IN THE HOUSE OF THE INTERPRETER
By Ngugi wa Thiong’o
Pantheon. 256 pp. $25.95
The fortunate teenagers of Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s generation in colonial Kenya were able, like him, to attend boarding school. Despite their many tribal languages and cultures, youth from various Kenyan villages intermingled and benefited from studying mathematics and Shakespeare (though no history of Africa was included). They shared the color of their skin and their subjugation to British rule, and they all spoke English. Or did they?
Ngugi’s first school trip to a proper English home was a slightly mysterious immersion in seemingly foreign words and concepts, such as “parlor,” “carpet” and “faucet.” “Everything was in dramatic contrast to my village hut,” he writes, “an all-purpose living space, sometimes shared with goats. Our bathrooms were the riversides, where we washed clothes and bathed behind reeds.” Before leaving, the visiting students learned that a three-course meal ended with dessert. “I thought he meant desert, and I wondered how one could eat a piece. Another boy voiced similar doubts. No, it was a dish, not a piece of sand.”
This vivid first impression comes early in “In the House of the Interpreter,” the second volume of Ngugi’s autobiography (the first was “Dreams in a Time of War”). The new book covers the years 1955-59, when the author attended the patronizing but unforgettable Alliance High School, headed by a morally influential patriarch, Carey Francis.
At one point, Francis read his students a watershed passage from John Bunyan’s “The Pilgrim’s Progress,” when Pilgrim meets his spiritual interpreter. The Alliance High School, Francis told them, is like “the Interpreter’s House, where the dust we had brought from the outside could be swept away.” The black students’ tribal ways will be “interpreted” into English mores and sophistication. Their loose grammar, related to wayward morals and political notions, will be rectified by Christian faith.
Meanwhile, beyond the halls of Alliance, Kenya was enmeshed in anti-colonial turmoil. British rule was strained by enthusiasm in the villages for the Mau Mau Rebellion.
The conflicted student at Alliance grew up to be a writer, best known in the United States for his novel “Wizard of the Crow” (2006). He became a public figure whose commitment to civil justice put him at odds with post-colonial Kenyan governments and military dictators, culminating with a year in prison in the late ’70s, until Amnesty International leveraged his release. He is sometimes mentioned as a prospective winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature.
But during the period covered by “In the House of the Interpreter,” he’s still a neophyte, tasting his first literary opportunities, unhappy with his tutors’ arrogance and even their Christian religion. His older brother is a Mau Mau guerrilla fighter in the mountains. His mother and other relatives are relocated under the colonial government’s policy of “villagization” (mass relocation of villagers into concentration camps during a period of civil insurgency).
In a seminal scene, Ngugi is in trouble for returning late to school after a visit to his home village. He is ordered to see the principal. Assuming that the school already knows his brother is a Mau Mau fighter and plans to expel him, Ngugi throws a rebellious fit and blurts out: “My brother is sworn to end the empire. Send me back to my mother, if you so wish, but I will never deny him. Not for you. Not for Alliance. My brother is a good man. All he ever asked for was the right to be free.” Principal Francis calmly excuses him and imposes no punishment.
Francis embodied the contradictions of the Empire. He believed the Mau Mau rebels were evil but said, “We shall never destroy the Mau Mau by killing gangsters . . . [only] by showing that we are not enemy invaders.” Primarily, he seems to have believed in Alliance as “an oasis in a desert,” though Ngugi notes the tragic irony that “the desert and the oasis produced each other.”
Many incidents in “In the House of the Interpreter” will remind readers of the great novels of the African American canon, particularly Richard Wright’s “Black Boy” and Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man,” both about blacks pursuing an education in a nation riddled by racial prejudices. Nor are such comparisons inappropriate. Alliance High was “modeled on the nineteenth-century system for educating Native Americans and African Americans.” Though many intellectuals today emphasize the differences among African cultures — and between Africans and African Americans — Ngugi writes that “the similarities between the situation in the nineteenth-century American South and Kenya were eerily captured” in Booker T. Washington’s “Up From Slavery.” The differences only “seemed a matter of degree.”
Considering the scope of Ngugi’s life, when completed his extraordinary memoirs encompassing colonialism, post-colonialism, English racism, African despotism, exile and fame may well belong among the major works of history and literature of our time.
Wellington is a poet and a social critic living in Santa Fe, N.M.