Book review: In the House of the Interpreter; Ngugi Wa Thiong’o

British troops brought into Nairobi in 1952 to stop the Mau Mau uprising
British troops brought into Nairobi in 1952 to stop the Mau Mau uprising
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Ngugi Wa Thiong’o’s compelling memoir traces the dawning of his political awareness.

In The House Of The Interpreter: A Memoir

By Ngugi Wa Thiong’o

Harvill Secker, 244 pp, £16.99

The two titans of contemporary African literature – Chinua Achebe and Ngugi wa Thiong’o – have lately turned to memoir. Ngugi’s previous memoir, Dreams In A Time Of War, had at its centre his brother Good Wallace’s decision to join the Mau-Mau insurgents during Kenya’s State of Emergency and moves towards independence; as such, its political kernel can be compared with Achebe’s recent book, There Was A Country: A Personal History of Biafra. The new book, In The House Of The Interpreter, details Ngugi’s schooling at the Alliance school near Nairobi; and could profitably be read in tandem with Achebe’s previous foray in the field, The Education Of A British-Protected Child. In The House Of The Interpreter is a moving account of awakening political consciousness, and a haunting description of the ironies and ambivalences of education. With The Wizard Of The Crow, Ngugi created a work of political mythology which can stand comparison with the greatest “magic realist” novels. In this memoir, the reader can discern the deep roots and earliest shoots that led to that masterpiece.

The memoir covers the years of his secondary education, 1955 to 1959. In the opening pages there is a startling instance of Ngugi’s sensitivity to the language of colonialism: returning home after the first term at Alliance, he notices the toilets at Limuru station, “marked for Europeans only, Asians only and Africans, minus the qualifying only”. Segregation is bad enough, but the denial of the “only” betrays a far more persistent series of psychological hierarchies, which Ngugi’s later novels have unpicked and analysed with acuity. This, however, is only the prelude to a far more brutal example of imperialist imposition. On returning to his village, he discovers that it no longer exists. “The paths that had crisscrossed the landscape, linking the scattered dwellings into a community, now lead from one mound of rubble to another, tombs of what has been”. Ten chapters later he discovers what has happened. Under the policy with the euphemistic title of “villagization”, the British state forced communities to build their own new villages, moated and surrounded with barbed wire, with only one entrance and exit. The idea was primarily to make it more difficult, if not impossible, for the villagers to give tacit support and material aid to the Mau-Mau; this was a side-effect of allowing a “mass fraud”, a land-grab by the richest. In effect, Kenyans were forced to build their own concentration camps.

What sets this revelation into stark relief is the intervening chapters, a flashback to the first term in Alliance, and the irony it sets up of showing us Ngugi’s exposure to a different form of colonialism. Britain adapted its 19th century Indian education policy to Africa in the early 20th century. The purpose of Alliance was of “two almost contradictory educational visions: the notion of self-reliance and the aim of producing civic-minded blacks who would work within the parameters of the existing racial state”. It is part of the sincerity and generosity of this book that Ngugi gradually finds the “colonial” state is less monolithic than appearances might suggest. Although there is ample racism – the boys have to pray “wash me, redeemer, and I shall be whiter than snow” – there is, in the figure of the headmaster, Edward Carey Francis, a more complex attitude. A disciplinarian and eager exponent of imperial policy, he nonetheless denounces British officers as scoundrels. In a later section, when Ngugi goes on an outward-bound weekend, he watches a soldier and a priest almost come to blows over ideology.

There is a vein of understated humour that counteracts the nightmarish sense of circling, bloodthirsty hounds from whom Alliance is, for Ngugi, a refuge. The English teacher’s induction is to take the boys around his house, pointing out fish-forks, toothpaste and pyjamas – and an abrupt irruption of the actuality of colonial rule when they see a machine gun, Very pistol and siren as well.

The house prefect awakens them each morning quoting Macbeth’s “Had I but died an hour before this chance, I had lived a blessed time; for, from this instant, there’s nothing serious in mortality”. At school, he learns to debate, and some of the topics – “Western education has done more harm than good in Africa” – exemplify the often fractious relationship between the ideals of education and the realities of colonial power. A perpetual shadow hangs over him, since attendance at the school might be repealed if his relationship with his brother is scrutinised.

It is also where he writes his first stories, published in the school magazine. What would otherwise be an unexceptional first appearance in print is horrifically compromised when Ngugi realises the extent of editorial intervention. The story, about a pot which one can whisper into to summon relatives from afar, shows some of the plangent magic that would typify his mature works. The title, however, is changed from “My Childhood” to “I Try Witchcraft” and the narrator is made to say that Christianity is “the greatest civilizing influence and as it crept amongst the people, many began to see the futility of putting their faith in superstition and witchcraft”. Although Ngugi was, at that time, an evangelical Christian, the editorial imposition rankles.

The final section of the book slows down the narrative to days rather than months: having graduated from school, and preparing to go to Makerere University College in Uganda, Ngugi works briefly as a teacher. On a bus trip home, he is humiliated and victimised by the police, and ends up in prison on a trumped-up charge of assaulting a police officer.

This is almost a prelude to his more famous memoir, Detained: A Writer’s Prison Diary, when he was imprisoned by Daniel arap Moi on account of his play I’ll Marry When I Want, but the casual corruption and everyday brutality in even the “lesser” time in prison is evoked with cold precision. It also reveals something of the polyphonic influences on his later work. Ngugi dubs the policemen Mr Machine Gun and Mr Rifleman; an inverse dehumanising and comic cutting-down of authority figures and a strategy he will later refine.

In the prison, the other inmates tell traditional stories about Chameleon and Hare as well as exaggerated tales about their crimes (including a gruesome one about the dismemberment of a collaborator) – these too will feed into his mature novels. What thrills about Ngugi’s novels is the gathering-in of such disparate influences: the boy who read Biggles and Shakespeare combines them with African “orature” and urban myth.

This is a compelling memoir, and an interesting companion to his novels: I hope further volumes are being written. It is odd, however, that there is no note to tell the reader whether Ngugi wrote this first in English or Gikuyu, given how important the use of indigenous languages has been to him (indeed, it was the point of disagreement between Achebe and Ngugi). He has in the past translated his Gikuyu into English and spoken movingly about English having a redemptive role as a “meta-language” in allowing minority languages to communicate with each other. Either way, a fine and fiery book.