Soyinka or Achebe: Who is the best?Literature is not about Messrs Achebe or Soyinka

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When I – like millions of Nigerians of my generation – was growing up, Wole Soyinka and Chinua Achebe were the grandest gods in the pantheon of Nigerian literature. These were the two names to conjure with. It is even a moot point whether others like Ola Rotimi, Elechi Amadi or JP Clark ever achieved the status of gods – godlings possibly. While one must be careful about undercutting the talents of those who did not gain the heights Soyinka and Achebe gained, there is no denying the superb gifts of the latter duo. Soyinka’s invariably virtuoso performance in drama and historical reportage and Achebe’s vintage accomplishments in prose and fiction easily measure up to each other. I hope I would not be sounding needlessly overweening on behalf of both of these men if I said they are the two literary greats Nigeria has produced in its short existence.

Of course in the couple of generations after these men, we have had success stories in the world of literature. Ben Okri, born a year after Achebe’s Things Fall Apart was published, won the Booker Prize rather precociously, and deservingly, in 1991, with the brilliant The Famished Road. Achebe’s Anthills of the Savannah was shortlisted for the prize four years before, but there was no palm for it. The older man has however been awarded the international Booker, a prize some have described as a mimic Nobel, and which has not gained as much recognition as the national one. And somehow, today, Okri is one of least mentioned names in British Literature, he has not been cosily dining out on the success of The Famished Road. You would notice that I wrote British Literature – this is the literary tradition to which Okri actually belongs, even though he’d resurrected the Nigerian mise-en-scene in a novel like Dangerous Love.

So far as some American critics are concerned Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is an American writer writing about the country where she was born – Nigeria. In any event, Nigerians view Adichie through the lens of local colour, and her literary achievement has been well-celebrated in the country. Even in spite of the success of Chimamanda and others, the shadow that Professors Wole Soyinka and Chinua Achebe cast is still cosmic in its dimensions. And truly who should begrudge them the honour? It’s a doddle to predict that both men would die – in the way they have lived – as literary lions, with Soyinka’s leonine mane intact, of course.

The Nigerian press, a chunk of which is the organ of the intelligentsia, have never been neglectful of these two great men. Soyinka’s literary and extraliterary activities have never suffered any blackout in the press, not even during palled-over Abacha’s time. When Achebe rightly refused to be honoured by the Nigeria government this was well-reported, and often approvingly. People have taken issue with both men on a number of occasions, especially the more combative Soyinka, but generally it’s been plain-sailing most of the time.

Being a bit of an iconoclast, when I glimpsed a title of an article on NVS that I thought might be a criticism of Achebe, I felt this might offer an insight into a more human – rather than godly – aspect of the elderly man of letters. But the article was a damp squib. The writer, while I respect his right to air his opinions, was too scatterbrained, too superfluously contemptuous of Achebe’s person to be taken seriously. And, unsurprisingly, a gushing rejoinder had supervened. The Defender of Chinua Achebe had really come out with long knives, scores of them, and I think he really carved up the person who dared wrote negatively about Achebe. Although the rejoinder might be a counterthrust pushed too deep, it again summed up the awe in which Achebe is held.

And Soyinka. It does not bear repeating that what continues to burn the Nobel Laureate into everyone’s consciousness is his prowess as a wordsmith. Legend used to have it – and I believe still has it – that Soyinka perhaps knows more English words than anyone. Fallacy or not, the professor has a way with words, with phrasemaking. Although I have never had any problem reading, understanding and savouring the man’s more obscurely written books like Season of Anomie, parsing a few sentences in the novel might give the general reader some hassle.

Another contributor to NVS had come up with the word Soyinkaism to describe Soyinka’s muscly writing style. In spite of Soyinka rather distinctive idiolect, I wonder whether there is such a thing as Soyinkaism. Soyinkaesque, possibly. As in Pinteresque. And I am not sure the writer had not intended to lampoon Soyinka’s style. Anyway, this was again a measure of the pedestal on which the Laureate is placed – high enough for his style to stand beside such descriptions of localism as Americanism, Briticism and of course Nigerianism.

Soyinka and Achebe write what may be called ‘serious literature’ and both men were usually the first exposure most post-independent pupils and students had to such literature. Fluffy, novelettish literature like Hadley Chase, Jeffery Archer and Harold Robbins were only holiday and weekend reading or merely time-filling divertissements. A number of Victorians novels had also offered me an early glance into what ‘serious literature’ is. I was able to cherry-pick a good many Dickens, Thackeray, Wilkie Collins from my dad’s and uncle’s bookshelves. I also remember a tattered copy of mid 20th century short story collections.

