October 2011

What the Swedes Read

A Reader Makes His Way Through One Book By Each Nobel Laureate

by Daniel Handler
  • LAUREATE: Wole Soyinka (1986, Nigeria)
  • BOOK READ: Death and the King’s Horseman

There’s something depressing about foreign literature that doesn’t feel foreign. It’s like the McDonald’s in Reykjavík, or the radio of the Senegalese taxi playing “Beat It”—it’s hardly worth the journey if the destination feels the same. There is a dispiriting heap of literature, from far-flung locations and authors of intriguing cultural fingerprints, that aims to remind us of our vast similarities. This seems like a lousy argument for reading literature from far-flung locations and authors of intriguing cultural fingerprints. War is hell? Mothers are pushy? The government tells lies? I can get that at home. I prefer books like Suketu Mehta’s Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found, a sprawling rush of nonfiction about a city that felt to me, a lifelong San Franciscan, like a druggy dream. There’s a memorable scene describing a courting ritual in which lovers park an automobile, roll up the windows, set free some songbirds, and then chase them around the enclosed space until the birds die of exhaustion. I held the book in my hands and thought, I’m basically made of the same genetic material as the people he’s describing, and am no stranger to Indian culture, and yet I’ve never, never have I ever, done anything like that. It was bracing to think about.

My copy of Death and the King’s Horseman, largely regarded as Soyinka’s masterpiece, is about two hundred and fifty pages long. Fifty-eight pages are the text of the actual play, with the bulk of the book taken up by maps, chronologies, and bibliographies, a similar play by Duro Ladipo (oh yeah, him), and critical essays by the likes of Henry Louis Gates, Gerald Moore, and, um, Wole Soyinka. That’s a low the-thing to things-about-the-thing ratio, and it worried me that it would be one of those situations where the commentary is trying to convince you that you’re having a better time than you are, the way everyone says Molière is still hysterically funny as long as you learn all about seventeenth-century French social conventions. And it is true that Death and the King’s Horseman is a weird read, even incomprehensible at times. But it is not the sort of incomprehensibility that sends you to a glossary, or the sort that makes you throw up your hands. It’s the sort that reminds you not that it’s a small world, but that it’s a large one; not how connected the world is, but how broken.

We hope you enjoy this excerpt.

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