- Title: Sozaboy
- Author: Ken Saro-Wiwa
- Publisher: Saros International Publishers
- Number of pages: 186
- Year of publication: 1985
- Category: Fiction
At the end of the novel Sozaboy, the protagonist, the man-child named Mene, has become a ghost. He has become not a ghost of himself but a proper ghost, a proper wraith, an evil spirit. That is what the people of Dukana, his hometown, believe.
It is true that Mene has become a wraith-like figure but that is only because he is sick and sad and starving. A ghastly war has just ended, and Mene is looking for his mother and his wife. He has not heard from them since he left Dukana many, many months ago, and he has not heard of them since his return. The family house he left behind has disappeared from where it used to stand.
However, no one will tell him of his mother’s or wife’s whereabouts because everyone is scared to talk to a ghost. The news, many, many months ago, was that Mene died at the war front, at the beginning of the war. Now, those he runs into, or almost, run away from him once they recognise what it is that they think is coming down the path towards them. No one opens their door to him when he knocks. The more desperate he becomes to talk to someone, knocking insistently on closed doors, calling out to people by name, reintroducing himself by his nickname, ‘Sozaboy’, the more like a tormented spirit he seems to the people.
They say that after he died, Sozaboy was not buried properly, condemning him to forever wander the face of the earth. They think he has returned to Dukana because of his love for his wife and mother, both of whom were killed by the same bomb after the war began.
When we first meet Mene, at the beginning of Sozaboy, he is a driver’s apprentice, not because he did not want to continue to a secondary school after graduating from elementary school with distinction, but because the apprenticeship is all his mother can afford. He is his mother’s only child. His father is dead, and the poor woman could barely afford to put the boy through elementary school.
Mene himself takes his circumstances with equanimity, and he has decided he wants to be the best driver there is, who by hard work and thrift is the equal of ‘any lawyer or doctor’. But all that is before the talk of war hits the airwaves, before rumours of war begin to make the rounds in Dukana. It is around this time that a World War II veteran fires up Mene’s imagination with a romanticised account of active service in the Burma campaign. Zaza, the old ‘soza’, affronts Mene’s pride and the boy begins to think he has to become a soldier to prove himself.
Mene is egged on in this way of thinking by a girl he has just met and with whom he is quite infatuated. She says to him at their first meeting, ‘When trouble come, I like strong, brave man who can fight and defend me’. On top of all that, soldiers begin to harass the people of Dukana, and the popular opinion is that if the sons of Dukana join up, the situation would be different.
All these stir up the hero in Mene, who is now set on becoming a soldier. The only person opposed to the idea is his mother. In desperation, she suggests that he start a family instead of enlisting. Mene goes along with the plan only because it wins him an ally in his campaign to marry the girl of his dreams, Agnes, the same one who said, ‘When trouble come, I like strong, brave man who can fight and defend me’.
The newlyweds prevail on Mene’s mother to support her son’s enlistment. These events play out in a wider society that is sinking deeper in the mass hysteria of warmongering, similar to the real society described in Elechi Amadi’s Sunset in Biafra. However, the reader is not offered a panoramic perspective on what is happening in the wider society of Sozaboy. The novel is a first-person narrative given to the reader through the eyes of Mene, and even for a reader with no more than a passing familiarity with the many tellings, oral and literary, of the grievous events that led up to the Nigerian Civil War, Mene’s point of view can be excruciatingly limited. However, that is what it means to live through historic events. It is what it means to see the rays of history before they are refracted through the prism of hindsight.
Nevertheless, this much is clear to Mene and therefore to the reader: young men are joining up, left, right and centre, and our hero wants so badly to be a part of it, but first he has to pay a bribe. In Sozaboy, Ken Saro-Wiwa offers a mirror to a society riven by corruption. Many of the perennial challenges of Nigeria, mediated by the novelistic imaginary, are described in Sozaboy.
Indeed, the very language of the novel is an artifice meant to portray a ‘dislocated and discordant society’. It is no matter that many critics of the novel, who have been moved to comment on its language, including Adewale Maja-Pearce, miss the point of this design, which is spelt out in the author’s note prefaced to the novel and which, more importantly, is used to great effect in the novel itself. Sozaboy’s language is not any variant of English spoken every day by Nigerians. The language of the novel is not English as deployed in the title and body of this review. Sozaboy’s is ‘rotten English’, invented by its author to depict the infelicities of the Nigerian state and polity.
Sozaboy is the great anti-war novel. The fictive society it critiques is clearly the same one to which Saro-Wiwa addressed his On a Darkling Plain: An Account of the Nigerian Civil War, the same one he indicts in Genocide in Nigeria: The Ogoni Tragedy. The singular lesson of history then seems to be that we are incapable of learning from history: tori don worhwor, teytey, no bi today.
A version of this review was selected as first runner-up in the inaugural Ken Saro-Wiwa Critical Review Competition, organised by the Committee for Relevant Art (CORA) / Lagos Book and Art Festival (LABAF).
Photograph: ‘Soldier Pose’ by Joseph King
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