View Full Version : Ken Saro-wiwa: Sozaboy
I'm sure there are many here who had read this book. Did not see a discussion on this hence thought of creating one..
What is the most talked about this book is the use of language, "a novel in rotten English" as the author himself calls it. It is seldom we see the language itself is taking the form of a character in any narrative. One of the most striking differences over other war( or anti-war to be precise) novels, is this creative use of the language.
Ken Saro wiwa in his foreword says,
"Sozaboy's language is what I call 'rotten English,' a mixture of Nigerian pidgin English, broken English and occasional flashes of good, even idiomatic English. This language is disordered and disorderly. Born of a mediocre education and severely limited opportunities, it borrows words, patterns and images freely from the mother-tongue and finds expression in a very limited English vocabulary. To its speakers, it has the advantage of having no rules and no syntax. It thrives on lawlessness, and is part of the dislocated and discordant society in which Sozaboy must live, move and have not his being."
The post independent Nigeria was marred with sectarian violence lasting over three decades. Literary works around this theme had been around the world for many years from Nigeria,and even until recently ( half of Yellow sun etc).
Ken Saro-Wiwa was a writer, television producer, human right activist and environmentalist. He was arrested and put to trial by the Nigerian Authority accusing him of creating communal disturbance and of inciting riots. He was sentenced to death by the special court and he was hanged to death along with 8 others on the 10th of November 1995.
Its a book about war, the senselessness of war, the atrocities, the human disaster. Those who fought did not know for what they were fighting for and for whom ? They were recruited en masse and often paid meager salary living under pathetic condition. Many a times, they fought for both the warring parties.
" Well, I don't think it is good thing or bad thing. Even sef I don't want to think. What they talk, we must do. Myself, if they say fight, I fight. If they say no fight, I cannot fight. Finish."
As the last words spoken by Sozaboy, tells it all..
And I was thinking how I was prouding before to go to soza and call myself Sozaboy. But now if anybody say anything about war or even fight, I will just run and run and run and run and run. Believe me yours sincerely"
Sozaboy is a masterpiece of African Literature.
I honestly have to say I did not like this book. In essence, the language barrier was crossable, but at the expense of making the main character annoying and stupid-sounding. It didn't help that his only concerns seemed to be money and a good wife, throughout the whole book. The ignorance level was too much for me to stomach.
Though Saro-Wiwa is a fascinating figure and his execution was a travesty of justice.
Saro-Wiwa was a fascinating figure, as Kpjayan points out. We don't hang authors in Europe on trumped-up charges, now that the Soviet Empire has crumbled.
But having said that, writing in pidgin or creole to be authentic does have it's drawbacks. It means that to an audience of Europeans of above-average literacy (i.e. people who tend to read novels on commuter trains) this authenticity will, as Waalkwriter suggests, begin to interfere with the core of the story. Because all we see in our mind's eye is an idiot, because of his use of language, however intelligent the charactyer may be.
This is also why literature in dialect has a limited currency; people outside the dialect area do not have any emotional bond with the dialect and just regard it as badly constructed language.
If I may add, isn't it the use of mixed language ( especially from the earlier colonies) in the increase ? While it might be difficult for the 'native speakers' of the language, it might sound bad and difficult to comprehend, it will be truer to the people and subject. The use of English / French in African writing , the Indianised ( abundance of Hindi words) English in most of the Neo-Indian writing, may be the experimentation with Portuguese by Brazilian writers ( May be I am wrong , I am not equipped to comment on this) , going by one of your earlier post the use of different phrases and style by Latin American Writers who write in Spanish.. There could be similar examples in other places as well..
Yes, Kpjayan, the way that the language spoken on several continents ends up as distinct languages in the end is a perfectly natural movement. It happened, on a smaller scale, to Latin when the various dialects became French, Spanish, Portuguese, Catalan, Galician, and all those many versions of Italian.
