Life Sentences

Wrestling with the Devil: A Prison Memoir BY Ngugi wa Thiong'o. The New Press. Hardcover, 272 pages. $25.

The cover of Wrestling with the Devil: A Prison Memoir

Toward the middle of his memoir, One Day I Will Write About This Place (2011), the Kenyan writer Binyavanga Wainaina recalls an anticolonial reverie he experienced while getting drunk in a cheap bar in Nairobi as a young man. He had just read Decolonising the Mind (1986) by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, which had been banned by the Kenyan government. “It is illegal and it was thrilling, and I had vowed to go back to my own language,” Wainaina writes. “English is the language of the colonizer.” He dreamed of abandoning his professional life entirely, giving up on his plans to work for an advertising firm and regaining his fading command of his native language instead. “I will take Gikuyu classes, when I am done with diversiddy and advertising, when I am driving a good car. I will go to the village and make plays in Gikuyu, in my good new car.”

In his painfully ironic self-consciousness (“I will make very good decolonized advertisements for Coca-Cola,” the memoir goes on), Wainaina points to the distance between his position and that of the great Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, who in the late 1970s made one of the more dramatic decisions in the history of world literature: He abandoned English, in which he had achieved no small measure of success, in order to write novels in Gikuyu, a language in which there was no novelistic tradition. Prior to this decision, he had grown disillusioned with the normal production and transmission of his writing, and he had begun working with rural Kenyans to produce Marxist community theater in Gikuyu. This activity led to his persecution, arrest, and exile.

Wrestling with the Devil, Ngũgĩ ’s account of his twelve months as a political prisoner from December 1977 to December 1978, returns to this central story, for which he is now more famous than for his fiction. A newly edited version of the long-out-of-print Detained: A Writer’s Prison Diary (1982), the memoir reveals a writer who is practically quaking with rage. It is the fury of someone who had watched his hopes for national liberation curdle. “The act of imprisoning democrats, progressive intellectuals, and militant workers reveals many things,” Ngũgĩ writes in Wrestling with the Devil. “It is first an admission by the authorities that they know they have been seen.”

Before he gave up English for his native Gikuyu, Ngũgĩ was well known in Anglophone literature (then under the name James Ngugi) for his trio of beautiful early novels of colonial-era Kenya—The River Between, Weep Not, Child,and A Grain of Wheat—published in the ’60s as the first Kenyan novels in Heinemann’s “African Writers” series. But as Ngũgĩ has repeatedly said, by the time of the enormous critical success of A Grain of Wheat, published in 1967 when he was a graduate student at the University of Leeds, he was perplexed by the question of the political import of his work: “I knew about whom I was writing,” he observed in Moving the Centre (1993), “but for whom was I writing?” At Leeds, he had become interested in Frantz Fanon’s Marxism, and he drew the obvious conclusions. The peasantry who were the subject of his novel would never read it—certainly not if it remained in English. Even if the book were translated into Gikuyu, it would have been conceived and written in a different language, with a different audience in mind. Though he posed the problem in linguistic terms, Ngũgĩ was expressing the nagging doubts that dog all writers on the left, in any language, who find success in a medium that alienates them from the subjects of their work.

Ngũgĩ’s final English-language novel was the masterpiece Petals of Blood (1977). Four characters, representations of various social classes in Kenya, each come to disillusionment over the failures of decolonization and, together, form the seed of a new political subject. An inimitable classic, seething with intensity and anger, Petals of Blood indicted the Kenyan president Jomo Kenyatta and the post-independence elite for developing ties with Western capital and selling the country’s land to resource extractors and tourism developers. “All the big shots from the Bolibo Golf Club visiting the place to eat roasted goat’s meat and to buy five minutes of love,” he writes of the clientele of a rural brothel. “They came in Mercedes Benzes, Daimlers, Jaguars, Alfas, Toyotas, Peugeots, Volvos, Fords, Volkswagens, Range Rovers, Mazdas, Datsuns, Bentleys.” Ngũgĩ hates people who golf with a passion; they often appear in his novels as exemplars of the postcolonial new rich on whom Naipaul bestowed the derogatory term “mimic men.”

