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The Interpreters

Lecture on Wole Soyinka, The Interpreters (1965) for H235 African Literature, Murdoch University, 1976-7

Garry Gillard

The title of a work is one element of the authorial register, that is, it is one element which is not part of the mediated narrative itself, but may be a direct communication between author and reader. Think of Joyce's titles, "Clay", "A Little Cloud", "Araby", for example, which direct the reader's response throughout the work, setting up at the outset the ironical machinery which contains the meanings of the work. Whereas with Ngugi's The River Between the reader is directed towards a simple symbolic reading; and whereas in the case of Armah's The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born a symbolism seems suggested which is more esoteric, perhaps containing irony and paradox; the title of The Interpreters may suggest to the reader that he attend rather to the characters.1 In this lecture I shall discuss such an approach to the work, leaving aside a consideration of other elements, such as language, handling of the action, and so on.

The range of character types in The Interpreters is due to the fact that each of the main personae has an individual way of interpreting the world, though of course due to their association there is a degree of commonality in some respects, both in the sense of shared experience and of quality of experience. All of the men could for example be said to be intellectuals; all, with the possible exception of Kola, are engaged in middle-class occupations; and they are all interested in the arts, two of them being practising artists.

One critic says of Egbo that he "carries the greatest burden of Soyinka's personal concern and identification".2 Though this is possibly not said on the basis of this book alone, what can be said about Egbo is that it is he who carries the greatest burden of decision. The first individual strand of the action, following the expository presentation of the whole group at the opening of the novel, concerns Egbo's return to the village of his people. Although he works in the bureaucracy, he inherits the option of becoming the ruler of a creek-town whose population controls some vital smuggling routes. Egbo is ambivalent about this choice. On the one hand he perceives the reality of the power he would have, and longs to be released from the amorphousness of existence in the urban power structures. On the other hand he suspects that the unorthodox way of life might also lack authenticity. As he says, "What choice, I ask myself, is there between the ugly mudskippers on this creek and the raucous toads of our sewage-ridden ports: What difference?" (p.14). In the event, Egbo does not make a clear choice, but goes literally with the tide, which happens to be moving away from the shore where his people live. As far as political structures are concerned, then, Egbo represents the modern African at the point of choice between the old and the new. That it is clearly a very difficult and deep choice is evidenced by the fact that Egbo, with all his intellectual equipment, is unable to make it.

In this particular individual, however, it is a sign of a schism which goes deeper than anything under his conscious control. For Egbo is a man whose nature is profoundly divided. At different points in the narrative we see aspects of him which are extremely opposed. It was not by coincidence that he should go with the tide in the early scene, as it later becomes clear that part of his nature identifies closely with the passivity and receptivity which is often associated with water. This fascination is first demonstrated as a child: "Egbo was discovered at midnight lying at the water's edge in the grove of Oshun, one ear against the ground. 'What were you doing there?' they asked. He said he was praying. So they beat him for paganistic leanings." (p.17) And as a man, he has two profoundly significant experiences again by a river. He spends the night by the Ogun River under the bridge of the Lagos-Ibadan railway. The circumstances make a lasting impression on him: "...for it seemed to him that he was born again, he felt night now as a womb of the gods and a passage for travellers ... And he made it his preserve, a place of pilgrimage." (p.127)

The second of these experiences is with a girl student of Bandele's, whom he impulsively takes with him to the same place, and who will be the other major sexual relationship in his life - after the seductress Simi. The latter is also associated with water in its feminine connotations: "Perhaps after all Simi could weep, for the light-filled waters in rockpools were the weave of Simi's eyes." (p.126)

In the last lines of the book, Egbo is again faced with an important choice - between the woman Simi and the unnamed girl - and again he is unable to perceive it experientially as a real choice: "Egbo watched her while she walked towards him, eyes ocean-clams with her peculiar sadness ... like a choice of a man drowning he was saying...only like a choice of drowning." (p.251) In a connexion which remains not clearly defined, Egbo conflates the feminine principle, as experienced both in himself and through the women in his life, with a wish for quietism or death, and with the experience and symbolism of water.

