The Interpreters' Cultural Politics, Or Soyinka's Postcolonial Otherness

Mohamed Dellal, Mohamed I University, Oujda, Morocco

The Interpreters demonstrates Aijaz Mohammed's point that the postcolonial realities of Africa cannot be put into one single narrative or framed in one simple format. Soyinka is one of those African writers who reject stereotypical representation, are aware of the diversity of post-colonialisms inherent in their own countries, and commit boldly transgressive acts against pre-established dogmas. Indeed, The Interpreters was published in 1965, five years after Nigeria got its political independence. In other words, the context was one riddled with "grand-narratives" tinged with nationalistic fervour. It was profane, therefore, for any type of narrative to side-step the boundaries laid by these political and social realities. But The Interpreters committed, to use Foucault's words, an "epistemic violence" of a greater magnitude by baffling some the elementary pedagogical rules set up by a carefully built Nationalist tradition. The narrative, in this sense, can be seen as a profane challenge in that it violates the norms of an established canon. The method used in this violation is what I have ventured to call The Interpreters' Cultural Politics. Consequently, this paper will try to bring to light a somewhat bold and novel "economy of meaning" articulated through a diversity of signs -- structural and others -- that the narrative thrives on, in its attempt to cross the said established borders. It will also try to show that while the narrative reconsiders the sub-Saharan tradition, it also enacts another violence on its own boundaries and ironically invites the reader to do so.

As has been suggested above, the most significant "epistemic violences" that the narrative enacts on the tradition, are located at the level of its structure as well as that of the language. In fact, contrary to what is common within the African narrative tradition, the entropic structure of The Interpreters is shaped in such a way as to tell two stories at least: (a) the story of the characters that evolve in it; (b) and its own story in its fight for recognition amidst a predominance of certain dogma. The story of the characters, one has to admit, can be tracked down only with painstaking efforts. It is true one has to play some gymnastics with the text to be able to trace up the story of an Egbo, for instance; or a Sekoni; or a Sagoe. Once the stories of these protagonists have been recovered from within the labyrinthine structure, the main temporal frame can be set, and the line of thought of the First Narrative can be disclosed. (See Genette [1980 and 1983] for further distinction between First and Second narrative levels.)

With such a distortion of the chronological order of events of the lives of the characters, the reader is interpelated to search for the narrative grammar of the text in order to determine the type of deviancies that the narrative indulges in to subvert and assert itself in the face of adversity (see Leech [1983] for a thorough definition of "deviancy"). Yet, short of space, I will content myself with sketching examples of deviant structures. These deviancies will be described as anachronies; that is, as retrospective attempts (analepses) to capture the story; or anticipations (prolepses) to propel the story into the future. The following example, will give us an insight into how these discordances of the temporal frame of the narrative have been enacted.


"Metal on concrete jars my drink Lobes". This was Sagoe, grumbling as he stuck fingers in his ears against the mad screech of iron tables. Then his neck was nearly snapped as Dehinwa leapt up and Sagoe's head dangled in the void where her lap had been. Bandele's arms never ceased to surprise. At half-span they embraced table and chairs, pushed them deep into the main wall as dancers dodged long chameleon tongues of the cloudburst and the wind leapt at them, visibly malevolent. In a moment only the band was left.

The "plop" continued some time before its meaning came clear to Egbo and he looked up at the leaking roof in disgust, then threw his beer into the rain muttering.

"I don't need his pity. Someone tell God not to weep in my beer."

Sagoe continued to rub his neck. "You are a born hangwoman, leaping up like that. It could snap a gorilla's neck."

"I had to think of my hair."

"Her hair! My neck to her hair. Why don't you use wigs like all fashionable women?"

"I don't like wigs."

"If you go round wearing your own hair people will think you are bald."

Separate only by the thigh-high bamboo wall giving the so-called "party privacy" -- try our Club Cambana Cubicles etc.etc. -- Egbo watched the rising pool in which his polluted beer disolved in froth. A last straggle of white clung stubbornly to the bamboo, rising with the water; the rest thinned fast under direct whipping off the roof.

"Well, I made a choice. I can't complain."

Bandele looked up at him.

"Oh I was only having a chat with me and this talkative puddle."

Two paddles clove the still water on the creek, and the canoe trailed behind it a silent groove, between gnarled tears of mangrove; it was dead air, and they came to a spot where an old rusted cannon showed above the water. It built a faded photo of the past with rotting canoe hulks along the bank, but the link was spurious. The paddlers slowed down and held the boat against the cannon. Egbo put his hand in the water and dropped his eyes down the brackish stillness, down the dark depths to its bed of mud. He looked reposed, wholly withdrawn. [pp: 5-7]

Seen from the point of narration, the text can be split up into two big blocks. The first block sets the temporal frame of the First narrative, that is a time after the protagonists have all returned from "exile", where they have each completed a degree of some sort. The location is a club called Cambana where they are partying. At this stage it is not known that they would do this every other week. The following week they would go to another Club in Ibadan. That day it is raining heavily and each of the protagonist's whimsicality is being disclosed in small bits. Sagoe cannot stand the sound of the tables and metals being screeched; Dehinwa has offered her lap to rest Sagoe's head, who suddenly has to leap because of the leaks in the roof; Bandele is moving chairs and tables of the way; and Egbo's beer is being spoilt by the leaks from the roof.

