|When he was 4 years old, spurred by insatiable curiosity and the beat of a marching drum, Wole Soyinka slipped silently through the gate of his parents' yard and followed a police band to a distant village. This was his first journey beyond AkÃ©, Nigeria, and reading his account is akin to witnessing a child's epiphany:|
The parsonage wall had vanished forever but it no longer mattered. Those token bits and pieces of AkÃ© which had entered our home on occasions, or which gave off hints of their nature in those Sunday encounters at church, were beginning to emerge in their proper shapes and sizes.
He returned, perched upon the handlebars of a policeman's bicycle, "markedly different from whatever I was before the march." The reader's horizons feel similarly expanded after finishing this astonishing book.
Nobel laureate Soyinka is a prolific playwright, poet, novelist, and critic, but seems to have found his purest voice as an autobiographer. AkÃ©: The Years of Childhood is a memoir of stunning beauty, humor, and perception--a lyrical account of one boy's attempt to grasp the often irrational and hypocritical world of adults that equally repels and seduces him. Soyinka elevates brief anecdotes into history lessons, conversations into morality plays, memories into awakenings. Various cultures, religions, and languages mingled freely in the AkÃ© of his youth, fostering endless contradictions and personalized hybrids, particularly when it comes to religion. Christian teachings, the wisdom of the ogboni, or ruling elders, and the power of ancestral spirits--who alternately terrify and inspire him--all carried equal metaphysical weight. Surrounded by such a collage, he notes that "God had a habit of either not answering one's prayers at all, or answering them in a way that was not straightforward."
In writing from a child's perspective, Soyinka expresses youthful idealism and unfiltered honesty while escaping the adult snares of cynicism and intolerance. His stinging indictment of colonialism takes on added power owing to the elegance of his attack. He also spears Nigeria's increasing Westernization, its movement toward modernity and materialism, as he describes his beloved village markets deteriorating from a "procession of magicians" to rows of "fantasy stores lit by neon and batteries of coloured bulbs" where the "blare of motor-horns compete with a high-decibel outpouring of rock and funk and punk and other thunk-thunk from lands of instant-culture heroes."
The book closes with an 11-year-old Soyinka preparing to enroll in a government college, declaring it "time to commence the mental shifts for admittance to yet another irrational world of adults and their discipline." AkÃ© is an eloquent testament to the wisdom of youth. --Shawn Carkonen