In case you missed it, my second go at projecting this year’s first round went up for Insiders on Tuesday. My next mock will go up on Tuesday, June 3rd, and I’ll have an updated ranking of the top 25 prospects in the minors this Friday. I’ll also be on Baseball Tonight tomorrow night, May 29th, at 10 pm ET.
At the turn of the century, the rush to compile “best of the last 100 years” lists of books tended to leave a lot of postcolonial writers behind, something that the Zimbabwe International Book Fair attempted to address by assembling a list of Africa’s 100 best books of the 20th century. I saw the list not long after it was released in February of 2002, and had heard of exactly two books on the list: Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, which I’d already read once and subsequently re-read; and Nuruddin Farah’s Maps, the first book of his “Blood in the Sun” trilogy.
Within that broader list, the jury identified a dozen titles as the best of the best, without trying to rank any of the books, probably a thankless task given the effort required just to compile the nominations for the final hundred. The Nigerian-born author Wole Soyinka, the first native African to win the Nobel Prize in Literature, made the top 100 twice, with his play Death and the King’s Horsemen appearing on the main list and his first memoir, Aké: The Years of Childhood, earning special mention in the top twelve.
Aké is the name of the town where Soyinka grew up, on the grounds of a parsonage with his mother, whom he calls “Wild Christian,” and his father the teacher, whom he calls “Essay,” as well as a nearby collection of relatives, friends/workers, and spirits. The book takes magical realism and transplants it into the realm of the autobiography – Soyinka never pauses to consider whether these memories of ghosts, spectres, or other otherworldy entities are real; they simply are. Yet the stories he remembers revolve around more mundane matters, not least of which is what on earth a family was to do with a precocious, argumentative child in a country still ruled autocratically by the local puppets of a distant white government.
The memoir, however, is a joyous one, even around the crises and tragedies and the eventual buildup to the book’s concluding chapters, where the women of Ak&ecaute; agitate for more local rights, less corruption, and lower taxation. Soyinka renders even those scenes, which always threatened to devolve into violence, humorously, through the eyes of a mischievous child watching when he shouldn’t be watching or playing rebel by delivering message between various outposts of protesters. His memories of his time in school, where the lawyering he used to stymie his parents runs up against the wall of a headmaster who’s already seen that act before, and of the town’s market, with extensive descriptions of fresh fruits and African foods of which I’d never heard, show off Soyinka’s ability to evoke colorful scenes with precise descriptions and light prose that puts the reader right on the dirt road in the middle of all the market’s vendors.
Soyinka devotes another section to his childhood addiction … to powdered baby formula, which he sneaks from the family’s pantry now that their youngest child no longer needs it, only to end up playing cat-and-mouse with his parents to avoid detection. He also offers several anecdotes on the local blend of Christianity and native traditions, such as the fellow student who tries to counter “bad juju” by repeating “S.M.O.G.” – which stands for “Save Me Oh God” but he claims is faster to say in acronym form while running from your enemies.
The one weakness of Aké is its lack of structure; it’s a collection of stories and recollections, but there’s no single narrative because the book ends while Soyinka is still a child, so we haven’t driven towards a specific goal or endpoint. That doesn’t make the book less enjoyable or less vivid, although it means it more resembles a set of interconnected short stories than a non-fiction novel. It compares favorably to my favorite memoir, Gabriel García Marquez’ Living to Tell the Tale, although GGM’s prose flowed more easily, as Soyinka’s syntax and even punctuation often threw me off (e.g., he omits a lot of commas we’d consider essential in American English). For me, Aké ranks somewhere in the middle of the seven titles I’ve read from the top twelve on that African literature list, below Things Fall Apart, A Grain of Wheat, and Nervous Conditions but above Sleepwalking Land, Chaka, and L’amour, la fantasia.