The second part of the text, which starts from the description of the paddles and the canoe in a lake (Oshun), breaks with the Present and moves away into somewhat remote Past where the characters have been crossing the lake for some destination; or perhaps only "voidating" -- Sagoe developes this concept into a philosophy -- or maybe looking for inspiration, as can be deduced from the following statement where "Kola drew out the crayons and placed a hand on the nearer paddler. The canoe slowed and paused." (this statement comes up a little later on p.8)

Of interest to us in this text are:

As a matter of fact, the text would appear, for the "lay reader," to be severed from its second part quite randomly. But upon scrutiny one does not fail to see that there are several bridges laid between the first part and the second; these vary from linguistic to pure psychological associations. As for the linguistic items used for linkage, it can be said that they constitute a "phonetic phenomenon". For example in the words "puddle" and "paddle" , the only association to be made is that of approximate phonetic pronunciation. Indeed, the use of the term 'puddle' has triggered he use of its minimal pair (puddle), and the association with the next part of the text.

Other forms of linguistic phenomena studding the tissue of the narrative are found in the semantic associations, or rather the semiotic associations made by the protagonists as the case may be with the following words in part 1: "rain, plop, pool/puddle"; corresponding respectively to the following words in part two: "water (used twice), clove, mud". The list of words supplied above, shows the linguistic bridges laid between part one of the text the second part of it. The association, we have to bear in mind is situated on the "semes" that each of these bridges shares with its other counterpart. For example the word "rain" and water do refer to the same semiosis. Similarly, the word "plop" and "clove" are associated with water; the same also applies to the last words collected.

These two phenomena, Over and above, translate a state of mind that Egbo, is experiencing, drowsy as he is with alcohol, music and mostly the rain. These associations are a privacy that only the reader and the character (Egbo) are sharing. The other characters are not privy to them. In themselves, these assumptions suggest a "mobile consciousness" (see McHale); which is a pregnant congruence between the inwardness and outwardness of the worlds of the text. In other words, this is an encounter between the inward consciousness of the protagonist(s) clashing with the outer world of the text.

With these forms of chaotic structuring, Soyinka's narrative is much in line with a poetics that initiates a "narrative culture" incongruent with the tradition set up by the African nationalist narrative tradition (see Boehmer). One could easily say that Soyinka's The Interpreters is trying to grapple with various forms of consciousness. Like other avant-garde narratives of its time, it writes down an history never written before in the literary circles of sub-Saharan Africa. It is transgressive and self-asserting in the Artaudian manner of Artaud, who in his The Theatre and Its Double, speaks of a violent poetics likely to shake the audience from its lethargic state.

As has been advanced above, the structural frame is only one node in the cultural politics initiated by The Interpreters. Its attempt to decolonize the language or hybridise it -- is yet another gauntlet it boldly throws at other contemporary narratives and nationalistic discourses . This is done through the character of Mathias who speaks a hybrid language closer to the Creole stage, enacting thus another violence on the colonial language; and more particularly by breaking down the language structure. Mathias' language, therefore, is deliberately made challenging for the ex-coloniser, for the eélite and similarly so for the natives. It is a linguistic space negotiated between two or more hegemonising cultures: the colonial one, on the one hand; or that of the eélite (now ruling instead); and that of the lay populations who may have stayed at the "jargon stage". This 'brisure' brought upon the linguistic structure of the colonial language operates as what Said terms a "third space" for Mathias; on this idea see also Hall (1990) and Bhabha (1994). He is indeed, forced to do the crossing of the spaces between Sagoe (the eélite) and that of the lower classes he belongs to on a daily basis. In so doing, he is the typical border-crosser mothered by the colonial and postcolonial realities. He therefore, carries the stigmata of the colonial and the postcolonial periods. He is the mimic man.

