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Book Review

‘In the House of the Interpreter’ by Ngugi Wa Thiong’o

Kenyan author Ngugi wa Thiong’o.

Daniel Anderson

Kenyan author Ngugi wa Thiong’o.

In a follow-up to his previous memoir, “Dreams in a Time of War,” acclaimed Kenyan novelist Ngugi wa Thiong’o continues the story of his childhood, focusing specifically on his time at the boarding school that shaped his intellectual and spiritual lives.

The author picks up the story in 1955, the year in which he entered Alliance High School, headed by principal Edward Carey Francis, a figure who looms large in wa Thiong’o’s narrative, and who viewed the school as a “grand opportunity to morally and intellectually mold a future leadership that could navigate among contending extremes.”

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Throughout wa Thiong’o demonstrates his love of introspection and what he calls the “diet of the mind.” Though he discusses a variety of subjects, the repeated imagery of the “hounds waiting outside the gate” of the protected school grounds advances his central theme: the destructive nature of British colonialism and the constant struggle between his continued education and the “illusion of the old homestead, an illusion soon shredded by reality.”

IN THE HOUSE OF THE INTERPRETER

Author:
Ngugi wa Thiong’o
Publisher:
Pantheon
Number of pages:
240 pp., illustrated
Book price:
$25.95

That reality came in the form of the Mau Mau uprising and his brother’s participation in the fighting for his country against colonial rule. In the first chapter, wa Thiong’o recounts his singing of a patriotic tribute to the queen, admitting that at the time, he failed to note “the irony in my singing this hymn of prayer while my own brother . . . was out in the mountains fighting with the Mau Mau guerrillas so that the queen did not reign long over Kenya.”

It becomes clear early on that literature and faith served as the author’s primary foundations for growth and beacons for hope amid the roiling atmosphere surrounding him. “Though the [science] labs opened new worlds and made me look differently at the hitherto ordinary,” he writes, “I found the life in books of literary imagination more fascinating than that in history books and scientific laboratories.” As he explored literature, finding satisfaction in thrillers and adventure stories, in addition to works by socially conscious African and African-American writers, wa Thiong’o also engaged in a serious journey into Christianity.

Initially stoked by one of his fellow students, the author’s interest in Christianity was bolstered by Carey Francis and his diligent approach to the faith, in which evangelical fervor took a back seat to long-term commitment and good works. “Christianity for him was like a long-distance race,” he writes, “and he often talked of pacing oneself so that at the end one might say: I have fought the good fight, I have completed the race, I have kept the faith.” The author’s faith was tested continuously, but his positive, dedicated attitude allowed him to realize that “[t]here was always something to learn from every encounter.”

During his four years at Alliance, many of the encounters outside the school remained fraught with racial and nationalist tension; more than 60 years later, wa Thiong’o continues to wrestle with the greater significance of each event in his formative years, searching for resolution but often only discovering more questions.

The author’s prose doesn’t always reach the poetic heights of his fiction, and though slow in the early going, the story picks up steam in the later chapters, in which the author recounts his unjust imprisonment following his graduation from Alliance, an experience that deepened his understanding of the struggles that still remained for him and his countrymen.

“Social apartheid bred misunderstanding,” he writes, “which stoked the fear of the unknown, which in turn bred even more misunderstanding, in a vicious circle of endless mutual suspicion and animosity.” Wa Thiong’o provides a useful firsthand look at those circumstances, which have played out, and continue to play out, on countless stages around the world.

Eric Liebetrau is the managing editor and nonfiction editor of Kirkus Reviews. He can be reached at eliebetrau@kirkus.com.

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