But if you shoved a French or Portuguese text in front of the nose of Cicero, Caesar, or Catullus in Ancient Rome or Greece, they would no doubt say that these bastard versions of the true Latin were degenerate patois.
So it's a question of time. And as standard English is the lingua franca of the world, Caribbean, Indian, South African and any other versions of English will be looked down upon in their written forms (if they have one), whilst they are at the same time a living language in those countries and regions, and much more living than the Queen's English.
But if you go to a job interview in the UK or USA speaking full-blown Jamaican or Indian - and if you cannot change register to speak middle-class English - you won't get the job if it involves communication, journalism, PR, teaching, politics, or other jobs where you have to be precise and make sure that everyone around you understands.
Even between British and American English there are differences. But they are slight, and in the written version, you can read half a page before you realise whether it's British or American. But if you throw a lot of Hindi words into your speech, or ones from Afrikaans, French, etc., you reduce the general comprehensibility of what you say (or write).
Yes, but we are talking about literature, which should be a reflection of life there. Using Queen's English might make it easier for the wider audience around the world, but will loose the colour of the fiction.
I was at a book launch recently by a writer in Indian Language called Tamil ( recently translated to English called 'Zero Degrees'). He, to a small audience of 20, proclaimed to have used 6 types of Tamil in his book. Knowing that Tamil is spoken in a small Southern State of India, has so much dialectical variations, the degree will be larger across continents.
The point is should this be the way and will we see translations of these books to Queen's English for the readership of the rest of the world ?
In an essay on Martinician writer Patrick Champoiseau ( Encounter : Essays , Page 94), Milan Kundera observes :
He has taken liberties with French that no writer in France could even imagine daring to take. It is like a Brazilian writer's liberty with Portuguese, a Spanish American writer with Spanish. Or, yes, the liberty of a bilingual writer who refuses to grant absolute authority to one or other of his languages, and has the courage to disobey. Chamoiseau did not reach some compromise between French and Creole by mixing them together. His language is French, but French transformed; it is not Creolized, it is Chamioisized; he gives it the delightful insouciance of the spoken language, its cadence, its melody; he brings in many Creole expressions, not for the sake of 'naturalism' ( to introduce bits of local color), but for aesthetic reasons ( for their funniness, their charm, or their semantic irreplaceability). But mainly he has given his French the freedom of neologisms....
The bigger problem for my, Jayan, was that the character of Sozaboy came off as ignorant. This is something from the very first chapter:
So although everyone was happy at first, after some time, everything begin to spoil small by small and they were saying that trouble have started. People were not happy to hear that there is trouble everywhere. Everywhere the people were talking about it. In Pitakwa. In Bori. And in Dukana. Radio begin dey hala as 'e never hala before. Big big grammar. Long long words. Every time.
Before before, the grammar was not plenty and everybody was happy. But now grammar begin to plenty and people were not happy. As grammar plenty, na so trouble plenty. And as trouble plenty, na so plenty people were dying.
It's not the language, it's fundamentally the idiot manchild nature of the character. It's too much for me. He's not a person of natural insight, or cleverness who speaks and thinks in the language of this dialect, he is a fully realized simpleton, someone taken advantage of even by the other ignorant rural simpletons of his village. His goals in life are to get lotta chop, 'is own lorry, and a wife with the J.J.C. tits and have a family wit er. The main character was insufferable for me. John Steinbeck knew better than to narrate Of Mice and Men from Lenny's perspective. Ken Saro Wiwa is a fascinating and erudite man, I would have liked to see more of that, even more fascinating would be to see a man divided between the pastoral, ignorant life of his village and the elite life of an urbanite intellectual; to see someone shifting seemlessly between good english and pidgin.
And Eric, I believe Saro Wiwa is a casualty of capitalism; with oil companies using their cronies in the government to have him taken care of. The crimes they have committed in Nigeria are atrocious, but sense it's an African country the West isn't going to formally call out companies like Shell and ExxonMobil.
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