It begins with a stark contrast. Young boys ride the bus in their prep school uniforms, sharp and crisp with blue ties and khaki shorts, homeward bound from a semester at boarding school. All around them are the tired and tatty forms of their fellow villagers, weary from the state of emergency imposed because of the Mau Mau rebellion in colonial Kenya. The contrast, like all in this book, is bursting with the symbolism of privilege and despair, riches and poverty, the colonial apparatus and its exhausted, fearful subjects.
In the House of the Interpreter, the new memoir by the famed Kenyan writer Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, is erected on a scaffolding of similar contrasts, many of them so glaring as to be outright divisions. Throughout the book, the author navigates those tensions, proposing resolution wherever he can. The lessons, however burdened with contradiction, comprise Thiong’o’s template for harmony, not just between races and hemispheres or religions and histories, but between individuals and the world outside our minds and bodies.
The school in question at the start of the book is Alliance High School, the elitist institution Thiong’o attended before going to college in Uganda. Alliance is the house referred to in the book’s title, a handy metaphor adapted by its principal, Carrie Francis, himself a complicated, dichotomous influence in Thiong’o’s intellectual and spiritual development. Drawing parallels to the firmament of his spirituality, Francis likens Alliance to a place where students can clean themselves of the dirt from outside and, through a regimen of religious and academic training, rise above it.
For Thiong’o, whose brother is among the guerrillas, the symbolism of Alliance is even simpler. It is a sanctuary from what he calls the bloodhounds of the outside world: colonial officers, pecuniary uncertainties, jailed family members, destitute villages, and a state of emergency.
In this school, we meet an awkward, eager Thiong’o. He struggles to measure up to the very system that his brother is warring against. At the same time, he is fascinated by nationalist movements in Kenya and across Africa, and reverential of his brother’s heroics. Call it a tension between opposing poles. Aware that he is shifting between beneficiary and dissenter, Thiong’o notices this tension all around him. Looming largest, however, are the strains between Britain and Kenya, the West and Africa, white and black.
Resolutions for such tensions do not come easily. His first is found in literature, in an approach to language, and the appreciation of simple, unadorned English – the kind of writing that relies less on an expansive vocabulary and more on varying sentence structures in the creation of its mood and meaning. This idea is put to Thiong’o by a teacher who uses the Bible as a reference point. Even though Thiong’o initially resists the lesson, he ultimately comes to believe in it so surely as to propose it to others. One place for harmony, Thiong’o seems to be saying, is in artistic expression, both in its production and consumption.
The next comes in Christianity. Thiong'o’s path to Christ is indirect, but constant. He is at first disappointed in some of the people who introduce him to the faith. They are unable answer his questions. They cannot overcome their hypocrisies. But he holds fast to his beliefs, calls on their tenets in the book’s climactic pages, and emerges physically and spiritually intact. Another place for harmony, according to the book’s logic, is in each individual’s bare and certain faith in a higher power.
A more challenging reconciliation is shown in the character of Carrie Francis, who, make no mistake, is an agent of British imperialism. Thiong’o paints the depths of his personality in loving detail, refusing to spare him his colonial agency, but simultaneously lacing his depiction with writing and comments from Francis that are clearly doubtful of any supremacist Western ideology. Their relationship represents a resolution between two universes – the coloniser and the colonised – and it flowers fully when Thiong’o realises Francis is aware of his family’s connection to the Mau Mau and that, even though he despises the movement, is unconcerned by his proximity to it.
One of the book’s more subtle offerings is at the edge of these narratives. Art, for example, betrays Thiong’o in its failure to produce an African story. Religion, meanwhile, is obviously an imperious force in and of itself, and certainly one that colonial powers used to pursue their economic projects. And as for prep school, well, can an African nationalist with an elitist education really claim intellectual maturity? What would Amilcar Cabral say about that?
Most of these contradictions come to a head in the book’s final act, when Thiong’o, a proud graduate of Alliance High School, is snatched from freedom by the colonial administration, chucked into an overcrowded remand prison, and harassed by black, Kenyan police officers apparently jealous of his position in life. On the floor of the cell, with vanity and privacy surrendered to prison conditions, Thiong’o is given something of the life education Alliance could never have offered him.
The grey area between contradiction, contrast and division is the book’s central theme. In the course of the memoir, Thiong’o shatters the units on either side of his many contrasts, so that, to name just two, class divisions rear up among blacks while philosophical differences push whites into conflict. Apparently, there are almost as many pieces as there are people, in an endless sea of divisions hidden behind thin veils of social normality. It is a tense worldview – alarming and discouraging.
But Thiong’o emerges from his tussle with the regime carrying a more hopeful message. He has made space in his life for contradiction, regardless of its race, nation or faith. That very allowance has taken the edge off division. After subjecting himself to honest introspection, the resolutions he achieved in his mind, some of which pull together highly opposed characters and themes like his brother and his principal or his faith and his history, take shape outside his body. However temporarily, he has managed to make himself a figure of harmony in a world of division.
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