Aké: The Years of Childhood" gives us the story of Soyinka's boyhood before and during World War II in a Yoruba village in western Nigeria called Aké. A relentlessly curious child who loved books and getting into trouble, Soyinka grew up on a parsonage compound, raised by Christian parents and by a grandfather who introduced him to Yoruba spiritual traditions. His vivid evocation of the colorful sights, sounds, and aromas of the world that shaped him is both lyrically beautiful and laced with humor and the sheer delight of a child's-eye view.
A classic of African autobiography, "Aké" is also a transcendantly timeless portrait of the mysteries of childhood.
I bought this book in an act of serendipity, in 2019 at the Aké festival. The shame I had then for not having read any of Soyinka's work has probably tripled because after buying this book I let it sit on my shelf for four years not gathering dust. (Even though I don't read them I take care of my books, please.)
Obviously I've been doing myself a disservice - an absolute injustice - because right off the bat there's no question that Wolé Soyinka can write. I should have read him sooner. however, maybe this wasn't the best choice of entry into his work.
I most likely restarted this book three times because I had a hard time following it, not because it's particularly difficult but because Soyinka is so eloquent at describing things that he sometimes lost me. For instance, the first few pages talk about the Aké Parsonage and he dwells for a hot minute on the orchard there and all its fruits - and my gawd, does he talk about the fruits. What particularly left all my gobs smacked was how he drawls on and on about pomegranates and describes them in such a way you'd think their are ambrosia from the gods.
The pomegranate was the Queen of Sheba, rebellions and wars, the passion of Salome, the siege of Troy, the Praise of beauty in the Song of Solomon. This fruit, with its stone-hearted look and feel unlocked the cellars of Ali Baba, extracted the genie from Aladdin's lamp, plucked the strings of the harp that restored David to sanity, parted the waters of the Nile and filled our parsonage with incense from the dim temple of Jerusalem.
Now, do I acknowledge that this is in fact masterful and gorgeous writing that I aspire to muster one day? My gawd yes, a thousand times yes. But do I really want to read all this about pomegranates as if a bite of them is some sort of spiritual experience, especially on the second page? No not really - like with all due respect Professor Soyinka, get on with it.
Pomegranates aside, I think this is testament that he does know how to set a scene. The descriptions - the imagery are just so top tier that they were extremely enjoyable to read especially as a writer.
As a reader though? There were some things that just didn't sit well with me. For starters as mentioned - the writing just went on and on and on that it stopped being impressive and became downright tedious. (Hopefully the African literary community never come across this or else they will burn me on the stake)
I also found it hard to believe that Soyinka could remember with such vividness the things he saw, felt and did at three years old til the age of eleven. I can barely remember what I did last night, but maybe that's why he's a professor and I'm struggling with a master's degree.
These small qualms aside though, if I am being honest, the story itself just didn't engage me. I would leave the book for days on end not even looking forward to reading it. I contemplated on so many occasions to shelf it once more and maybe return to it in the next four years, but I persevered on - well at least until page 110 -three months after picking it up- when I finally told myself I just couldn't do it. Reading it felt like self inflicted misery and though I do consider myself a masochist, there are times I too need to wave a white flag.
Life is too short to read books that feel like you're walking through quick sand on your own volition. I truly wanted to love this book but I just didn't and so I left it back on the shelf where I can continue to stare at it in shame. Maybe one day I will return to, but for now, there are books to read - preferably ones I can enjoy.