The other major tendency in Egbo's nature is towards strength, destruction, sacrifice, masculine qualities as opposed to feminine. This is the way he is seen by Kola, who uses him as his model for the drunken ogun in his painting of the Yoruba Pantheon of Gods. It is not the way Egbo sees himself: "Look at that thing he has made of me for instance, a damned bloodthirsty maniac from some maximum security zoo. Is that supposed to be me? or even ogun, which I presume it represents?" (p.233) However it is Egbo who kills the sacrificial ram for the feast on the occasion of Kola's exhibition; it is he who sacrifices the virginity of the girl on the rocks which he sees as the feet of Ogun; he impulsively leaves the vapid boy Noah with the homosexual Joe Golder who drives the boy to his death; and it is he who has an impulse to kill Bandele.

The narrative gives enough information to account for this duality in Egbo. His father, a gentle Christian, has been drowned with his mother, who was a king's daughter. Here we have the two influences already, the traditional and the European; also the connexion of sadness and death with water. Egbo's various stepfathers have been, by contrast with his father, rough men, who beat him continually. The reader is enabled to imagine the division in the character's nature growing, thus partially accounting for the vacillations and contradictions in his actions.

Perhaps the most fully developed character, especially in terms of relative space, is that of Sagoe. Of course, he is a convenient character to provide many of the mechanical links in the structure of the action, because as a journalist he can range over the greater part of society. This is also one of the reasons why most of the satire in The Interpreters is introduced through the perceptions of this character. Another is because it is more appropriate to the style of thought and expression of a working journalist than to the high art of, say, Kola.

Being more experienced in social observation, Sagoe is aware of the importance of social differentiators such as the criterion of 'good taste'. So it is in the phases of the action which are mainly presented through this persona that the affectations of elite society are satirised. The principal scene in this regard is that in which the judgements of Mrs. Professor Oguazor with regard to the propriety of the ladies' retiring are visited upon poor, immigrant Monica Faseyi who, though European, ironically does not recognise the importance of such Western behaviour in the eyes of the post-Independence society of Lagos.(pp. 39-47)

Sagoe's own notion of visual bad taste forms a connexion with his preoccupation with death. He abhors Dehinwa's cheap wardrobe with its tawdry decorations, and it is from this wardrobe that his fantastic vision of the now dead Sir Derinola makes his entrance as "Sir Morgue". And it is on his way to attend the funeral of Sir Derinola that Sagoe encounters the vastly cheaper ceremony organised by Lazarus. The coffin in the latter case is decorated in the same fashion as Dehinwa's wardrobe. The meaning of these juxtapositions is the value of sincere poverty as against false ostentation.

Sagoe has another morbid preoccupation which is conveyed not by a structural aspect of the narrative, but rather through inset sections of a different genre: the essays in his "Book of Enlightment" on Voidancy. As well as revealing a fixation in the character, this obsession also brings to notice an unfortunate feature of life in urban Nigeria. Indeed, Sagoe's writing on the subject could be seen as a compensation for the disgust felt at the ubiquity of the evidence of excrement in the streets of Lagos. However, it is a natural subject for a man whose occupation often involves the uncovering of repressed and unsavoury aspects of life.

There are two visions of unity in The Interpreters. One is expressed by Kola in his painting, which is one of the structural keys to the book. Kola interprets the other characters by using them as models for figures in the pantheon of gods. This process in turn also throws light on the belief systems represented by the gods. The result of all this is that the character tends to be overcome by his function ad a vehicle of interpretation and is not very fully developed. His views of other characters are conveyed to the reader without also revealing the character capable of conceiving and demonstrating such views. Kola himself admits to having been influenced by others; not only influenced: he says that it is Egbo who should be working on the painting, rather than himself; (p.227) and reveals that he thinks more of Sekoni's work than of his own.(p.228). It suffices that Kola works very hard (p.228), and that the result of his labour forms a catalyst which causes other characters to react in revealing ways, as has been mentioned above, for example, in the case of Egbo, the violence of whose contrary reaction lends support to Kola's view as much as it contradicts it.

