By Uzor Maxim Uzoatu
Today is the great man’s 88th birthday. Given all the battles he fought over the years, hardly any prophet could have prophesied that Professor Oluwole Akinwande Soyinka would live to the age of 88.
The towering writer who stunned the world as the very first black man to win the coveted Nobel Prize in Literature in 1986 is still in good shape.
Talking of prophecies, back in time, my crystal ball did not hide anything when it revealed to me that Soyinka would win the Nobel, a first for Africa, in the year 1985.
I told not a few friends that the Nobel was definitely coming that year, and it was such a shocker when the prize went instead to the obscure French novelist Claude Simon.
Well, it’s remarkable that Claude Simon’s first novel bears the very unfunny title, The Cheat.
There was no denying Soyinka the very next year, 1986, when the Nobel Prize for Literature landed in our shores.
Soyinka had just made the flight from Cornell University, New York where he was then teaching to the International Theatre Institute (ITI) in Paris to attend the executive meeting of the world body which he headed.
His plan was to spend quiet time at the apartment of his cousin, Yemi Lijadu. He found his cousin giddy with joy – “The news just broke that Nigerian playwright Wole Soyinka had won the 1986 Nobel Prize for Literature, thus becoming the first African to win the coveted award.”
Even in the anonymity of his cousin’s apartment Soyinka could not hide away from the invasion of the world press.
He made quick plans to return immediately to Nigeria. He wanted his entry into Nigeria as quiet and uneventful as possible, but his friends were quick to sniff out that he was on his way back home.
His bosom friend, the insurance magnate Femi Johnson sent a car and driver to ferry him from the airport.
The government of Babangida provided a presidential jet for the ferrying of Nigerians to the Nobel award ceremonies in Stockholm, Sweden, even as the government was under strong suspicion of being behind the killing of ace journalist and friend of Soyinka, Dele Giwa, through a parcel bomb delivered to his home days earlier.
Soyinka’s Nobel lecture entitled “This Past Must Address Its Present” was dedicated to the then still imprisoned Nelson Mandela.
The Irish playwright and Nobel Prize winner George Bernard Shaw had said that he would readily forgive Alfred Nobel his invention of the evil dynamite but not the diabolical Nobel Prize for Literature that almost always leaves its winners with no time to work.
The aura of the prize overwhelmed Soyinka soon after the award such that he could not make out time to write.
He hoped that the din of the Nobel would end after the crowning of the next winner only to be reminded in Cuba by novelist and 1982 Nobel Prize winner Gabriel Garcia Marquez, author of One Hundred Years of Solitude, that “it never ends, my friend. It never ends.”
For reasons no one can really explain, the name “Kongi” has stuck with Soyinka amongst his friends and colleagues even though the character in question in the eponymous play is highly detestable.
Behind Soyinka’s back, some of us his students call him “Langage”, pronounced as “Longage”, taken from his Inaugural Lecture at Ife entitled The Critic and Society: Barthes, Leftocracy And Other Mythologies.
Soyinka’s collection of poetry, Samarkand and Other Markets I have Known, was published by Crucible Publishers Limited, Lagos, in 2002 and was launched at the National Theatre under a tree that is now known as the Samarkand Tree.
It is a matter of great joy that Soyinka as ever continues in the onerous task of supporting younger writers.
The hardback copy of The Second Genesis: An Anthology of Contemporary World Poetry which features some of Soyinka’s poems alongside those of mine and my dear compatriots Obari Gomba and the late Ikeogu Oke thrills me no end.
The book which features poets of 60 countries from Albania to the United States is indeed a heavy feast of comparative humanity, a cause to which Soyinka has dedicated his venerated life.
Beyond all the seriousness associated with the man, Soyinka is at heart a jovial soul.
From teaching the art of wine to a young Italian girl to setting a trap for wine-stealers in his then Ife home, Soyinka is the master of his universe.
Soyinka even pokes fun at himself, as can be seen in the depiction of his failure to secure a job as a journalist which he wrote of in his 1994 memoir, Ibadan – The Penkelemes Years:
“His goal was journalism but he failed to secure a place on one of the main newspapers – the Daily Times. All applicants took a written test. They were required to report an imagined market fight as they would expect to read it on the pages of a newspaper. He proceeded to cover eight foolscap sides of lined paper with an elaborate account that spanned the background lives of the combatants, the histories of their extended families, their business dealings, etc, etc. Others had long finished but he was carried away by a reality that had taken such a hold on his imagination, forgetting the context into which his account was expected to fit. The European invigilator looked at his watch several times with increasing ostentation, and took to walking up and down in front of his desk until finally, without a change of expression, he snatched the reams of paper from him, snarling, ‘I need my lunch. You were not asked to write up the entire newspaper, just report an incident.’”
Soyinka’s title as the hardest working writer in the world is unbeatable as he has recently released his acclaimed third novel Chronicles from the Land of the Happiest People on Earth.
It’s incumbent on the celebrated master WS to celebrate 88 in style – and in fine fettle.