Soyinka on JP Clark: Tribute as epic
On the first year anniversary of Prof JP Clark’s passage, his soulmate, Prof Wole Soyinka’s tribute is the muse that triggers rumination on matters arising in the literary firmament. Taking on Nobel laureate, Prof Wole Soyinka, has its hazards the least of which is not the obvious intimidation that sits like an incubus without a word from the intimidator. Again, one needed to pussyfoot around aspects of his confessionals on escapades with his buddies to avoid the offense of “enjoying senior jokes.” Any junior in boarding (burden?) house knows too well what punishment awaits such indulgence. But errant juniors there are who, possessed of none other than something close to masochistic if not suicidal instincts, still dare the lions in their lairs. Nigerian nay African literary upstarts are blessed in being able to access elders like the iconic laureate whose stentorian visage is reserved only for despots. Even when accused of inaccessibility, it must relate more to the written than the writer.
Soyinka’s tribute on the passage of his literary soul mate and fellow bad boy, Prof J.P. Clark is entitled The Song of a Goat Pepper-soup – J.P., in corruption of the deceased’s well-known play. That wouldn’t be the only time Soyinka would celebrate his late friends with a tribute. In recent memory, Mohammed Ali and Ikemba Odumegwu-Ojukwu had been honoured with equally evocative tributes.
In Mohammed Ali At The Ringside, 1985, the poem about the prelude to a boxing bout that has the Parkinson’s Syndrome-ravaged Ali seated by the ringside, proves mortally prescient on how his soul now continues to cast a normative shadow on every heavyweight boxing bout. In what must rank as one of his most evocative but under-reported poems, Soyinka manages to etch the imagery of the ‘mortar that goads the pestle’ like a tattoo on the African reader’s mind. He ended that poem written while the subject was yet alive with lines that sounded immortal at Ali’s passing:
The enchantment is over
But, the spell remains.
On Odumegwu-Ojukwu, Soyinka posits: “The obverse to the question: ‘When is a nation?’ as [is] ‘When is a nation not?’”
He waxes lyrical in those lines but make no mistake about his being right on the money with what Nigeria is undergoing today. For a man who has lived a full life of adventure, you can bet his reminiscences would be sumptuous. But beyond sumptuous, Soyinka has managed to elevate obits whose canons are held by some Western weeklies into epics deserving of intellectual feasts.
With that goat pepper-soup trigger, I have been drawn to consider the wider world of tributes and funeral orations and how epical they have got in the past. Of epical tributes, the locus classicus must belong to King David’s lamentation on the deaths of his predecessor and chief enemy, King Saul and Saul’s son, Jonathan. That classic achieves ineffable pathos with its rhetorical question motif: How are the mighty fallen! Knowing human nature, it does appear counterintuitive that a man would lament his enemy’s demise with such sincere passion. But that was King David for you – a historical figure by whose name the contemporary Jewish nation still swears.
The other funeral oration of classical proportions must belong to Shakespeare. Through the agency of his character in Julius Caesar named Mark Antony, the world was gifted the iconic lines of oration at the burial of the eponymous human. Mark Antony had been recruited by Caesar’s killers to merely perform a perfunctory oration as a cover-up. But he flipped the script and ended up with a sarcastic tribute. If Soyinka has ever been hampered by the strictures of Nigeria’s peculiar socio-cultural constructs in his tributes, it doesn’t show. With the late Ikemba, you’d have thought Soyinka would walk Mark Antony’s kind of tight rope by having to honour a controversial friend across Nigeria’s pernicious ethnic divide. Another rope of tighter dimensions would have been Chinua Achebe’s tribute. Denizens of Nigeria’s literati had managed to frame both icons in competitive hues like the captains of two feuding teenage football teams. Every literary outing was match day. It is a credit to Soyinka’s nobility of character that if he ever felt like retreating into Nigeria’s primordial divides by playing the ambivalent card, he never showed that in his tributes to his two late great Igbo friends.
