Chaotic language dynamics in Sozaboy

Reading Sozaboy was an enjoyable experience. In my opinion, the most outstanding feature when reading that novel was of course Nigerian writer Ken Saro-Wiwa’s masterful use of language. The protagonist, Mene, who is an extremely naïve young man, is not fluent in English and his being kindhearted and not very sharp only adds to the contrast between his inward softness and simplicity and the harshness and complexity of the world around him.
First, Mene does not properly understand the language of the politicians, the decision makers who are toying with his and his people’s fate and would ultimately bring destruction upon the land. He does not comprehend the ‘big grammar’ he hears on the radio. The same ‘big grammar’ the politicians, the clergy and army officials use, leaving him generally confused or naively impressed at best. Like everybody in his village, Mene expresses himself in ‘rotten English.’ As explained in the preface, that dialect does not actually exist. Ken Saro-Wiwa made it up. However, ‘rotten’ English, the “mixture of Nigerian pidgin English, broken English and idiomatic English” he writes in, turns out to be the perfect medium to convey the utter confusion the protagonist finds himself in all along the narrative and helps highlights the absurdity of the Biafran war.
Furthermore, Mene is not even acting out of any patriotic or nationalistic agenda and does not seem to dream of any actual heroics. Enrolling is to him –and here the line between lovely and dumb is blurred– a means to impress his beloved wife. Mene is so determined to join the army that he and other more or less clueless youngsters are even ready to bribe army officials to become new recruits, become ‘sozaboys’. Mene has, for instance, no idea who or what that evil guy called ‘Enemy’ is. Unfortunately, by the time he comes to the conclusion that “sozaman’s life is nonsense and rubbish” is it is too late. He becomes victim of the senseless war and ‘dies.’
All in all, the touching story of Mene aka Sozaboy, who sleepwalks through an atrocious war, without even shooting one time, is a great antiwar novel. By building the story around the kindhearted and naive Mene, who is unable to make sense of most of what he hears, and by using such a hybrid and fragmented language as ‘rotten’ English, Ken Saro Wiwa is able to masterfully convey – somewhat in a caricatural manner – a sense of the chaos surrounding the Biafran war, which he witnessed firsthand.

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One Response to Chaotic language dynamics in Sozaboy

  1. Anne Gulick says:

    You might really enjoy Michael North’s article on what Saro-Wiwa is doing with “Rotten English” in the novel.


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