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Book Review – In the House of the Interpreter

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“For a long time, I was not able to write about my life – Ngugi wa Thiong’o said recently – or rather, when I did, I did it through fiction, drawing from bits and pieces of my past. Then, it seemed to suddenly begin coming together and I felt that I was ready to do my memoir. I did the first part, Dreams in a Time of War; and now In the House of the Interpreter, followed quite naturally.” In this way, author wa Thiong’o describes how he came to write his latest book. This second instalment of his autobiography speaks of a sheltered childhood overshadowed by violence. The 1950s in Kenya were difficult times. On the one side, the Mau Mau insurgents battled for freedom, on the other side, people – including Thiong’o’s family – were kept in concentration camps by the democratic forces of the British Empire. The brutality of the British has been eloquently highlighted by recent historical research. There is no doubt that the concentration camps in the ‘reserves’ were no different from the Nazi camps of WWII Germany.
The book moves seamlessly between the pampered atmosphere of Alliance School and the tensions of the outside world. Thiong’o shows how Alliance – an inter-denominational school focused on giving Black Kenyan boys a European level education – was one of the most important formative moments of his life. Striving for excellence, the availability of a library, the extra curricula activities… everything was geared to preparing the leadership of the future. It is not by chance that many of Thiong’o’s schoolmates became influential people in independent Kenya.
A singular Englishman, Edward Carey Francis, headed the school. “He was a contradictory person, but he was completely selfless. In other words – remembers Thiong’o – he was entirely devoted to his mission. He actually believed in the British Empire. He was, in fact, a decorated officer of the British Empire. You could disagree with him, but you would never doubt his honesty. He was a very fascinating figure in so many ways. You could see he wanted to work for his students to achieve the very best, intellectually and even morally – obviously in terms of his definition of morality – but still he was that kind of person”.
book2With this book, Thiong’o gives an interesting view of Kenya in the years just before independence. He witnessed the violence and trauma lived by his family and the Kikuyu – his ethnic group – the backbone of the insurgency. While studying at Alliance sheltered him and prepared him for the future, the awareness of the ‘hounds outside the gates’ also played a meaningful role in his growth. The last chapter, where the author remembers the experience of being arrested, kept in prison, and taken to court for a trivial matter, sheds new light on the whole book. Later on in life, he would have a far more dramatic encounter with injustice: this time by the hands of the Kenyan government of the time – not different from the colonizers in matters of justice. In telling his story, Thiong’o also gives a brave and vivid account of the decline of British colonialism – a document of a remarkable writer’s political coming-of-age.
Perhaps unconsciously, the author traces his vocation to become a writer back to the years at Alliance. Even though in In the House of the Interpreter Thiong’o speaks little of his later interest in literature, one easily sees how his formative years led him to writing. He speaks at length of the marvel of the school library, where he could read books as far apart as English classics and Tolstoy. He relates the wonderful public debates, which prepared him to reasoning and research. School trips, sports, theatre… everything was geared to prepare a well-rounded person, capable of tackling life with competence and confidence.
In the House of the Interpreter is a good book, an appealing read for anyone interested in learning more about Thiong’o, but also keen to know how Kenyans lived and what they felt during the emergency period that would lead to self-rule and independence. Many of the problems Kenya would experience in the 1970s, 80s, and 90s, are rooted in that post-war period. Thiong’o’s narrative – simple but never superficial – is a good reminder of that.

Ngugi wa Thiong’o, In the House of the Interpreter. A Memoir, Pantheon, 256pp, 2012.

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