If Soyinka proved measured with his Achebe tribute, he was in no mood for appearances with J.P. Clark’s. To be sure, he and Clark had a chummier relationship and amongst the “literary quartet” longevity had been kinder to them. So from the get-go, he posts a caveat for the faint of heart: “…this is not intended to be a solemn piece …” Thereafter, he fires the first salvo describing his late friend as “Tempestuous, querulous, petulant, unpredictable …”
This shooting-from-the-hips quality to Soyinka’s tributes comes in the time-honoured tradition of tough love only experienced between kindred spirits. It had been captured in fiction by the protagonist, Birahima’s orations for his fallen comrades in Ahmadou Kourouma’s visceral portrayal of child soldiering, Allah Is Not Obliged. Birahima’s intro to the oration for his fallen comrade-in-arms, Sarah, is very Soyinkasque:
That means we have to recount how in this great big fucked-up world they came to be a child-soldier. I do it when I feel like it, but I don’t have to. I’m doing it for Sarah because I want to …”
Then, for yet another of his fallen comrades, Johnny Thunderbolt, Birahima rues:
No kidding! No kidding! It was a teacher’s gnoussou-gnoussou that did it for Johnny Thunderbolt; that led him to be a child-soldier. Yes, it was a teacher’s vagina that led him to the child-soldiers. This is how…”
Soyinka celebrates his many escapades with Clark and in the process has one musing aloud on the subtexts and footnotes to many of the narrations. He reminisces on how the two musketeers often beat the COVID -19 lockdown to rendezvous at The Boat Club. In case anyone tries to call him a law breaker, Soyinka quickly confesses to being “a classified chronic essential services exemption.” This must hark back to such previous essential service exemptions with his trip to see Ojukwu in Enugu in the perilous prelude to the Nigeria-Biafra war. He also pulled off another essential service exemption when he breached the June 12 riots lockdown to make it home from Badagry border.
With social distancing automatically guaranteed by default at the club which opened only for take-away clients, Soyinka wonders whether the skeletal staff ever detected their presence. I mutter to myself: Who would dare? Trouble asleep and Inyanga wanting to wake him. And you’re here talking of two troubles.
In stooping to celebrate his friends across the socio-cultural and literary divides, Soyinka shows an extraordinary lack of hubris and a charity of spirit uncommon in the successor generation of writers. Now, just for raising a critical voice on a perceived godfather’s or godmother’s work, you’d have to use an alias in the next contest he/she judges. Charity of spirit.
So it would appear that the Achebe-Soyinka generation had concord going for it. The fact that many of them had been together at Ibadan did nothing to jeopardise that concord. Even when the Nigeria-Biafra war burst and had them divided and on opposing sides, they managed to still carry on with a measure of camaraderie and came together to intercede for Gen Mamman Vatsa’s life in what would have scared others as a purely military business.
If we must countenance any generational discord, it must be about my generation which substituted the healthy bantering of the Achebe-Soyinka generation with bickering. Though the predecessor generation had a working cordiality to the relationship of her members, soon enough members of my generation formed themselves into partisan cheerleaders and lined up invidiously behind the two icons thereby almost setting up an adversarial binary between Achebe and Soyinka. It was a case of Eve not realising she aired her privates until the serpent. As late as a couple of years back and that, after the passage of Achebe, we were still baiting Soyinka with questions about who among his peers felt jealous with his Nobel. If not for the maturity of both icons, the African literary landscape would have been the worse for it the same way the Jewish nation reaped turmoil after women sang of King Saul’s thousands and David’s tens of thousands.
Therefore, the discord afflicting my generation of writers is both inter- and intra-generational. It is discernible in the cold shoulders between our fresh princesses of writing’s Bell Air. It presents in the fortunes or lack thereof of the “umbrella” writers’ body, ANA. It presents in the paucity of critical engagement with extant challenges of the Nigerian state. It presents in some whining weakling netizen going on about Soyinka not “saying anything” about some national mess. The same Soyinka who at the complainant’s age, sought to single-handedly alter the arc of history – the history of electoral fraud in Nigeria. It presents in Ikhide bellyaching about the hosting of Soyinka by Rivers State government of Governor Rotimi Amaechi.
Ekunno is a much-published poet, writer, and book editor.
He is the author of Cowboy Lamido, a children’s book and resides in Abuja.