I often put a hold on books at my library that don't arrive for months, and by the time I get them I don't remember what they are or why I wanted them in the first place. The Interpreters has been a similar experience, only I bought it instead of borrowing it. I don't recall when or why, but I'm glad I did.
The novel concerns a wide-ranging cast of young intellectuals in Lagos, Nigeria. There is little by way of an overarching plot. Instead, stories come and go and cross paths with one another, not in an episodic faction, but rather a fluid and ever-shifting narrative flux. Targets emerge for satire--politics, the news media, universities, religious cults--before dissolving into the textual mists. The result is disorienting, though Soyinka's rich prose and dark humor propel things along.
The book offers little by way of narrative signposts. Characters are introduced with no context for who they are or how they relate to one another, and names take a central role before disappearing for chapters at a time. Egbo opens and closes the novel, and his traumatic memory of seeing his parents drown acts as a thematic bookend, but other characters play a much bigger role in the novel's center. Kabo, the disillusioned painter, is one example. Sagoe, a beleaguered journalist, is another. A few white visitors emerge as peripheral characters, where they serve as both targets of satire in their own right and ammunition aimed at the obsequious treatment they receive by black intellectuals in some circles.
The prose is rich with imagery, the dialogue quick-witted and playful. It reminds me, in a free-association sort of way, of Joseph Heller’s Catch-22. The stories are nothing alike, and the writing styles are different—Soyinka’s more florid and poetic, Heller’s more jokey—but both authors deal with a fluctuating cast of characters, through which they paint a stinging picture of of a community, and through it society at large.
This book is a real find. I just wish I remembered where it was I found it.
(An additional point: none of the characters are interpreters by profession, and no one does any interpreting, so I’m at a loss as to the meaning behind the title. I could probably come up with some sort of symbolic reason, but it would be a guess and probably wrong)