The other vision of unity is stated by Sekoni, who, ironically, can barely express himself at all, due to a speech impediment. Further irony may be seen in his personality, perhaps the least 'unified' in the book. "In the dome of the cosmos, there is complete unity of Life. Life is like the godhead, the plurality of the manifestations is only an illusion. The godhead is one. So is Life, or death, both are contained in the single dome of existence."(p.122) This is Sekoni's major metaphysical statement (with the indications of stammering removed), the product of a life filled with ironies, conflicts and contradictions. one of the conflicts reveals, as in Egbo's case, some unfortunate aspects of power structures in modern Africa. Sekoni has gained overseas qualifications in engineering. He returns filled with the desire to improve the quality of life in Nigeria in the practical sense of creating electric power. When he is fobbed off with a senseless administrative job, expressed in bureaucratic terms of the most extreme kind ("Please join a preliminary Committee of Five to sort out the applications for the post of a Third Class Clerk."), he agitates for, and gets, a real mission. He builds a small experimental power station. When he discovers that the project is written off as "junk" - the reader is informed that the chairman of the government department is also indirectly the contractor and will receive thousands in compensation - it is enough to drive him mad.

An earlier conflict has been with his Moslem father who has disapproved of Sekoni's marriage with a Christian. Now that he is ill, his father is reconciled, and instrumental in sending Sekoni to Mecca. In yet another irony, however, it is in old Jerusalem that he perceives "suddenly meaningful affinities" which enables him to return to Nigeria to begin to work through in an art form his experience of division. His first work - "The Wrestler" expresses something of his struggle and his quest for meaning. A pilgrim is on the point of subduing a python. It is Kola who perceives the work as expressing a feeling of integration, as being without self-doubt: "...Sekoni was an artist who had waited long to find himself but had done so finally, and left no room for doubt." (p.100) Though the narrator suggests that Bandele is the model for the figure in this first sculpture, it seems a reasonable inference to say that whereas Kola's function is to interpret others through their relationship with their culture, Sekoni interprets himself.

The reason for the use of Bandele as model in the context suggested above can be inferred. Bandele is the character into whose mouth is put the title of the book: this, taken together with other indications, suggests that he is the figure who has a kind of understanding and judgement not shared by the other characters. It is as if only he has the capacity to interpret the interpreters. This overriding vision is not accepted without resentment.

"Bandele was mocking, lightly. 'Sagoe has his story, Kola has filled another heavenly space on his canvas, what are you getting out of this, Egbo?' Egbo turned angrily on him. 'What are you getting out of it?' 'Knowledge of the new generation of interpreters.' Sagoe exploded. 'You sound so fuckin' superior it would make a saint mad.' "(p.178)

Monica tells Kola: "Bandele thinks you all lead callous, indifferent lives." He seems to represent an ideal standard of thought and conduct. As a lecturer, he has the highest intellectual status of the group, but in his comments on others he shows a scorn for the impurity of their motives, a moral rather than an intellectual superiority. Referring to the death of Noah, he asks Kola: "'What do you need the ram for? Haven't you had your sacrifice?'" (p.243) and it is this question which tempts Kola to attack him, as mentioned above. In the same scene he asks: "'Is it not time for your freak-show?'" referring to the recital by Joe Golder. As the narrator puts it, in a key phrase; "Bandele sat like a timeless image brooding over lesser beings." He is clearly being characterised here as the conscience of the group.

This is also shown in his actions. For example, he is more tolerant than anyone else of the ugly half-Americans, Peter and Joe Golder. And when he gives Egbo the message from the girl, he sticks rigidly to his text, in order to give her maximum protection, by allowing the negotiations to go forward on her terms. But it is in his last action, the last significant action of the book, that the characterisation of Bandele is completed. He passes judgement on the seducer and abortionist Dr. Lumoye, and on his superior, Professor Oguazor, in one noble pronouncement: "Bandele, old and immutable as the royal mothers of Benin throne, old and cruel as the ogboni in conclave pronouncing the Word. 'I hope you all live to bury your daughters.'" (pp.250-251). In this concluding action, his paternalism and purity are combined with an image of traditional power and wisdom to put the finishing touches to the picture of this important character. The interpretation is complete.


1. Wole Soyinka, The Interpreters, London: Deutsch, 1965. Page references in the text are to the Heinemann edition of 1970 (African Writers Series).

2. Gerald Moore, Wole Soyinka, London: Evans, 1971.

See Also

Chapter on characterisation in Formal Aspects of Fictive Narrative in Africa

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