In Defence of The Interpreters was originally written for and published by 234 NEXT Newspapers.
If Nobel laureate, Wole Soyinka were to be cast in a movie, he would be a swashbuckling hero in a nineteenth century Western. But while others are wielding rifles, our hero would calmly take out a pen and silence the whole lot of them.
That’s what the playwright has been doing over the years: churning pieces that leave you silent, shocked, impressed or just plain confused. Plays like ‘The Trials of Brother Jero’ have attracted large audiences in theatres across the globe. In poems like ‘Telephone Conversation’, Soyinka leaves a racist landlord in a stuttering mass of confusion with the admission, ‘Madam, I hate a wasted journey. I am African.’
What leaves me most impressed with the soon-to-be 76-year-old, is his novel, ‘The Interpreters’. Had his other works not been as impressive enough to qualify him for a Nobel Prize, this book, I believe would have been a deal clincher in itself.
Set in post-colonial Nigeria, the novel is centred on six friends, who have returned to the country with foreign degrees, and high hopes of snagging rewarding jobs. First things first however: they have to fit into the system.
‘The Interpreters’ is a joy ride, manned by several drivers – characters if you like – who move us through a series of events, misfortunes and incidents that give us a peek into their journeys both as individuals and then, collectively.
Sagoe, the somewhat cynical journalist, faces corruption as he discovers that his American degree is not all he needs to attain a good job. Following an interview with a newspaper over a possible position, a member of the paper’s board demands for a bribe and explains, “… degree is too plenty… so everybody is rushing to fill all vacancy.”
Kola the artist starts to feel “feminine anger’ once Sekoni the frustrated engineer begins to sculpt inspiring pieces. Sekoni faces the danger of going to an asylum when the power plant construction he worked on is declared dangerous. When he insists on putting the plant to the test, his employers say he has gone mad. Egbo is haunted by his tortured childhood and finds solace in rivers and accounts of how his parents drowned in a river back in the Niger Deltan creeks. Dehinwa is the only female in the crew and her constant sparring with Sagoe hints at a possible romance. Bandele faces little drama but experiences it vicariously through his friends, who count on his sense of stability; while his acquaintances invite him for home cooked meals, hoping to listen in on gossip he is often privy to… We meet them at a club, in the early hours of the morning, each buried in his or her world but kept connected by scant conversation.
Bandele emerged from a cat-nap, unwrapped his eyes and inspected the scene. “It hasn’t stopped then.”
” The rain, no”
There is no central plot in this 253-paged novel but the subject matters are limitless: degeneration, disillusion, bribery and corruption, interracial relationships and tribalism, to mention a few. The language is highly poetic: “to the clang of iron bells and the summons of shared drums.” Through the juxtaposition of scenes of the past with the present, Soyinka reveals to us the fears, idiosyncrasies, grievances and thoughts of these characters. He also beams a torchlight on common practices that exist in Nigeria, even till date. In Chapter 7, a taxi driver tries to bribe Sagoe who is under the guise of a police man. The section reads, “In his hand was the crumpled 5 shilling note which he prepared to pass on.’
A couple of chapters earlier, we meet the members of the board who interview Sagoe. Soyinka gives his view of the then-Nigerian leadership, “They are products of missed nominations, thug recruitment, financial backing, ministerial in-lawfulness, ministerial poncing, general arse-licking, ministerial concubinage.”
This is all part of the system and the office messenger, Mathias’ statement when Sagoe asks him how he deals with stench shows how many handle corruption: “Ah, na so everybody dey say first time… but make you look me now. I just dey grow fat for the smell.”
In this Soyinka world, which spans Ibadan and Lagos states, a number of foreign characters are used to explore relationships between Nigerians and foreigners. Joe Golder is described as three-quarters white. He spends most of his time frying his face or gluing newspapers to it so that he can darken it and claim what he calls his birthright. In Peter the German, we see that it is not just Africans that try to inflect an American accent. Bandele says of the unwanted house guest, “No, German, but he thinks he is American.” And if a reader starts to doubt this possibility, he is brought short by the appearance of the character in question, “I’m Perrer (Peter). Hi!”
One of the major symbols in the novel is the presence of an albino in most of the characters’ lives. They are usually given an ethereal quality that either draws people to them or leaves them terrified. It is said of Simi, Egbo’s lover: ‘Simi broke men and friendships’. Sir Derin, another albino was the only member of the newspaper board, who ‘stood out’ at Sagoe’s interview.
Many have said that ‘The Interpreters’ makes no sense and that the diction in use therein is too highly strung. It probably is, if the novel has been compared with the works of literary greats like William Faulkner and James Joyce. Still, I have often wondered why it is so difficult to find it at bookstores. I see ‘The Interpreters’ as a cocktail of sorts, laced with humour, social realism and giving an insight into the neo-colonised system that used to and still pervades the Nigerian society.
And if it is true that a people can forge successfully into the future once they know about the past, then this is one novel many ought to read to set the ball rolling.