Soyinka's "Apres La Guerre": After the War and The War After

Anujeet S. Sareen '93 (English 32, 1990)

During his twenty-two months of solitary confinement in a Nigerian prison, Wole Soyinka had so much time for introspection and meditation that insanity hung but a "cobweb" away. A Shuttle in the Crypt, the collection of poems that he wrote during his imprisonment, reverberates with intense despair and fear, the only salvation appears to have been through his poetic genius, which created life and sanity in art to counter his own slow loss of them. One of the last poems in the collection, "Apres La Guerre", not only carries the scars that the imprisonment left on Soyinka but also political convictions of the old Soyinka seasoned with Wordsworth's "still sad music of humanity."

The poem initially exudes a sense of weariness and calm, much like the aftermath of war where a resignation to the destruction gives birth to the desire to reconstruct, to rebuild and forget the past nightmare. The French title perhaps refers to the devastation of France after World War II. In the first two stanzas, Soyinka speaks of the smell of "Seepage from familiar opiates" (the smoke left in the wake of war, of flesh), "Trampled deep in earth" (the death of war), and of "earth's broken skin" (the destruction of war). Soyinka's urges us: "Do not cover up the scars" because he wants to prevent the resignation that follows wars, a resignation that would rather forget and move on with life. Soyinka feels that this "reconstructive" attitude leads people to "forgetting" and to "repression" of the past, Indeed, it provides one reason that man time and time again falls into the chaos of war. Thus, the third stanza Soyinka employs to wrench the reader from the passive calm, and place him or her through a concentrated moment of Soyinka's own confinement where one hears a "a masquerader's / Broken-tongued lament," sees "Its face a painted mask of veils," feels "Its breath unmoistened by the run of bile," and knows "A patchwork heart and death-head grin."

This transition between the second and third stanza also utilizes a "zooming" effect. Initially, Soyinka speaks of the "tuber of our common flesh" and "new-born lives" include an entire race. Here, Soyinka brings to bear his third weapon against the reader by alluding to the Holocaust, a horror that society even today --let alone twenty years ago -- constantly seeks to remind the "new-born" that genocide must never reoccur. The "feet of new-born lives/ Sink[ing] in voids of counterfeiting" alludes metaphorically to the mass genocide of children in the Holocaust. The death that is "new-girthed" was once the death haunting Jews during World War II and is now the death haunting Nigerians during the Biafran War. The "common flesh, when/ Trampled deep in earth" and the swelling of "earth's broken skin" gives rise to the horrifying pictures one often sees of literally mass graves of Jews slaughtered in concentration camps. Alluding to the Holocaust, Soyinka then brings the user into the third stanza and zooms into the remains of a victim of such horror. The "painted mask of veils" globalizes the horror of war and yet the "Broken-tongued lament" and "pathchwork heart and death-head grin" also bespeaks the insanity Soyinka nearly succumbed to during his own personal horror in war, an insanity that the man in "To The Madman Over The Wall" succumbs to.

In addition to France, Jews during WWII, and his own imprisonment , he alludes to Nigeria's freedom from British colonialism. The "familiar opiates", the death before it was "new-girthed", and the face that is "a painted mask of veils" all refer to what James Ngugi ("Satire in Nigeria" from Protest and Conflict in African Literature) calls T. M. Aluko's "black White Men" complex. Soyinka's "painted mask of veils" has moved most recently from white to black. There was a time when Nigerian nationalist leader felt that once you remove the 'White Man' poverty and servitude would slowly end. Yet such has not been the case and in fact, the wealthy, powerful, white elite have simply been replaced by a wealthy, powerful, black elite

The tuber of our common flesh, when
Trampled deep in earth embattles
Death, new-girthed, lunges at the sun.

The final stanza encaptures Soyinka's belief that these problems have nothing to do with color just as his mind's struggle with insanity in prison had nothing to do with his color. As Soyinka warned earlier to not "swell earth's broken skin/ To glaze the fissures in the drum," he leaves the reader with the fact that "Paint cracks," leaving bare whatever lies beneath. The "heartwood" is that fixed, unchanging center of wood that lives much longer than the sapwood surrounding it and thus the "heartwood heart" is bequeathed "To new-born/ followers of the wake" --those few that eternalize the wake of war until man is assured that there will never be another wake of war.

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