Another dimension brought by this language transgression is that of an inwardness expressing a centrifugal space of the colonized subjects. By juxtaposing both Sagoe's formal English (and the others as well) , and Mathias' hybridised English, one would assume that The Interpreters is struggling to maintain a delicate balance between particular visions of each of the protagonists and "of contributing reality and entertaining a plurality of versions" (McHale, 1992: 2). Formal English is the most dominant discursive structure in the narrative. Because it is seen in this perspective, one would think that it is the centroperal space -- that is open space -- that threatens Mathias. In fact, this "modernists's centripetal strategies of inwardness simultaneously function as centrofugal strategies of "openness" to the world outside and beyond consciouness" (1992: 44). It is in this respect that Soyinka's narrative, inaugurates a cultural attitude likely to facilitate a new way for negotiation meaning on the part of the African readership. Indeed, and as explained above by McHale (1992: 45; see also Cohn 1978; Basic 1986-7: 34-5) it is by calling on the "varieties of interior discourse perfected -- direct interior monologue (both integrated in the third person matrix and 'autonomous'), free indirect discourse" that the Narrative both enhances the realism of the protagonists' consciousness that it resents, as well as

secure a finer-grained interaction between consciousness and the world outside consciousness. Mind is rendered more mobile by these strategies, quick to seize on objects of external reality and then to abandon them for others, freer to digress along associative pathways and to project 'sub-worlds' of its own making. [see Eco 1979]

The cultural politics of The Interpreters offers yet more alternatives such as its crossing generic borders; or its transgressing its own boundaries. As for the generic question, it appears that after scrutiny, the narrative uses poetic style very heavily, mostly in the second part; and more particularly in the passage describing the chase of the young delinquent in the market place. The discursive structure involved

proves, on closer examination, to be more like a mosaic of heterogeneous discourse fragments ... -- quotations, allusions, echoes of other characters, bits of anonymous social wisdom or prejudice, words from specialised registers... In reading, of course, we readily naturalise this verbal heterogeneity by constructing an image of each character which will accommodate his or her particular linguistic resource. (McHale 1992: 51).

Another form of generic border-crossing could easily be found in the form of mixing narrative style with theatrical and dramatic one. This is easily found in the passage . The text describes the procession and the Ritual of the Baptism of Noah; that is his conversion into an Apostle in replacement of Brother Ezra who died sometime ago. While the singing of the verses may not be that strange for Christian Nigerians, it is, however, reminiscent of the black-churches and congregations in African American churches most important is the dramatic dimension the first part of the text including the dialogue between the Verse Feeder and the singing women. The lines read by the women and the verse feeder overlap with the very famous Biblical lines Quem Quaeritis, commemorating the crucifixion of Christ. One would have thought that this type of merger between two generic forms is made possible by the situation it is trying to imitate; but mostly by the legacy of Soyinka's long experience as a dramatist. The situation it is true, permits a transgression so flagrant as this one, and by so doing, it gives the narrative a pastiche form where imitation is done with a tongue in cheek. By transgressing all these norms, the narrative does no more nor less that deconstruct the totalising fixity of the dogma and orthodoxy at the heart of certain ideologies, namely that at the heart of the above mentioned nationalist tradition. Basic to such an endeavour on the part of the narrative, therefore, is an act of dislocating, dismembering, disseminating the fixed economies of meanings attached to certain paradoxically stereotypical conceptions inherent in to the Nationalist tradition -- paradoxical because, initially, Postcolonial writers strove to show the wrong caused by the colonialist stereotypical descriptions of native populations and cultures. But the nationalist tradition, I believe falls into the same trap.

Streotyping as Bhabha defines it, is a means of construing knowledge about a people likely to help categorise them and, therefore, exert power over them (1994: 66-71). In this sense, it is a discursive strategy much in use in totalising ideologies whose function is to hegemonise. This has been used heavily by the travel literature and other colonial based writings. So that people were given a certain construed picture about the savages they have to colonise "legitimately"; or to catalogue and shelve them for better control (Bhabha, 1995). By virtue of this, the stereotype is a key discursive strategy in all the colonial writing be they fictional or other. But, it has to be admitted that stereotypes are not a recipe exclusive to colonial literatures; Post-colonial writings in their retaliatory efforts have also fallen into the same pitfall in their stereotyping the West (their Other). This is due to the fact that each of the protagonists in this exchange is deeply entrenched in a particular ideology antithetical to the other and convinced that epistemological truth is on their side; David Richards accurately speaks of manichean attitudes as mind states describing oppositional views each entrenched in a particular ideology (Richards 1994). For the coloniser, the Others (the natives) are savages, cannibals; in other wods, a threat to the progress of western civilisation and, therefore, needing to be tamed. For the colonised, the West could offer no more than the violence it has offered over the years; they are, then, the villains; and all means to combat villainy are allowed. This polarisation of the clash of cultures and ethnicities resulting in the encounter has had the incommensurable effect of creating antithetical discursive strategies which each of the interactants felt the need to entrench themselves in.

Yet, to reduce the discursive strategy of stereotyping to colonial and Post-colonial literatures would still be sanctionable of blindness (De Man 1992), for, indeed, stereotyping is a strategy used by all discourses that claim to give and tell the truth about a culture and a people. The Aryan ideology and, in present time, the Zionist one, or for that matter any hegemonic discourse that over-generalises and relates religious fanaticism to a particular denomination (Islam in 1980s and 90s), are, in my view, very clear examples of how stereotyping is created. In sum, one would safely say that stereotyping is the predominant discursive strategy at play in any struggle for recognition and/or hegemony between the Self and the Other (Bhabha 1994).

