Okwaro Oscar Plato
Prof Wole Soyinka may have been the first African to win a Nobel Prize in literature, but he is a man whose fame does not resonate substantially, in regard to the appreciation of some of his works beyond academic circles. His readers observe his works are abstract and employ archaic jargon.
The aim of this piece, however, is not to strike Soyinka’s persona, but to demonstrate that any good work of literature must communicate to and resonate with readers.
Perhaps Soyinka does not share the orientation that a writer must not import difficult jargon into his writing as to become obscure to readers, and also ensure that his piece is deliberated between terseness and obscurity, grandeur and bombast.
Majority of those who have to read Wole Soyinka have often had a simple mind of entrusting their wits to their instinct to understand his output, while some simply feel that by sheer display of his books, they signal they have reached the highest degree of enlightenment.
Though Soyinka has been described as a man of letters by some of his African contemporaries and largely by the West and in the Orient, his cryptic style of writing seems to take away his African-ness. Prof Ali Mazrui was one of his greatest critics in this regard.
I will not detain the readers on details of the interesting encounter between the two literary behemoths, especially since the details are of no direct relevance to the subject of this piece, namely Soyinka’s unrestrained diatribe and use of language. But in his reply to Soyinka, the late Mazrui accused the Nobel laureate of, among other things, “being reckless bookman,” prone to English jargon imagination or poetic hallucinations.
Mazrui further remarked that the Nobel laureate conflicts the natural cosmology of Africa with the fantasies of his self-expressionism. His overall impact on what African literature was is purely ratty. In his essence, Wole Soyinka has not in true sense evolved to the world the face of African Literature.
In reviewing some of Sonyinka’s books and protracted pieces published in The Nation of Nigeria and/or international publications, my first problem with his style is his use of language. Soyinka may be a first class dramatist, but even his greatest protagonists will concur that he suffers from the disease of linguistic bombast. He writes essentially to impress rather than to communicate.
Eric Blair is globally recognized by the pseudonym George Orwell in literary world. Orwell, being a political literature writer, intellectual scribbler, a critic and wordsmith, observed in his essay, ‘Politics and the English Language’, that most basic rules for effective communications include the following: (1) never use long words where a short one can do (2) if it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out, (3) never use a passive (word) where you can employ the active, and (4) never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
Soyinka’s literary world, consistent with his prose style, breaks each and every one of these rules. Those who have interacted with his pieces would testify that you need more than a dictionary to fully comprehend what he precisely says – even as it is concurred that dictionaries may tell you the meanings of words, but words, in isolation, do not say much to the whole sentence and/or paragraph. This is why the sentence, rather than the word, is the unit of language. Needless to say, the simpler the structure of a sentence – i.e. its syntax – the easier it is to understand.
George Orwell furthers remarks that even where one uses simple words in a sentence, if it is complicated in syntax, you may leave your reader confused rather than clear-headed. Soyinka, you will agree, is a master of both the long word and the complicated syntax.
While reading The Interpreter (1965), one requires to catch the breath, first to merely read those sentences, and then to rack your brain in order to grasp their meaning. If you did, it was because the sentences were full of long words, needless words, passive words and jargon, not to mention a complicated structure.
Renowned grammarian and literary critic, the late Prof Okoth Okombo of the University of Nairobi, and my lecturer in Communication Skills, in one of his pieces emphasizes the beauty and power of simple language in “writing to communicate”. Okombo thought Soyinka was at his best when he penned The Lion and the Jewel (1963).
Kibisu Kabatesi an established literature editor concurs that “The Interpreter (1965) is a hard nut to crack and one needs more than a dictionary to understand the complex structure of jargon and syntax employed. Nevertheless, “Soyinka’s works call for a keen reader,” says Kabatesi.
Similarly one of the first scholars to do a major criticism of Soyinka’s literature, Professor Eldred Durosimi Jones from Sierra Leone, believes that an author who writes with nonchalant attention for his audience has not mastered the significance of the art, hence his fierce criticism of Soyinka.
Comically, Prof Soyinka, in his ever-vibrant atavistic reaction, thundered in self-defence that he does not write mediocrity, hence “a mediocre” should not hope to understand the focus of his letters. Nevertheless, the use of words by Soyinka is elaborately bizarre. The intense, cryptic, laborious and poetic quality of his prose language encumbers the understanding of it.
Soyinka’s critics have observed that perhaps if he had remained a playwright and poet and not ventured the depth of his mind on prose, maybe he would have had lesser tragedy from his critics, especially on expressionism. His belief that he has cultivated a language more enchanting and psychedelic combines to the outrage against his erudite prowess.
In this lingering controversy, I would want to understand the solubility of this man of letters’ prose style, the permissibility, configurations, and the voided acceptances. However, he is a man who has been ambushed literarily and, but for his tenacity, he would long have been forced into oblivion from the public arena like Forster Edward Morgan (1879 –1970), the English novelist, essayist short story writer and librettist who in defeat said that the society he writes for no longer exists.
Soyinka has perpetually demonstrated to the illiterate globe that he is an inaccurate, careless intellectual and a literary giant who, all too often, uses the language to confuse rather than enlighten. It is either this or this age is not ripe for his muse, especially the vision he represents. (
– Okwaro Oscar Plato is an analyst with Gravio Africa.