I expected to get a lot more from Wole Soyinka's Aké than I did. It's not every day that the childhood memoirs of a Nobel Laureate come to hand. Expectation demanded something special, something revelatory perhaps, from the formative years of a man who grew up to be one of the greatest writers of all time. What Aké presented was in fact exactly what it said on the tin. It's a childhood memoir. There are no great moments, no previously hidden insights on how to achieve greatness. But there is a life, and perhaps that is our clue.
Born into a teaching family, Wole Soyinka lovingly recalls a headmaster father he calls Essay and a severe mother nicknamed Wild Christian, who certainly is the ruler of the household. But around this potentially unlocatable family, there exists an eclectic mixture of Yoruba tradition, imported educational values and imposed colonial rule.
The young writer's concerns, however, are exactly what might be expected of a growing lad. He chases things, explores, is naughty - sometimes very naughty! He is punished and rewarded. Life goes on. There are local concerns, sometimes wider ones. He eats plenty of good food and, by no means uniquely, but certainly eloquently, describes the multicultural reality of colonial West Africa.
Whether it was the reader or the writer is unclear, but when, about half way through the book, Wole Soyinka starts to relate his school experiences, Aké seems to change into a different, much more vivid book. Recollections become stronger, more deeply felt, more keenly described. What had already been a joy now becomes thoroughly engaging as well.
Wole Soyinka's neighbours did become objects of great interest, and not merely because they figured in this book. Their name, Ransome Kuti, may be familiar. It's a family that produced in successive generations two of Nigeria's most famous musicians. Strangely, their family too lives its life just like the others, with no apparent inkling of the greatness to come.
As Aké progressed and this reader continued to search for what made the author such a great writer, it began to become clear that the only thing that made this man was experience, something we all share. Individually, any experience is unique; it does not need to be dramatic, violent, broken or ecstatic to be special. It is special because it was experienced. And this is what makes Aké, in the end, such a great statement. It's life. Let's get on with it.