African writer’s belief in promise of Kenya flows through memoir

Hector Tobar / Los Angeles Times /

“In the House of the Interpreter” by Ngugi wa Thiong’o (Pantheon, $25.95)

“In the House of the Interpreter,” the new memoir by the celebrated African writer Ngugi wa Thiong’o, takes us to the hopeful and turbulent world of 1950s Kenya. And it begins with a startling image.

Ngugi is a teenager, returning home from his prestigious boarding school. He’s finished his first term at the top of his class and is still wearing his khaki school uniform and blue tie. Carrying his belongings in a wooden box, he reaches the ridge where his village should come into view. But it’s not there.

Instead he sees his family homestead “is a rubble of burnt dry mud, splinters of wood, and grass.” All the other homesteads have been reduced to ruins too. “There is not a soul in sight.” A wandering friend reveals the village’s fate: It’s been swallowed up by the British Empire’s offensive against Kenya’s Mau Mau guerrillas.

“In the House of the Interpreter” is the second volume in Ngugi’s series of memoirs. It’s a work of understated and heartfelt prose that relates one man’s intimate view of the epic cultural and political shifts that created modern Africa.

The first installment was the elegiac “Dreams in a Time of War.” Published in 2010, “Dreams” covered Ngugi’s childhood in rural Kenya as the son of Thiong’o wa Nducu and one of his four wives. Throughout his boyhood, Ngugi is witness to a slowly changing Kenya. New railroads and highways link his village to a vast, English-speaking empire. But the forces of modernity haven’t yet changed life much for the Gikuyu people.

“Dreams in a Time of War” ends with Ngugi’s passage into manhood — after a ritual circumcision — and his acceptance into an elite school set aside for top black students in the British colony’s segregated education system.

“In the House of the Interpreter” tells the story of Ngugi’s four transformative years in that school, Alliance High.

Inside Alliance’s spic-and-span classrooms and under the tutelage of its excellent British and African teachers, young Ngugi undergoes an exhilarating intellectual awakening — just as Kenya’s simmering struggle for independence begins to heat up.

He learns to recite Shakespeare’s sonnets and Christian prayers. But he lives with a secret that’s eating away at his soul: His older brother, Good Wallace, is living somewhere in Kenya’s mountains, a soldier in the Mau Mau guerrilla movement. The country is in an official state of emergency, and Ngugi worries that he’ll be expelled from school if his secret is revealed.

“In the House of the Interpreter” is a book about the creation of modern Africa from the collision of a series of powerful opposing forces — nationalism and colonialism, rural tradition and capitalist modernity. We see these changes through the eyes of a group of bright, ambitious teenagers.

Alliance High is an African Hogwarts, without the magic. All the students join happily in competitions between school houses. They know they’re at Alliance to become members of Kenya’s small African intelligentsia; for the British, this new black educated class will be a force of moderation and assimilation.

But when he leaves the Alliance campus, Ngugi enters a world of checkpoints and armed British soldiers. Returning home, he finds his family and his old village neighbors relocated into a concentration camp similar to the “strategic hamlets” of the Vietnam War.

From these painful personal experiences, a writer is born.

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