Wole Soyinka did a bit of hustling when he returned to Nigeria in the late ’50s, after his time at Leeds University. He dabbled into a lot of things, one of which was writing plays aired on Radio Nigeria.
But in 1960, he landed his own weekly radio show. The show was called “Talking Through Your Hat” and featured Soyinka’s humorous take on all sorts of things. Apparently, the show did well. People liked listening to his “madcap commentary—” as one literary critic describes it.
In one of the shows, Soyinka talks about his visits to Paris in a delightful mix of fact, humorous exaggerations, and witty quips.
When Soyinka first went to Paris, he had the flu. “It is inevitable,” he says, “that my immediate recollection of Paris should be linked forever with this mysterious flu.”
Two years later, Soyinka is once again in Paris, but this time he is living the life of a Paris Boho. He is irking out a living as a folk musician. What I would give to see Soyinka playing an acoustic guitar in some dinghy Paris Cafe.
Anyway, the good thing about being a hungry, itinerant folk-singer in Paris is that Soyinka gets to experience the city in a way that regular folks can’t.
Here, in a nutshell, is Soyinka’s Guide to Paris. Feel free to use it in your next visit:
As far as Soyinka is concerned, all the major landmarks are overrated. “The Eiffel Tower is a bore,” he says, “so is Arc de Triomphe, and the Champs Élysées.
Want to experience the real Paris? Soyinka says to ditch the guidebook and walk, especially, at night.
In fact, the best way to see Paris is not to follow the usual Points of Interest which you get in guidebooks. As in any other city, you simply must set out and start walking. Walk in different direction each day, and simply follow your nose. And at night especially. There are more wonders perpetrated in Paris at night than are dreamt of in your philosophy.
Beware of summers in Paris, Soyinka warns. In the summer, something happens called the American Invasion. So if you’re looking to just experience Paris, and not a “Little Rich America,” you might want to plan for a Fall, Winter, or Spring visit.
The summer, Paris is not the Paris of Parisians—it is merely a tourist center. It becomes a sort of Little Rich America Overseas.
Of course Soyinka’s nightly walks through the streets of Paris and his performances as a musician took him to the more exciting parts of town—places like La Methode, a cafe in Quartier Latin, where he encountered transvestites—“that curious breed of human beings,” as he puts it, “the neither-nors…the Third Sex.”
Soyinka was clearly captivated by these non-conventional forms of sexuality: “Sometimes I would spend a whole hour trying to decide whether a particular specimen was a man pretending to be a woman or a masculine woman playing copy.” Well, uncle Wole, you sound awfully intrigued, no? I mean staring for an hour!
Soyinka reminds us that the “Parisians are famous for their love of the belly.” If you find yourself in Paris, never forget that one of the many roads to the heart of the city passes through your belly.
What do you think is Soyinka’s idea of “the most intriguing element of French Society?” Not fashion, not even food, and certainly not the landmarks. It’s “the clochard!” The vagrants, tramps, beggars, homeless, who Soyinka says “have renounced all allegiance or responsibility toward their fellow men.”
Any Soyinka reader knows he has a thing for the homeless, the mad, the vagrant—people who inhabit the fringes of social life. We see these figures pop up in various forms in his plays and novels, from The Interpreters to The Beatification of the Area Boy. It’s nice to see that Soyinka’s fascination with this dispossessed multitude begins much earlier.
Here you have it. Soyinka’s 1960 remarks on Paris.
This post would not be possible without Bernth Lindfor’s amazing collection of Soyinka’s juvenilia titled Early Soyinka. If you’re curious about Soyinka’s writing before he became popular, order the book HERE.
Arc de Triomphe image by Iwillbehomesoon via
Image of tourist woman by Jean Francois Gornet via
Image of paris at night by Fraser Mummery via
Image of pastry by Phil Hilfiker via
Image of man sleeping by Siby via
Image of transexual man by Christer Stromholm via