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Wole Soyinka won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1986, the first black person to win this prize. He is perhaps the most versatile of African writers, equally at home in all genres; his dramatic masterpieces, such as Kongi’s Harvest and Death and the king’s rider, have been produced all over the world. His poetry anthology, Poems of Black Africa (1975), remains the most authoritative showcase of the writings of the first generation of postcolonial African poets, from Agostinho Neto to Léopold Senghor to Dennis Brutus – a rapidly shrinking generation, with Soyinka, now 87, one of the few remaining, still publishing books year after year. He makes the perfect poster: imprisoned, exiled, perpetually seeking to reform his country by producing books criticizing corrupt rulers who, after the euphoria of independence from colonial Europeans, continued exactly where they were. had stopped, using the same divide and conquer playbook.

His two novels, The Interpreters (1965) and Season of Anomy (1973), were less famous than his poetry and his theater. But almost 50 years later, we have Chronicles of the Happiest People on Earth – written, Soyinka said, to avoid boredom during the pandemic. The headline nods to one of those mysterious Internet surveys that a few years ago ranked Nigeria number one in the world on the “Happiness Index”. The irony of this permeates the entire book.

Making people believe they are happy is done in the typical Nigerian way, with extravagant and televised award ceremonies. Another way is to keep the public in the grip of religion – again, one of these online surveys found Nigeria to be the most religious country on the planet. One of the most energetic and enigmatic characters in the book is Bishop Teribogo, whose genealogy readers of Soyinka will easily trace back to the pieces of Brother Jero des Jero. Stylistically, the book takes up The Interpreters. It’s largely plotless, maintained by a series of incidents and characters, and their relationships and interactions with each other. The four main characters were educated at English universities, where they first met, and returned to Nigeria with the dream of giving back to their country. Most of the conflicts in the book are generated when this idealism collides with societal indifference and material pursuit.

We meet them in a moment of transition. Duyole Pitan-Payne, a gifted electrical engineer, is on his way to the UN as Nigeria’s representative. Dr Kighare Menka, a surgeon who has just won a prestigious award, is forced by circumstances to move to Lagos, where he is being hosted by Pitan-Payne and his wife. Prince Badetona is a creative accountant drawn into dangerous circles of money launderers. He ends up in prison, a subplot that echoes Soyinka’s own experiences. And, finally, there is Teribogo, the preacher who reinvents himself and whose mission is to bring together under one ecumenical umbrella, for his personal benefit, the different religions of the country: Islam, Christianity, beliefs traditional and even Zoroastrianism.

Chronicles is written in what critics would call “late style”: somewhat verbose, often dilatory, and anecdotal. He’s also brave, and he names names and points his finger. One of the delights is the ease with which Soyinka moves from register to register, from high to absurd, as well as his unabashed use of “Nigerianisms” and the Yoruba vernacular. There is a long monologue in Pidgin English towards the end of the book where a steward, Godsown, gives a hilarious account of a crime he witnessed. Maybe the writer’s personality is bigger than any character he portrays, but then, as most readers will tell you, that’s exactly what they expect from Soyinka: trivia. witty, digressions, even the famous linguistic obscurity and emphasis. There is a restless intellectual energy here which belies the author’s age.

Chroniques is a good model of what the political novel should be: fearless, disregarding formal constraints, sparing no one, leaving behind a scorched earth littered with scorched figures of corrupt politicians and military dictators and religious charlatans and social parasites. , and even the masses who, in the name of religion and the tribe, make themselves the tools of the elite. In the end, it is a triumph of the novel as a form: its ability to adapt to all styles and all approaches. How lucky we are that Soyinka has decided to give this form another chance.

Helon Habila’s latest novel is Travelers (Penguin). Chronicles of the Happiest People on the Planet by Wole Soyinka is published by Bloomsbury (£ 20). To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.