The seed of Sozaboy appears to have been sown as far back as 1969 in an anthologised story called High Life with a very telling title “Africa in Prose”. The editor was a professor of Saro Wiwa’s called Darthone who doubted the language used could be sustained in novel length but described it as “an uninhibited gamble with language” and “an exercise in an odd style” which Saro Wiwa’s declutters to mean “rotten English”. The author takes Darthone’s doubts as a challenge proving the unbroached proposition that a pricked ego could be just as much a creative spark as can, say, a magazine cut out or an throwaway anecdote.
Sozaboy is the story of young man of unspecified age living in Dukana, a town in the Niger Delta region of Nigeria. Nigeria is not mentioned neither is Biafra or any other physical locations that were in existence before the Nigeria/Biafra civil war. This blanching of geographical detail, at first unhelpful to readers used to been spoon-fed, pays some good dividends by keeping the focus on Dukana and emphasising just how close-knit the town is and its stronghold on Sozaboy
No causes for the war which disrupts small town life in Dukana are given. But we see its manifestations in the scarcity and price hike of salt, along with rumours of fighting in other towns. Biafra was comprised of the dominant Igbos and a host of other ethnic groups who did not have the grievances the Igbos had with the Nigerian state but were co-opted into the war for being in the catchment area when those arbitrary boundaries were drawn.
Saro Wiwa spends at least the first third of the book setting up the narrative and normality that is to be disrupted by war. Among the memorable characters we meet is Zaza, the town’s layaout whose lavish tales of his time as a soldier in Burma was to “return to Dukana with the head of that Hitla”. Zaza’s excessive bragging, which briefly casts a large shadow over the book, is a source of irritation and humiliation for Sozaboy to whom joining the army will go a long way in addressing this imbalance. So strong is this pull that he is willing to defy his mother who would rather he continues his apprenticeship as a lorry driver.
So any conclusions on the language will have to be very subjective. What might come across as improper syntax to a speaker of Nigerian pidgin English is likely to be no more than an oddity to a non-speaker. There were times when the buds Saro Wiwa’s language bloomed,
“So immediately everybody was looking at the place where Manmuswak will come. The white handkerchief begin move small small, small small until ‘e near us. Then ‘e stop. Then Bullet bring out his own handkerchief. Then the man bring down white hankerchief, stand up then begin to walk to where we were inside the pit. Bullet jump commot go meet am. This time him no tell me anything about cock rifle or no cock rifle”
This has all the hallmarks of what I call prose de peristalsis – localised constrictions and expansions that play out like miniature battles to impose colonies. In another instant, the standard usage of “horse whip” is given along with the pidgin variant of “koboko”. But on the next page “worwor” (meaning ugly or unpleasant) is left untranslated but an unfazed reader will be able to tease out the meaning. Even more problematic is a word like “borku” which, in this instant, is subsumed into English from the French and not a direct import from French itself. Why has Saro Wiwa chosen to use a spelling derived from the pidgin pronunciation of an English appropriation with origins in the French? Why not use the French spelling?
No reason for this is given and one need not be. But what it does is highlight a problem that Saro Wiwa is not even reluctant to address because he didn’t identify it as a problem in the first place. And that problem is a lack of continuity in the language. He hasn’t necessarily improved on the conventions of the English language by setting new SI Units. He has necessarily improved on the conventions of the English language by admirably dispensing of any regiments in favour of ways to make it all malleable for the purpose of the story. His fidelity is to the story first and Sozaboy’s articulation of the world around him and not to the web of words in which it is cloaked – even when the chosen web of words is crucial in articulating Sozaboy’s perception of the world around him. This snake might not have bitten its tail but it sure has nosed around and made incision marks with one thought in mind.
The other challenge for Saro Wiwa is how to portray Sozaboy’s intellectual constitution. At first he is shown in full wattage and self-assurance. He is in fact described as a good student which could refer to punctuality as well as to academic distinction. It is very odd to hear him say this when speaking in the so called “rotten English” of his creator. Now this is not to dredge up the old equation of speaking “correct” English with possessing a higher intelligence. The Nigerian formal education curriculum was inherited from the British whose dominant language is English. To be considered a “good student” within this system is to be knowledgeable in its usage.
According to this narrow and false remit, it beggars belief that Sozaboy is a good student. This is given further credence when Sozaboy meets another young man called Bullet in his battalion who happens to be a reader. The arrival of a bookish character frees Saro Wiwa of any burden of responsibility in portraying an African character that is uneducated. Unshackled by any external gaze into this story, may not have created a new language for the faithful adhere to, but he had repurposed a decaying cathedral into a megachurch to show the kind of miracles they could perform if they allow their ego to be suitably stroked.