Book Review: In The House Of The Interpreter: A Memoir

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by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o

    Publication Date: Nov 06, 2012
    List Price: $25.95
    Format: Hardcover, 256 pages
    Classification: Nonfiction
    ISBN13: 9780307907691
    Imprint: Pantheon Books
    Publisher: Penguin Random House
    Parent Company: Bertelsmann

    Read a Description of In The House Of The Interpreter: A Memoir

    Book Reviewed by Robert Fleming

    This stunning second memoir by noted Kenyan writer Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, In The House Of The Interpreter, covers the height of the Mau Mau upraising from 1955-1959 during his high school years. Now, currently the Distinguished Professor of English and Comparative Literature at University of California Irvine, his recollections at this period of the end of British colonial rule display the origins of a revolutionary mind, a sensibility which would later go on to produce a string of successful novels, plays, short fiction, essays and literary and social criticism.

    The memoir begins with his first homecoming as a student of the Alliance High School in 1955, three years after the state of emergency had been declared as British troops tried to rout the Kenyan rebels. As a haven against the violence going on all around him, the Alliance school, a two-year vocational institution, educates young Africans in basic English while extolling the benefits of Christianity. Surprisingly, education is respected by all sides in the conflict.

    However, the rebellion spills over into formerly peaceful areas when the British start relocating villagers en mass, bulldozing or torching their homes to force the Mau Mau into the hills. The author’s brother is actively involved with the rebels and his family is harassed and tortured. His brother’s wife is arrested for allegedly organizing food and clothing for the rebels.

    With the world around him in chaos, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o sees the decline of British colonial power not only in East Africa but in the Suez crisis, and a new spirit of African nationalism was awakening, unafraid and bold. The students in his school and the villagers in the region no longer walk with their heads bowed but look the colonizers in the eyes.

    As wa Thiong’o writes, recalling that turbulent time, the spirit of the people was one of defiance, courage, and daring: “The peaceful, fun-loving, and singing throng from the slums made the dwellers of the exclusive suburbs tremble with terror of the unknown and shut themselves inside their palaces within reach of guns and telephones.” (pp. 109-110)

    While his brother and his men are pursued by British soldiers, he is constantly watched, along with his family, and finally arrested for allegedly attacking a police officer doing his duty and imprisoned in Kiambu Remand Prison, surrounded by barbed-wire and guards. He is still a schoolboy, torn between the worlds of colonial academic brainwashing and the reality of revolutionary survival.

    A brilliant political mind, the influential African author-critic lists the terrors of incarceration at a young age in this provocative memoir, leading to his later embrace of Fanonist Marxism which spawned his books, A Grain of Wheat, Petals of Blood, Decolonising The Mind, and Wizard of the Crow. His writings compelled the tyrannical Kenyan government to jail him in 1977, but pressure from Amnesty International and the world community forced his release.

    Comparable to black revolutionary classics, Soul On Ice and The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s In the House of the Interpreter shows the origins of the African nationalism movement at the ground level in East Africa. It commands our attention for its brave, bold youthful account of the one of the incisive, politically astute thinkers of our time.

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