Similarly, the present narrative attempts a drive aimed at, first, locating a set of stereotypes, and second dislocating them by bringing them against their own antipodes. The characters, as has been demonstrated above, lack any "depth" despite the fact of juxtaposing the inwardness of some of them with their outwardness. Their cultural identification is very hazy and, at times, even unstable. Their cultural stigmata are always weighted against other cultural loads that keep them constantly under check so that one finds it difficult to pinpoint any of the characters as entirely this or that. One would even go further as to say that each of the characters is in a constant struggle with the Self, unable as they are, to really draw the line between where one stands and where one should be. The boundaries are confused for them; a reason why their inwardness is held under check constantly as it clashes with the outside world. As a result of all this, comes the dislocation of the cultural identity that the characters may have identified with; or wanted to identify with.

But if we look at the evolution of each of these characters, we would certainly agree that at a certain stage in each character's life there has been a fixed cultural location (though provisional) which he/ she could have identified with this or that school of thought, with this or that ethnicity. In other words, this phased evolution of each character, represents a moment of "stereotyping." As a matter of fact, Egbo can be representative of a certain class of intellectuals, at least at certain moments in his life. He is the hard-liner, the hard-headed, almost a representative of a class of educated people many of whom have brandished the banner of reform and social equity in post-colonial Africa; and so would Sagoe, at least in the view of the Foreign Office who had filed a dossier on him before his arrival back from "exile". Kola and Bandele do not have any depth at all, though Bandele, one would venture to say is the one representing a class of moderate intellectuals who could, perhaps, bridge the gaps between the antithetical and oppositional attitudes that threaten to throw the country into the pangs of Civil War once more. But apart from a few outbursts of "wisdom" that he would give from time to time, it is still difficult to identify him with this or that school of thought. Neither could one do for Dehinwa, the only ever present female with the group; but whom one could venture, with lots of reservation, to qualify as the representative of a class of educated women who could violate the very basic tenets of family life, namely that of living with males under very "suspicious" conditions. On the other hand, and despite his romanticism, one would find it very difficult to identify the type of character that Sekoni is. But over and above, the one prevailing characteristic with regards to the thought-identification of these characters, is that of instability, constant movability and impossibility to categorise. This is part and parcel of the drive to decentralise, deconstruct hermetically closed thought-patterns set up by the traditional narrative frames. By doing so, the present narrative also deconstructs the norms and creed sanctified by certain post-colonial writers, critics and readers alike.

It is imperative to mention the fact that despite the attempt of the narrative to blur the boundaries of these "border-crossers," other sets of characters are given definite statuses as well as definite thought-patterns. Reference is made here to characters like Mr Faseyi, the Oguazors, the German journalist, Joe Golder, Dehinwa's Aunts and El Hajji Sekoni senior. These have had sketchy but fixed identities.

Put differently, one could say that the narrative does not fail to subvert its own norms and borders; in other words, the potential fixity that any reading of it could entail. Indeed, while the characters showed, in the first part, at least, a readiness to indulge in a culture of silence, hiding one other's mistakes and misdemeanours. Bandele's assault on their covetousness during the Lazarus episode is meant to put them and their fixities under scrutiny. Each of them seemed to see in the Lazarus episode material to exploit in their respective professional occupations. Bandele's calling them into order, by reminding them that they have to shelve the education they received in their respective "exiles" because it blinds them to the new realities which require new attitudes, and therefore, new "interpreters". By shaking the fixity it has dwelt upon, in its largest part, the narrative deconstructs and dismantles its own certainties leaving the reader with more questions than answers.

In conclusion, one could easily agree that there is in the cultural space of The Interpreters, felt indirectly one has to admit, "brisures" and sutures caused by the passage of time and colonialism. This is reflected in the narrative structure, its linguistics frame and also in the attitudes certain characters have toward the political Other with the Self. The passage of coloniality is, perhaps, overridden by a passage of Westernisation that almost all characters have undergone one way or another. Tracking down an authentic Self, as opposed to a presupposed Other is a challenging task one would have thought the narrative is trying to deconstruct. By and large, one can say that the line crossing the narrative through and through, is that of third space, or the museum stairway for cultural merger that Bhabha describes in The Location of Culture as of a space where neutrality is becomes effective because is not in any particular part of the museum where nations are represented. This third space is the threshold of cultural and ethnic otherness to grow and prosper. It is a space where cultural difference is not only tolerated and appreciated as a viable space for togetherness, but is deferred continually; and its borders pushed backwards to offer a margin for survival.


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