Criticism & Features

Year 2012: 30 Books

Megan O’Grady on Ngugi Thiong’o’s “In the House of the Interpreter”

By Megan O'Grady

In the weeks leading up to the February 28 announcement of the 2012 NBCC award winners, Critical Mass highlights the thirty finalists. Today in our series, NBCC board member Megan O'Grady offers an appreciation of autobiography finalist In the House of the Interpreter (Pantheon) by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o.

In Kenya, in 1955, a teenage boy travels home from his first term at an elite boarding school, eager to share news of his triumph. But when he reaches the place the village should be, he finds that it has vanished, replaced by a “rubble of burnt dry mud, splinters of wood, and grass.” He sits under the pear tree that marks where his home once stood, bewildered. “How could a whole village, its people, history, everything, disappear like that?”

Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o’s new memoir, In the House of the Interpreter, a finalist for the NBCC Award in Autobiography, begins with this eerie scene. The teenage Ngugi’s question, at its most basic level, is quickly answered: the village has been bulldozed and torched, part of the British offensive against the Mau Mau anti-colonialist uprising. Its inhabitants have been relocated into a heavily guarded “concentration village” nearby. Ngugi’s older brother, Good Wallace, is among the fighters who have fled to the mountains. Then his brother’s wife is imprisoned, accused of helping to distribute food to them. Soon, Ngugi’s mother is detained and interrogated. By the end of the book, Ngugi himself will also be arrested.

But this vivid, deeply felt chronicle of a political coming of age is told with a remarkably light touch. The second installment of Ngugi’s memoirs (he’s also a novelist and playwright, and has been rumored to be a contender for the Nobel) evokes the strange bubble world of a prep school at the twilight of colonial rule. A state of emergency has been declared, but nothing changes inside the guarded gates of Alliance High, which is run by a redoubtable former Cambridge don who performs magic tricks. There, Ngugi sings “God Save the Queen” to the Union Jack, recites Christian prayers, and memorizes the trading routes of European rivers. “Our future was made in England,” he notes wryly.

Ironically, this colonial institution will provide Kenya with its future leaders and revolutionaries. It’s at Alliance that Ngugi’s imagination is awakened by literature and drama, especially Shakespeare. At a performance of As You Like It, he’s initially awestruck by the sight of African actors in Elizabethan costumes speaking in iambic pentameter. But as the play begins to work its magic, Arden’s exiles bring to mind Ngugi’s brother, wandering the mountain forests. More overtly, King Lear seems to dramatize the conflict between Kenya’s old and new social orders. Ngugi begins seeking out his own reading material, discovering Bronte, Tolstoy, Alan Paton, Booker T. Washington, and DuBois. He pens his first fiction story: “My Childhood.”

That story, which involves a young boy’s belief that whispering his brother’s name into a clay pot will bring him home, grants Ngugi the “license to write,” a license that doesn’t seem to have lapsed over the last 60 years. (Even while incarcerated, he wrote a prison diary on toilet paper.) Like some of the most indelible memoirs, In the House of the Interpreter has a curious double effect, both complicating and making graspable vast historical conflicts—here, the forces that have shaped modern Africa. We understand Ngugi’s rage; we feel his enchantment. We see a boy captivated by stories, learning to author his own future.


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