The Idyll of Childhood: An Adult Perspective in Soyinka's Aké

Erica Dillon '99 (English 27, 1997)

Wole Soyinka's autobiography, Aké, represents a somewhat idyllic childhood despite the attending disappointment and pain. "The honesty often associated with ch[i]ldhood, and the insight that is assumed to come with age, are retained with the use of both Soyinka's child and adult perspectives...By conveying young Wole's ideas without condenscension but rather with a subtle sense of awe, Soyinka affirms his childhood goal[s] and endows his young character with an uncanny maturity which his family may not yet detect" (B. Brown, "Using child and adult perspectives"). Consequently, childhood as represented by Soyinka goes beyond Graham Swift's notion of childhood as the history of the self and describes the adult in a more innocently perceptive state: the adult in Wole is more apparent than the child in Soyinka. Compare the reaction of Tom Crick and the young Wole Soyinka to deaths. First, Tom Crick in Swift's Waterland, upon his mother's death:

And thus little Tom's reaction to his Mother's death, for all its protracted after-effects, was perhaps no different in essence from the crude response of his brother, which had it ever been voiced -- amidst all his blinking bafflement -- might have amounted to: "Well, if she's gone, when is she coming back?" (283)

And Wole, upon his baby sister's death:

Suddenly, it all broke up within me. A force from nowhere pressed me against the bed and I howled. As I was picked up I struggled against my father's soothing voice, tears all over me. I was sucked into a place of loss whose cause or definition remained elusive. I did not comprehend it yet, and even through those tears I saw the astonished face of Wild Christian, and heard her voice saying, "But what does he understand of it? What does he understand?" (Aké , 98)

Wole gets "it" right away, though he can't express it (the adult in Wole). Though Tom does fall "into such a fit of wailing and blubbering" (284) upon later seeing his dead mother, Tom can't initially figure it out; even as he grows, he is baffled in his relations with various people, and retreats to books (the child in Tom Crick). This cleaving to reading affords another interesting look at the young Tom and Wole: Tom at times uses books as an escape (for instance, after the eel-in-Mary's-knickers incident), attending to "research work of a recondite and obsessive kind" (195), while Wole enters the realm of books in an effort to be like his older sister (a student at the time), then as a way of becoming closer to his father, and as a calculated escaping from chores that Wild Christian requires of the rest of the household. (Aké, 81)

As in Emecheta's The Slave Girl, growing older is marked by change, often inexplicable ("I began to wonder if I also changed, without knowing it, the same as everybody else" ]Aké, 93] and abrupt occurrences that slowly strip away the benefits of childhood, such as Wole's being able to sleep with his father, away from the horde of adopted children. But change in Soyinka's tale takes the form of contrasting his adult view of the environment of his privileged youth, decrying those things that are now gone, or have changed irredeemably: the moods of the town, the smells, the size and natural importance of various landmarks ("Baobab, bell-houses, playing-fields and paths" [63]). "These landmarks act as referents in his autobiography, they situate Wole's perspective in time. They embody contradictions between Soyinka's past and present view of his life, but also manifest a certain power of physicality, of reality, stranded within the ambiguity between "growing perspectives" and a "vanished childhood" (E. Dillon, "The Authority of Landmarks"). Soyinka takes a discriminating stance, a position that Emecheta endorses and Tom Crick clearly displays in his story, yet his criticism is directed towards the now-changed environment of his childhood, rather than at himself as a naive child. The contexts in Aké of criticism and praise for Wole make it clear which he accepts as truth ("I was overwhelmed by only one fact - there was neither justice nor logic in the world of grown-ups" [104]). Wild Christian (often Wole's nemesis) complains, "he has always tended to is not healthy. It is not natural in a child...We must take him out of himself" (Aké, 101), while the much-respected Ransome-Kuti admires: "Amazing, amazing, I have always found children's powers of observation remarkable" (228).

In the opening pages of Aké;, Soyinka introduces Aké as an Eden in his youth, then goes on to present the underlying argument of his story:

An evil thing has happened to Aké parsonage. The land is eroded, the lawns are bared and mystery driven from its once secretive combs. Once, each new day opened up an unseen closure... (3)

Yet Soyinka's rendering borders on the ideal; as childhood is the time of discovery, naturally every day would appear as a "new day". Does the adult recast the environment of childhood in order to provide a flashing beacon of protest to the "sea-green neon lamps" (156) of modern Aké? Compared to Tom Crick's portrayal of the Fens, Aké resembles Camelot.