This lovely, magical book is the story of the internationally acclaimed playwright's boyhood, before and during World War II, in a western Nigerian town called Ake'. Although the book holds particular interest because of its sly depiction of the interaction of British and African cultures and because its author happened to be a boy at the time nationalist, anticolonialist sentiment was beginning to take organized form, its greatest appeal is entirely universal: As few other authors have succeeded in doing, Wole Soyinka brings completely to life the mysterious process by which a child awakens to the wonders of the world.
Soyinka's father was headmaster of a missionary elementary school, his mother, a shopkeeper. Reaching back into the deepest recesses of his memory, when he was 2 years old, he recalls them as fabulous figures who could inspire awe, devotion and terror in him, depending on their moods or his own behavior. His mother he came to think of as "the Wild Christian," because of her frenzied faith: "She had the strange habit of sighing with a kind of rapture, crediting her steadiness of hand to Faith and thanking God." As for his father, "he was called S.A. from his initials, HM or Headmaster, or Es-Ay-Sho by his more rumbustious friends." Young Wole had his own name for him:
"It did not take long for him to enter my consciousness simply as Essay, as one of those careful stylistic exercises in prose which follow set rules of composition, are products of fastidiousness and elegance, set down in beautiful calligraphy that would be the envy of most copyists of any age. His despair was real that he should give birth to a son who, from the beginning, showed clearly that he had inherited nothing of his own handwriting."
Though not as meticulous in his bookishness as his father, Wole was an early reader, a boy given to "day-dreaming or brooding." When he was not yet 3 years old, he entered the schoolhouse with the intention of becoming a student. When the teacher attempted to dissuade him, suggesting that "you would prefer to play at home," he was astonished: "Not feel like coming to school! The colored maps, pictures and other hangings on the walls, the colored counters, markers, slates, inkwells in neat round holes, crayons and drawing-books, a shelf laden with modeled objects -- animals, human beings, implements -- raffia and basket-work in various stages of completion, even the blackboards, chalk and duster . . . I had yet to see a more inviting playroom!"
This sense of thrilling discovery permeates his memoir; he recalls his wonder, upon touring a village market, "that there was so much thing in the world!" Though bookish by natural bent and paternal example, he was no wallflower; he entered vigorously into play with children of all ages, got into his full share of mischief and scrapes, received a completely normal ration of bumps, bruises and cuts. Life was endlessly exciting, a panoply of delights to be savored and celebrated: a joyous jumble of sounds, smells, tastes and colors--all of which Soyinka describes with such energy and clarity that they burst from the page.
Everywhere, there was magic: "Workmen came into the house . . . We pressed down a switch and the room was flooded with light." Then there arrived, "displacing the old gramophone," a wooden box, and more magic:
"But the functions continued to be the same. True, there was no need to put on a black disc, no need to crank a handle or change a needle, it only required that the knob be turned for sounds to come on. Unlike the gramophone however, the box could not be made to speak or sing at any time of the day. It began its monologue early in the morning, first playing 'God Save the King.' The box went silent some time in the afternoon, then, around ten or eleven in the evening, sang 'God Save the King' once more and went to sleep."
That anthem's days were numbered; in Ake' and other villages there was mounting sentiment "to put an end to the rule of white men in the country." Soyinka describes the growth of this sentiment in his own town with a quiet wonder at the small beginnings from which great movements grow. But "Ake'" is not a book about politics and Soyinka mounts no soapboxes. His simple purpose is to tell us what it was like to be a child -- which of course is not a "simple" purpose at all, and which he carries off with exceptional grace and feeling.