John Preston

Divided loyalties

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In the House of the Interpreter

Ngugi Wa Thiong’o

Harvill Secker, pp. 244, £

On his first day at boarding school in Kenya in the early 1950s, Ngugi Wa Thiong’o stood to attention as the Union Jack was raised on the school flagpole. Afterwards the boys sang Psalm 51 which contains the line, ‘Wash me Redeemer and I shall be whiter than snow.’ Then came a tour of the

headmaster’s house during which they were invited to gaze in wonder at his electric cooker and his gleaming pots and pans.

The weirdness of this was not lost on Thiong’o, especially as his brother, Good Wallace, was fighting for the Mau-Mau guerrillas at the time. At the end of his first term, Thiong’o returned home to find that it no longer existed. His whole village had been razed and his family packed off to a detention camp.

All this was part of a policy called ‘Villagisation’, a policy which led to all the inhabitants of central Kenya being displaced — their homes either burned or bulldozed — in order to try to starve out the Mau-Mau guerrillas in the mountains.

As he tried to settle down at school, Thiong’o felt, not surprisingly, as if he was leading two completely separate lives. At assembly, he listened to the headmaster read out extracts from Three Men in a Boat. He also heard Shakespeare for the first time as senior boys rehearsed the school play — As You Like It.

But watching Rosalind and Celia wandering round the Forest of Arden, Thiong’o couldn’t help thinking about Good Wallace on the run from the British in the forests of Mount Kenya. And as he read about Winston Churchill in his history books, he found one half of his heart swelling with pride, while the other half scrunched up in resentment. After all, he reasoned, hadn’t Churchill been — indirectly — responsible for him losing his home?

And then his two lives began to collide. Boys were told they would have to carry ID cards and swear an oath stating that they had no contact with the Mau-Mau. Life outside Kenya was changing too. Ghana won its independence and Nasser nationalised the Suez Canal, while overhead Sputnik whizzed by with Laika the dog slowly starving inside.

Inside the gates of the Alliance High School, once-sacred traditions and rules began to break down. The first inkling Thiong’o had of this was when he was questioned by the British about his brother’s involvement with the Mau-Mau. Immediately, he felt compelled to confess all to the headmaster, the fearsome Edward Carey Francis — possessor of an OBE as well as an electric cooker.

Thiong’o was sure he’d be chucked out. Instead, to his astonishment, Carey Francis just sighed and said, ‘Some of those officers are scoundrels.’ Eventually Thiong’o was arrested — on a trumped up charge of resisting arrest — and thrown into prison. For a while it looked as if he’d join Good Wallace in one of the British-run concentration camps. Then, at his trial, he had a brainwave and used the skills he learned on the school debating team to outwit his accusers and win his freedom.

Ngugi Wa Thiong’o went on to become one of Kenya’s most distinguished writers — he was nominated for the Man Booker International Prize in 2009. But this early taste of prison was by no means his last. Thrown into gaol for political dissent by President Daniel arap Moi, he wrote one of his novels, Devil on the Cross, on sheets of lavatory paper.

The House of the Interpreter — a companion volume to Dreams in Time of War, which traces Good Wallace’s involvement with the Mau-Mau — is a very odd book. The first half is terrific, a vividly touching account of a young man struggling with divided loyalties. Thereafter, though, it turns into a windy, as well as microscopically recalled, memoir about Thiong’o’s schooldays: ‘Of all the school captains of my four years, I found Bethuel A Kiplagat the most intriguing.’

It doesn’t help that these recollections come interspersed with bursts of soppy twaddle that sound as if they might have been written by Michael Jackson: ‘We are all the children of Kenya. All the children of Africa. All the children of the world.’ Together, they make an unsatisfactory mix.