You Must Set Forth at Dawn

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(316)

Wole Soyinka, Methuen, £19.99

Nobel prize-winning author Wole Soyinka has written plays, poems and novels steeped in what Nigerian tradition there is and that of his own Yoruba people. Since he first rose to prominence in the early 1960s he has been centrally involved in the complex and dangerous world of Nigerian politics, which has led on occasion to both imprisonment and forced exile.

You Must Set Forth at Dawn is his third volume of memoirs, if his powerful 1972 prison notebook The Man Died is included as well as his 1981 childhood reminiscences, Aké the Years of Childhood.

Soyinka is an engaged writer, who is at the centre of all the stories he tells. Occasionally in a book that stretches to nearly 600 pages that leads to self-indulgence, and he is not one to avoid florid writing. However he is always an insightful commentator on Nigeria and it is undoubtedly true that he has often been near the centre of events.

The experiences he remembers include the casual racism he met while studying at university in Britain in the 1950s. On a bus, "As you were about to take the nearest vacant seat on a two-seater bench, the occupant next to the window shot up, quickly extricated his or her body and moved to another seat, or remained standing."

He returned from studying abroad to travel around Nigeria researching traditional drama, and was amazed at the national borders colonialism had established, "Culture and language differed within each nation as frequently and profoundly as they found identities across the borders of such nation spaces; the arbitrariness and illogicality of their groupings hit any traveller in the face."

He records how the British helped fix the first pre-independence elections, introducing the political corruption that Western governments now sneer at.

The expansion of his own political engagement, such as the symbolic stealing of a presidential speech, matches the descent of Nigeria into military dictatorship and the brutal Biafran war.

Writing about the crazed logic of bureaucracy under military dictatorship, or the corruption of the anti-corruption soldiers gives a convincing feel of the times. This atmosphere is the book's real strength.

As time goes by the role of an African radical, or what intellectuals believe it is possible to achieve shifts. The pan-African hopes of the late 1950s and early 1960s become smothered in a simple attempt to survive and find some human decency. Soyinka stayed close to the centre of events across the continent. For instance, in 1991 he secretly tried to broker a ceasefire in South Africa between the ANC and Zulu leader Gatsha Buthelezi's Inkatha movement.

His narrative can be frustrating and occasionally infuriating as it weaves poetically around his life, structured for the best punch line rather than clarity. But, in the end it tells you something about the history of Nigeria and modern Africa. It is anecdotal rather than historical, but it never claims otherwise.