The same year Petals was published, Ngũgĩ put on Ngaahika Ndeenda (I Will Marry When I Want), a play written in Gikuyu and performed by workers and peasants in the village of Kamiriithu. The production, which drew attention to the unholy union of Christian missionaries and business interests in ’70s Kenya, was explicitly targeted at the country’s ruling class. Six weeks after the play’s debut, performances were shut down and Ngũgĩ was arrested. While he was incarcerated, he wrote Caitani Mutharaba-ini (Devil on the Cross, 1980), the first novel in the Gikuyu language, on prison toilet paper.

Much of his memoir is not strictly a memoir of prison, but one of reading and thinking in prison. Like Gramsci’s, Ngũgĩ’s incarceration came out of failure—the failure of the new nation to shake off its colonial fetters—and along with his fellow prisoners he spends his time wondering how it was that the country’s liberators had reproduced the structures they were supposed to dismantle. “We all shared a common feeling,” he writes: that “something beautiful, something like the promise of a new dawn had been betrayed.” He studies the old settler culture for clues and reserves special disdain for Karen Blixen, the Danish English writer better known by the pseudonym Isak Dinesen; he quotes liberally from her analysis, in Out of Africa (1937), of the Kenyans as close to animals, “wild things who are, in the hour of need, conscious of a refuge somewhere in existence; who go when they will; of whom we can never get hold.”

As Kenya entered the most violent phase of its national-liberation movement, local cultural traditions sprang back to life, and the British responded by dragooning Kenyans into putting on incessant productions of Shakespeare. For Ngũgĩ, this symbolic attempt to destroy Kenyan culture had lasting effects. “The night of the sword and the bullet,” he writes in a famous aperçu from Decolonising the Mind, “was followed by the morning of the chalk and the blackboard.” Ngũgĩ’s commitment to decolonizing the canon comes from knowing its power, and he is sensitive to its value. Stray quotations from English-language literature float in and out of the memoir, and one of the most disconcerting is from Sylvia Plath: Ngũgĩ evokes through her the “faceless faces of important men,” who helm the settler and postcolonial state alike.

The tragedy of Ngũgĩ’s life is that his imprisonment curtailed his ambitions. Over the course of the ’70s and early ’80s, he had outlined a new, radical educational movement for African universities: abolition of English-literature departments and cultivation of African-language study and African literatures. But, no longer safe in Kenya, Ngũgĩ was obliged to take refuge in departments he had once aspired to destroy, holding positions at Yale, New York University, and the University of California, Irvine. His most recent publications, such as the lectures collected under the title Globalectics: Theory and the Politics of Knowing (2012), bear the imprint of the university. From his earlier writing to this work there is a distinct change in emphasis. The angry excoriations of the neocolonial state have given way to the keywords of Deleuze and Bakhtin. This is to say nothing of the wretched Latin-and-Greek neologism in the title. And yet Ngũgĩ returns, if in a more muted way, to many of the concerns that animated him during his internment: Isak Dinesen, colonial education, the fate of the Mau Mau guerrillas.

I met Ngũgĩ once, when he gave a lecture at the university where I was a graduate student. He was the gentlest and kindest of men: inquisitive, quick to smile. The only flash of his old self was his mention, in passing, that he still retained a fondness for Mao’s essay “On Contradiction.” Though he had been invited by the graduate students, Ngũgĩ’s lecture was sparsely attended by them, and there were not many faculty, either. It was sobering to be reminded that a white American literary critic of middling abilities could command sizable audiences while a world-historical figure from East Africa was met with silence.

Programs in English have a popular reputation as hothouses of thoughtless radicalism, but their conservatism cannot be overstated. My own former department still tests its students with a general “canon” exam, ranging from Beowulf to Elizabeth Bishop, with the literature of the former colonies adding a decorative flourish. Ngũgĩ’s theories on the importance of African-language literature are debated in the same manner that Marx and Engels are read: as powerful arguments for a cause that has already lost.

Ngũgĩ is once again having a moment, as calls to decolonize literature programs gain force in the United States, the United Kingdom, and South Africa. We have been here before, in the ’60s and ’90s, and the results have been paltry: mere modernizations of the canon, as the invading force of the English language seizes more countries, despoils more subaltern dialects, colonizes more minds. The Ngũgĩ of Wrestling with the Devil called not just for adding a bit of color to the canon’s sagging shelf, but for abolition and upheaval. That should be the legacy of his impressive body of work—the stalled revolution we have the power to take up again.

Nikil Saval is a coeditor of n+1 and the author of Cubed: A Secret History of the Workplace (Doubleday, 2014).