The collective past. . . . is public property, but it is also deeply private. We all look differently at it. (Lively, Moon Tiger, 2)
Soyinka's childhood memoirs theorize about the nature of history just as powerfully but much less directly than does Lively's novel. Told in the author's adult voice while (supposedly) maintaining the consistent comprehension level he had as he interpreted events that took place between the ages of four and eleven, Ake studies the nature of memory and its tendency to influence the presentation of history. Wole is a bright child in a well-educated and politically involved family, within a village whose customs involve mysticism and superstition. Hindsight and the adult voice of the narrator make it relatively easy to detect the origins of and the real story behind each of Wole's youthful misunderstandings; but it is not always a simple task to differentiate between an actual misunderstanding on the child's part and a widespread cultural belief. In addition, observations that are responded to as faulty or silly by those who surround the young Wole may strike contemporary readers of the adult Soyinka as quite insightful. Although WWII does not dominate Soyinka's story as it does Lively's, its presence is felt in subtle ways throughout the narrative, and the reactions it yields from Wole, his family, and other people of the village illustrate the variety of ways in which a culture may understand and interpret an indirectly significant event -- that is, significant through a colonial relationship.
Wole is five years old in 1939; by coincidence or not, Soyinka's narrative falls almost exactly within the span of the war. Yet landmark dates of significant battles, particular countries' involvement in the fighting, and even the start of the war do not enter into the story. To Wole, WWII threatens danger, and also perhaps excitement, but abstractly and from a great distance. Hitler becomes a symbol in Wole's mind of anything evil. After overhearing an adult friend of his arguing with and then being threatened good-naturedly by a group of other men, Wole worries. "I felt it was my duty to run and warn [his wife] that her husband was about to be sent on an investigatory mission to hell or on a peace mission to Hitler" (Soyinka, Ake, 19). When Wole's Uncle Dipo, Wild Christian's drunken brother, visits one day unexpectedly, Wole and his siblings are certain "that Hitler ha[s] indeed arrived and [i]s about to ship us off into slavery." "Hitler, ghost or the devil himself" (122), he is attacked without mercy by the children until Wild Christian appears and rectifies the situation. In the same way that Wole convinces himself that women at the market selling animals' skulls are really witches who have cut off the heads of children (43) and just as he interprets the death of his baby sister as an omen for "a cataclysm of unthinkable proportions" (98), he recognizes the fuzzy threat of Hitler and of the war itself. Wole makes preparations "to obtain an early warning when Hitler c[omes] marching up the path" (109), with the same childhood level of understanding that he uses to maintain in himself a mental state whereby "I would have shown no surprise" "[i]f the house had picked itself up by the roots and floated skyward" (98).
Wole's inability to distinguish between real and imaginary threats, which typifies a child's comprehension, makes viewing the war through his eyes fascinating. But at times Wole's misconceptions clearly are due not to his youth, but to his accurate understanding of attitudes and beliefs widely shared by Ake's adults, as well. Wole may misunderstand the bantering nature of the threat against his adult friend, but obviously at least one of the other adults has used Hitler's name to represent the vague, evil entity that Wole understands him to be. When the children decide that Uncle Dipo is Hitler, the adult neighbors do not straighten out the situation, but "[keep] him there and [stand] guard" (123). And the violent attempts of the children to capture Uncle Dipo diminish in comparison to the outbursts of Paa Adatan when he thinks he has found some Nazi soldiers.
Paa Adatan is an adult who spends his days patrolling the village in case of enemy attack, prepared with several forms of deadly and supernatural weaponry. When a convoy of army trucks does enter the town, Paa blindly lashes out and makes a spectacle much greater than the children do with Uncle Dipo. He looks quite foolish when Wild Christian explains that "[t]hey are our friends. You are stopping them from going to fight Hitler" (113). Paa misunderstands on a grand scale, and yet he is not a child like Wole. His behavior makes Wole's misconceptions and oversimplifications explainable not only as young ideas but also as cultural concepts learned from watching and listening to adults. And perhaps neither Wole's nor Paa's beliefs about Hitler and the war are so outlandish; although Paa's actions are rash, his thoughts on being part of a powerless English colony during the war are astute. He fears the fighting but resents that he is not asked to fight, and he wants it to be over before it reaches his home. As he explains his frustrations to Wild Christian,
"Ah, Mama Wole, this English people just wan' the glory for den self. Den no wan' blackman to win die war and finish off dat nonsense-yeye Hitler one time! Now look them. Hitler dey bombing us for Lagos already and they no fit defend we." (110)
Although Paa's actions are foolish, they are based on ideas very similar to those of the educated adults who closely surround Wole. Nigerians have a strange sense of outsiderhood in this war. They side with the Allies and view Hitler as a grave danger, but they find great fault in England as well, and even make comparisons between the evil German leader and the English. Contemporary with the World War is the Women's War in Nigeria against England and the English-protected Nigerian government and king, who is told by activist Mrs. Kuti that "'he should take his lesson from Hitler'" (224). Nigerians consider themselves separate enough from their colonizer to be personally offended and to identify with the Japanese when they hear about "'dropping the atom bomb over Hiroshima but not over White Germany'" (229), interpreting the act as a display of "'the white mentality: Japanese, Chinese, Africans, we are all subhuman'" (224).
I asked [Mrs. Kuti] why she had been angry about the bombing of the Japanese. Were they not Hitler's friends?
"The white man is a racist. . . . You know your history of the slave trade, well, to him the black man is only a beast of burden, a work-donkey. As for Asians . . . they are only a small grade above us. So, dropping that terrible weapon, experimenting with such a horrifying thing on human beings -- as long as they are not white -- is for them the same as experimenting on cattle." (227)
Mrs. Kuti's assessment of the situation shows the frustration shared by many Nigerians that while Hitler may be an enemy, so definitely is England, in an only slightly different and perhaps more powerful and direct way. In the Nigeria seen through Wole's very perceptive eyes, there is great interest, of varying degrees, in England's war, but the truth of the matter is that Nigeria plays no part and is powerless in its involvement. On numerous occasions throughout the story Wole concludes that "there [is] neither justice nor logic in the world of grown-ups" (104); it is the same way, according to many Nigerians, in the imperial world.