I didn’t know what I was buying into when I picked up a frayed copy of John Updike’s Couples in Oshodi. Who was Updike? Although I was in my late teens then, I began to realise that literature might as well be a vast boundaryless ocean, not a pond, still less a national pond. To discover Updike at the time I did, though ever so slightly late, was a good thing indeed. He was no small fry, he was one of the big fish, or fishes, considering the variousness. I challenge any youth of seventeen not be awed at the first contact with the writer – and with arguably his best novel, Couples.

On balance, I mean give or take an occasional overexertion of his linguistic genius, Updike wrote better English sentences than any writer of his generation, of his time. He wrote in the manner a passion-filled composer composes – Beethoven or Mozart, say. His sentences sing with chordal perfection. Updike is all but a faultless craftsman. Couples and number of his novels are about life in American suburbia – marriage, infidelity, sex, familial woes, ups and downs, compromised respectability and other minutiae of middle-class life.

After Couples I could not stop looking around for Updike’s books. And was he prolific! By the time he drew the last breath a couple of weeks ago, his books had totalled 50-odd. Novels, art and literary criticism, autobiography, poetry; a nonfiction excursion into golf, a game he loved. And hundreds of short stories – most of which are gems of stylistic excellence. In his short stories he achieved perfect pitch. And the magisterial Rabbit tetralogy. I read the final chapter of the final instalment – Rabbit at Rest – of this modern tragicomedy of errors and morals during a journey between Lagos and Port Harcourt in 1993 just after Babangida annulled the June 12 election. Up till this moment that journey remains for me a wistful delight. I realised, perhaps for the first time in my life that I was rapturously filled with mental-food, even though the aging main character died a pointless, if necessary, death in the final page. More than any other writer Updike brings out the truth in Arthur Schopenhauer’s theory that only the arts can provide authentic peace of mind and gratification in a brutal, callous, and unhappy world we all live in. What Updike gave me – and still gives me occasionally – was pure nirvana.

He had also set me questing after other American writers. That precursor of Updike’s generation of writers, the Nobel Laureate Saul Bellow, would make you giddy too with his lapidary syntax. But Updike’s generation gave America possibly the finest posse of writers in its almost 250 years history. Let me begin with the slightly variably talented ones like Gore Vidal, Bernard Malamud and William Styron. The standalone Thomas Pynchon, who has not been seen publicly since 1964, like his older compatriot JD Salinger, author of the classic Catcher in the Rye. The mesmerising, cosmopolitan literary olympian, Russian-born Vladimir Nabokov. Then the mainstream and eminently talented ones like Phillip Roth and Don Delilo. I would not even begin to write anything about the latter two, their talents are prodigious, easily upsides with Updike’s. Some critics would even put Roth over and above Updike. And whenever I am reading Delilo, I do seriously wonder whether the architecture of his constructions is not even more robust than Updike’s. More robust, possibly, but less voluptuous, and with more élan of delivery, but certainly with less of Updike’s inimitable fecund tonicity.

There is the modern midwife of black humour, Joseph Heller, and the no less gifted Kurt Vonnegut. And Truman Capote whose reputation rests mainly on the novella, Breakfast at Tiffany. I was reading Capote’s journal recently and he laughed off the suggestion that James Baldwin was a serious writer. This couldn’t have been because Baldwin was black? Or could it? Capote was an eccentric, height-challenged whinger. He hated Gore Vidal with a passion too, and could not stop badmouthing him. Or does it have to do with the fact that the three men were homosexuals (Vidal is still living), a case of like spitting on like? I have nevertheless wondered whether Baldwin’s name would easily have come out in the same breath as writers like Updike and Roth if he was not black. But then, for all the trenchant momentum of his style, does he really measure up?

Updike was of course highbrow enough to win the Nobel, but he’d refused to wear his highmindedness on the sleeve like most Laureates. He did not win the prize for the same reason Phillip Roth may never win it: they are too clever, too witty, extraordinarily ordinary, beguilingly serious, ravenously prolific, ethereally corporeal, even carnal. Updike had to create a droll writer character, Bech, who wins the Nobel, accepting the prize with his eight-month old daughter in his hands, a child who is the result of restless, if flagging, seed-sowing self-indulgence. Bech who coyly waited for the almost all his life wins the Nobel when he is seventy six. Updike was seventy-six when he died, few weeks after the announcement of last year’s Laureates. Did he die of despair? Oh no, just kidding, the warm-hearted man died of cancer.

