three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
23-July-Aug-2006
By: 
Wole Soyinka
user_rating: 
0

A Memoir

A-YouMustSetForthAtDawnWole Soyinka, a Nigerian playwright, poet, and Nobel Laureate, was not surprised by the chaos that spread across Nigeria in the 1960s. His introduction in the university halls of England to the men that would rule over the newly independent nation had given him ample reason to temper his expectations. Yet over the ensuing half century, he engaged in a tireless fight for democracy and endured prison, exile, and heavy-handed dictatorial regimes. From his account of brokering peace between Nelson Mandela and the Zulu Chief Buthelezi to his fond memories of his good friend Femi Babington, this fascinating memoir reflects the constant merging of the political and personal in Soyinka’s life.
Random House. 528 pages. $26.95. ISBN: 037550365X

San Francisco Chronicle 4.5 of 5 Stars
"It is a rare thing in this century (early as it is), and probably will get rarer, to read the memoir of a writer and public intellectual whose life and growth as an artist and voice of conscience mirror the growth of an entire nation. It is even more rare to know that it is inconceivable to think of Nigeria as a political entity without Soyinka." Chris Abani

Los Angeles Times 4.5 of 5 Stars
"If there is a single inescapable theme or life lesson presented above all others in his powerful and arresting memoir … it does not concern the honing of his undoubted literary talents or his impressive output as playwright, poet, and novelist. Rather, it is about the immense difficulty of making the right choices." Merle Rubin

NY Times Book Review 3.5 of 5 Stars
"There is necessarily more to learn about the political Soyinka than about the man of letters, if only because so much of his political activity was undertaken discreetly or secretly, and he is only now free … to recount his history more fully." Norman Rush

Christian Science Monitor 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Those unfamiliar with Nigerian politics will find some events confusing (although a chronology at the front of the book helps) and Soyinka’s narrative style is not always as accessible as one might wish. The rewards offered, however, are considerable." Marjorie Kehe

Baltimore Sun 3 of 5 Stars
"The chapters are not chronological, and Soyinka seems to expect that the reader already knows his exploits, background, and achievements. Although he writes often of working-class Nigerians recognizing him in the street—almost always with stunned delight—we never really learn why this literary professor is such a well-known figure in his country." Stephanie Hanes

Critical Summary

Just when it seems that the premise of the latest tell-all memoir can’t get any thinner, this powerful exemplar of the genre arrives on bookshelves. Soyinka, winner of the 1986 Nobel Prize for literature, delivers a book that is as much a history of a country as it is the story of his life. That Soyinka’s story so closely aligns with the history of Nigeria testifies to his ongoing commitment to the cause of democracy, but the focus on politics leaves a few reviewers wishing for more of the personal stories found in Aké, his first memoir, and The Man Died, about his two-year imprisonment. You Must Set Forth at Dawn is not always easy going, especially for those unfamiliar with African history. For those willing to take the journey, Soyinka’s account breathes with the "fullness of an epic" (San Francisco Chronicle).

By the Author

Death and the King’s Horseman (1975): Many consider this play, about the clash between a Nigerian tribe and colonial rule, to be Soyinka’s best work.