THE MEN WITH LITERARY TAGS
ACHEBE AND SOYINKA, WHO IS GREATER?
The issue of greatness in literature is a multifaceted and untimely, a bias issue which many a time had favoured many against the intention, willingness and intended destructive sensor of greater population than those it favours. One of the reasons for this is that, if greatness in art or literature is measured with the yardstick prescribed by Matthew Arnold which emphasises voracity into the acquaintance of a writer on other languages and literatures written in them, then it rather becomes an altercation since there would be just few who may avail their time to do that. On this area I may ascribe the honour to the laureate, Wole Soyinka, considering the Nigeria literary scene. But, if the parameter revealed by John Ruskin which says that an artist is great whose work(s)
Conveys to the mind of the spectator, by any means whatsoever, the great number by a higher faculty of the mind, as it more fully occupies and in occupying, exercises and exalts in the faculty by which it is received. Attentions are on the exaltation of the heart to which the artistic creation is meant,
is taken, then in the case of Nigerian literary scene, I cannot ignore the Eagle on the Iroko, Chinua Achebe.
As the list, and a silent voice, in the acts of literary creation who, perhaps, had written in an unwitting strength, I wish to approach this debate with the excerpt cited above. Literature mirrors the society in that it can hardly remove itself from the society since it is designed naturally to make immeasurable impact to the society in all facets. Ben Jonson was applauded in the Elizabethan England because of his correctness of fictional style which was born out of his brilliance. But when William Shakespeare emerged on the same literary scene with what those of the university may term “outlandish,” he wielded greater fame among the greater population he attracted to himself through a careful consideration of the versification and variability of the human mind. Samuel Johnson extols Shakespeare’s ability to control nature in his drama. According to him, “He has creative wit inborn.” Today, Shakespeare has grown so high, even posthumously, in the minds of every students of literature than any of his contemporaries.
Now, bringing this to Nigerian scene, and of course African scene, Achebe and Soyinka shall never be forgotten in the entirety of African literary scene, but one cannot stand the gap of the other; it doesn’t matter how far he may try to do this. Achebe became popular with the publication of Things Fall Apart, while Soyinka gained global recognition with the 1986 laureate award. Within that century, Achebe made a statement which engulfed his relationship with Soyinka. This matter, nevertheless, was not supposed to raise dust except that it was toasted rather by the media and with time, it meant a somewhat connotation which the statement was not originally intended for. Being pressed by the media on how high Soyinka may see himself a literary lord, Achebe politely said “that Soyinka was awarded does not make him the founder of African literature.” This brought the issue of who could be the founder of African literature, a question which Achebe had resisted and a position he had also repudiated times without numbering. He cannot assume thus since he had seniors in both Francophone, Anglophone and other languages of literature through which African literature had ever been written. Acknowledging the lords of African literature, at the back page of Chinweizu et al's Towards the Decolonization of African Litrature, Atieno Odhiambo observes as experts, men like
“Gerald Moore, Charles Larson, Adrian Roscoe, Austace Palmer and Wole Soyinka”. He further maintains that “these authors concretize their critique by highlighting the aims and techniques of such Pan-African masters as Achebe, Senghor, Sembene, P’ Bitek, Mazisikunene, Tutuola, Maran, Langston Hughes and Ngugi Wa Thiongo”. They “underline these techniques and aims as the proper foundation for African literature.”
Now, should the activities of the concretizers eliminate the endless foundational effort of the founders? I think not. This akin to Achebe’s assertion that “the duty of the story taller is to tell story, why it remains the reserve of the interpreter whatever interpretation he may wish to give to the story.”
Achebe and Soyinka share different literary locale, nevertheless, within a particular circle. The common circle they share in the African scene is consanguinity; but each has shown an entirely different perspective of this common circle. Achebe belonging to the foundation, as Atieno asserts, had written with the purpose of recreating, correcting, redefining and reconstructing Africa against the malignity placed on her through the misrepresentation of her image by western authors. In doing this, he chose the medium most conversant to him, which is the act of storytelling. As a foundation, Things Fall Apart, Arrow of God and No longer at Ease, served as starting point to his dogged defence of African culture, Nigeria and of course Igbo culture before the western counterparts. This concrete assertion may not be obviously defended through applied criticism without a base. And this style (storytelling) cannot be abused since I know there are things like Irish literature, English literature and so on which are written in the same style to prove the essence of the oral tradition of these different settings. Of course, if Achebe was a mere storyteller with less creative value, I don’t think he would be the first and only African writer to contribute in the prestigious Anthology of English Literature (Norton VII) with the discussion of the image of Africa.
Their different perspectives towards the approach of literature may be blamed on the level of orientation each had received in his part of the world which directly or not, he cannot ignore, looking at the nature of the contemporary issues confronting their time. And, who knows that might be the war he was destined to fight? When this dominant war ended and there was need to change hands in the mode of literary creation, Achebe as well declared thus:
A new situation has thus arisen. One of the writer’s main functions has always been to expose and attack injustice. Should we keep at the old themes---- when new injustices have sprouted all around us? I think not.
He responded to this through his later novel, A Man of the People. This later novel reveals his disappointment with Nigerian politics, especially the elites. It is here that Achebe fictionally revealed his disappointment on the relationship between Zik and chief Festus Okotiobo whom he fictionally characterised as Max. The novel reveals apparent irony of events and people as a way of depicting the decayed condition of Nigerian society. The visionary milieu of this book was revealed by J.P. Clark when he asserts thus, “Chinua, I know you are a prophet. Everything in this book has happened except a military coup.” And of course, we all know that military coup succeeded the novel immediately. Soyinka had not written in this considerable dialogical style and simplicity of purpose. He may have not, because the foundation had been laid by his predecessors. The assertion above by Atieno simplifies the difference in the literary perspective of Achebe and Soyinka.
Now, bringing these literary giants under the lampshade of Ben Johnson and Shakespeare, Achebe may be considered obvious in the manner of the latter. As Shakespeare made success, among literary audience globally, Achebe spread his wings even greater. Things fall apart gaining translation into over fifty languages is one of the remarkable success which a novel had never made so far. Greater men in the world of literature had never had their works gained such prominence across languages. Of course, such a great author cannot be taken for a god or hallowed as an angel, but it may be senselessness and sheer hatred on my part if I will not applaud his wit or set myself to his examples. Indeed, Achebe served as the kite for me and many other writers to observe its tail and give a fitting shape to our literary gongs. I rather consider myself half-baked because I was not opportune to meet him alive. An attempt I also made for Wole Soyinka in 2011, and what it paid me in return was that his cousin - Segun as he was called - had to swindle me of both time and money.
Therefore, I don’t think it is time any longer to sensor Achebe since his voice is heard no more and he cannot defend himself. Yes, he had stirred the hornet with the publication of There Was a country by revealing the hidden information about the corrupt Nigerian politic from her pre independent era, but this later act is seen more profitable to the later Achebes in the literary circle; I don’t think it was a mistake, rather he willingly wished to let the present generation know why things are done in the way they are presently handled; the same reason for which he believes that things had fallen apart.
The leadership has fallen on Soyinka’s shoulders. Should he any time set his wit to himself, he should not be too cursory to forget that his successors may raise a similar dust after him, since there is no man perfect without a flaw. As the life of a hero is detestable, so also is his death.
Let us know your feelings!