Ever since I took Charles Larson’s class, The African Writer, I have been completely intrigued by Ken Saro-Wiwa. I presented multiple projects depicting the horrendous execution of this activist/author as the most severe example of the precarious situation in which African writers are forced to live and work. However, only recently did I realize that I never actually read a work by this influential author. For this reason, I sought out Sozaboy: A novel in rotten English. To put it simply, I was blown away by the creative innovation, timelessness, and critical content of the novel. Ken Saro-Wiwa is a man that should be studied for not only the significance of his death, but the accomplishments of his life.
The plot follows a young man named Mene, who is eventually only known as Sozaboy, living in a small, rural village in Nigeria while tensions begin to build and suggest an upcoming war. The seemingly petty events of Mene’s life, like his obsession with Agnes, the beautiful Lagos girl, eventually transform to create a heart-wrenching war novel. While growing up in his village of Dukana, Mene becomes an apprentice driver when his mom decides this to be the most lucrative career path for him, since she can no longer pay his school fees. His limited education is reflected in the mixture of pidgin English, corrupted English and “occasional flashes of good, even idiomatic English” that is used to narrate the novel, which Saro-Wiwa dubbed “rotten English” (iii). Although the narration can be, at times, difficult to follow, it is generally easy enough to figure out with the help of context clues and the glossary in the back of the book. Nonetheless, Saro-Wiwa succeeds in narrating an unbelievably eloquent novel, while criticizing the many facets of war. The language is absolutely innovative and allows for a very raw understanding of the events taking place. Above all else, simply reading the novel had a very artful air to it.
It is never specified when this war is taking place during Nigerian history, but many speculate it to surround the events of the Biafran War. There are various clues scattered throughout the novel that suggest this possibility, such as the difficulty of determining who is the Enemy, the vast exile to refugee camps, and the intense famine from which the majority of the population suffered. I spent the majority of my time while reading this book attempting to figure out what war Saro-Wiwa was discussing. However, upon finishing the book, I realized that this is only a minor detail that is of really no great importance to the general purpose of the novel, which is to condemn war. Despite the fact that it is a very Nigerian novel at heart, with its use of “rotten English,” it clearly appeals to the universality of war, making the time period in Nigerian history an irrelevant discussion point. This extroverted novel is situated ambiguously so that all readers can understand war in the context that Saro-Wiwa frames.
Specifically, Mene’s transformation from Mene to Sozaboy does not demonstrate his identity; instead it indicates his absolute lack of understanding regarding what it means to be a soldier and to be in war. Various instances throughout the novel, Sozaboy attempts to understand “Why are we fighting?” and the phrase “war is war” (90). He is never able to determine who is the real Enemy, when he has seen both sides of the war commit such great atrocities. Saro-Wiwa succeeds in his war criticism by portraying this arbitrary nature by which death and suffering is brought about during war and how war as a whole can never be truly justified because there is no such thing as a “good side.”
Sozaboy decides to become a soldier because of the taunting from the World War II veteran in his village and his love interest’s desire to be with a man that can protect her. He wishes to impress all the residents of Dukana by returning with his uniform, gun, and some medals, but the truth of war taught him, “now if anybody say anything about war or even fight, I will just run and run and run and run and run” (181). The innovative language and strong social/political commentary within Sozaboy makes it a masterpiece of our time.
Here’s the link: http://www.amazon.com/review/R1J71NVO1NJEYC