Norman Mailer, one of the pioneers of New Journalism and an overbearing aspirant to the Nobel, was enormously talented too, with a no mean mental range and forceful writing style. Mailer, a bantam bullshitter, thought Updike’s style reminded him of ‘stale garlic,’ he opined that Updike’s overwrote. Updike had shrugged off Mailer’s comment. But – and I am not being subjective – posterity has now begun to put both writers where they belong. When Mailer died in November 2007, he only got a respectable mention in the press – in comparison with the glut of knelled newsreports and obituaries of Updike.

Even someone had written to a newspaper in Nigeria pointing out that there was no mention of Updike’s death in any Nigerian newspaper or newscast. A not unexpected oversight, if you ask me. When I discovered Updike more than two decades ago it was only accidental, not because I had ever read or heard his name. So today, it is not so much that the Nigerian press do no not give writers the recognition they deserve as the person suggested, but that they report and write about the arts generally in too introverted, narrow way. Writers and other artists from other climes have always been underreported and overlooked. Alive, Updike had not even bobbed up as a mere blip on Nigeria’s literary radar screen, so it is really not surprising that his passing was not flashed? Updike was one of the most important literary artists of the last fifty years, born in 1932, midway between the nativities of Soyinka and Achebe. But the common grand narrative of the two Nigerians are in perpetual motion, a centripetal epic that might never reach full circle even long after their death. Is this why – and I mean this in a hypothetical way – Updike was not mentioned in the Nigerian press?

And why Norman Mailer, Updike’s rival, who’d written a book about Mohammed Ali/George Foreman fight in Kinshasa, was also not mentioned. Beyond being a superreporter and novelist, Mailer often swaggered around with the halo of grouchy, no-nonsense machismo. He’d picked a fight with feisty Gore Vidal and had taken a jab at the fellow writer. Mailer was the best interpreter of Ali/Foreman fight in the Congo. He’d even been apocryphally credited with coining the phrase Rumble in the Jungle. He wrote a book about the fight, entitled The Fight. A nice read too, except for the way the conceited Mailer seemed to patronise Africans with the rather graceless way he used the words black and Negro.

Updike was connected with Africa in a more substantial way. His 1976 novel, The Coup, is set in fictional West African country. The Coup should be among the most foregrounded of Updike’s novels, but it has been the fate of this excellent book to be lost among the battery of the great man works. It is an exceedingly well-written book, mainly narrated by a certain Colonel Hakim Felix Ellellou, a polygamous, polyglottal, preening President of the West African republic of Kush. This is an Updike novel I have read and reread several times, a blackly comic look at Africa of the 70s when the Soviets and the Americans were tirelessly wooing African leaders, indulging dictators like Ellellou. In dealing with these interloping rivals the American-educated Ellellou employs guile, cant and measured oiliness. Any number of African military dictators of the 70s may have provided the template for Updike. The early Colonels Mobutu and Mengistu, for instance. But more than just mining Africa for fictive material, one of Updike’s children is married to a Ghanaian.

I shall finish by saying that using American authors to illustrate my points is not unintentional. For one thing, this piece is not about ‘unpacking my library,’ that would be a far longer essay and possibly a topic of another day. Nevertheless, I do admit that perhaps I read more books by American authors than, say, by German or even British authors. It is pointless excusing this or even explaining why. There is a plenitude, a variegation, about American literature that you cannot get in any other country.

Contemporary literature from a country which just elected its first black president against all the odds and predictions is worth the time and effort than a country like Russia, the majority of whose people are still not able to fathom the silliness of it all – I mean the post-Soviet, Post-Solzhenitsyn Russia which seems to be doing nothing about the rise of xenophobia and neo-Nazism in the country. Several years ago, the line-up of one year’s Nobel Winners – except for Peace – was solidly American, Americans from diverse backgrounds and even race. And here hangs a tale. Sometime ago, I had a chat with an English Professor in an English University. He asked who my favourite authors were. Updike came first to my lips, followed by a couple of American authors. ‘Only Americans?’ the professor asked with a raised eyebrow. Oh, Ian McEwan, Haruki Murakami, Milan Kundera… And of course Wole Soyinka and Chinua Achebe.

Actually, I no longer have favourite authors; I just seek out good books and read them.

Debo Oriku from lived and worked in The Gambia serving as literary editor at the Observer newspaper. He now lives and works in England.
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This article was orginally published in February, 2009.