entertainment and which is not intellectually or spiritually uplifting. We observe this in the case of Lazarus who eventually fails to gain redemption, and Noah who falls to retributive justice. Lewis Nkosi offers the opinion that the quasi-religious antics if Lazarus and Noah do little to illuminate the novel. I differ with him, for its seems to me that this section of the novel contrast religious blasphemy and insecurity with the rampant political and social corruption in the country. As such it broadens the scope of the decadence and moral and spiritual decay that are evidenced in all the interpreters.

In the final analysis, The Interpreters must be considered a complex satirical novel. The abstruseness of the language does not justifiably condemn the novel to the shelves, but rather recommends the book to those who can unravel the mysteries of the "gods" and geniuses for lesser mortals, among them high school students and undergraduates.


(1) Niyi Osundare, "Words of Iron, Sentences of Thunder: Soyinka's Prose Style," in African Literature Today: Thirteen Recent Trends in the Novel, edited by Eldred D Jones(London : Heinemann Educational Books Limited, and New York: Africana Publishing Company, 1983), p. 41.

(2) Kenneth Ramchand, "Methodology for Studying Commonwealth Literatures," Proceedings at an Association of Commonwealth Language and Literature Conference, Aug. 10 to 17, 1983, University of Guelph, Guelph, Ontario, n.p., n. pag.

(3) Ibid, n. pag.

(4) Chinweizu, Onwuchekwa Jemie, Ilechukwe Madubuike, Towards The Decolinization of African Literature (Enugu, Nigeria: Fourth Dimension Publishing Co. Ltd., 1980.), p. 156.

(5) This excerpt is taken from an interview that I conducted with Wole Soynka on June 4, 1985, in Montreal Quebec.'

(6) Wole Soymka, The Interpreters (1965; rpt. London: Heinemann Educational Books A W S, 1970/1981), p. 24. (Further references to this novel will be shown as T.I., with the corresponding page number.)

(7) Osundare, pp. 25-29

(8) Ibid, pp. 25-29

(9) Ibid, pp. 25-29

(10) Lewis Nkosi, Tasks and Masks: Themes and Styles of African Literature (London: Longman Group Limited, 1981), p. 161.
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Title Annotation:African writer Wole Soyinka
Author:Goddard, Horace I.
Geographic Code:60AFR
Date:Sep 22, 2008
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