Sunday, September 25, 2011

Book 77, Kenya: "Devil on the Cross" by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o

Finally finished this book! Hard for me to figure out why it took so long; once I started it properly it really pulled me in.

Basically, it's excellent: the International Herald Tribune quote on the cover don't lie: way better than Ngũgĩ's English language novel The River Between (which was used as a rather stiff educational text here in Singapore), or indeed his somewhat didactic play The Black Hermit.

One big difference is that the story was written in Gikuyu - in fact, this is the first modern novel written in that language; the legendary piece he composed on prison toilet paper while serving out his jail sentence. This means we're importing quite a quite different set of vocabulary and proverbs - "Only a fool sucks at his dead mother's tit - plus the bits which originally appeared in English and Swahili and Latin are italicised, which provides a completely new take on the lexicon.

Ah, but what seduces me is the whole magical realist style (terrible how this has become a throwaway term, when what's possible under this classifier is so divergent). Our beleaguered heroine Wariinga has dreams and hallucinations along with her misfortunes; she has a dialogue with the devil, even. But what's happening in the non-supernatural world is just as strange, as a huge Feast of International Thieves and Robbers is taking place in a cave in Ilmorog, presided over by the greatest exploitative capitalists from the USA, Europe and Japan, while Kenyan millionaires compete for the title of the greatest thief in the nation - proposing nightmarish schemes of how they can exploit the workers of post-independence Africa even further, binding them closer than ever to their former colonial masters...

Yes, it's didactic again: Ngũgĩ sure doesn't like capitalism, and indeed the business shenanigans of many of his neo-colonial bosses are completely legal, completely justifiable in our Friedmanated world; he's mad at the way folks bought up the newly free land and sold it at a profit to the poor, even. It's sobering to realise how far we fall from the Marxian ideal that our forefathers fought for when they cried uhuru and merdeka back in the 1960s. Maybe that's why we don't study this in school - the way things have turned out with globalised capitalism hits too close to home.

(He sure hates religion, too. See how the title turns Christianity on its head? Churches and mosques and parables of investing talents just perpetuate the problem of exploitation, he says, preventing the workers from rising up against those who would control their minds as well as bodies.)

Oh but back to the language; the sheer poetry (yes, he mixes poetry and song and monologue into the fiction). This is what makes the book so good; what makes it completely believable when the author boasts that oral storytellers began memorising the tale and extemporising on it for non-literate audiences: a modern-day Homer or Valmiki or Narada, making the literary arts folk art rather than vice versa.

Thoroughly recommended - and there's a hell of an ending, too. Should go read his most recent Gikuyu novel, the monumental 700-ish page Wizard of the Crow, as well. Or maybe I'll save that for my bucket list.

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Representative quote: After three days, there came other dressed in suits and ties, who, keeping clsoe to the wall of darkness, lifted the Devil down from the Cross. And they knelt before him, and they prayed to him in loud voices, beseeching him to give them a portion of his robes of cunning. And their bellies began to swell, and they stood up, and they walked towards Wariinga, laughing at her, stroking their large bellies, which had now inherited all the evils of the world..."

Next book: Nuruddin Farah's "Maps", from Somalia.

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