Saturday, April 27, 2019

Ngugi wa Thiong'o/The River Between (#1965Club)

"The two ridges lay side by side. One was Kameno, the other was Makuyu. Between them was a valley. It was called the valley of life."
 Waiyaki, the son of Chege, is of a line of tribal leaders and prophets, though their prophecy has largely been treated as Cassandra's: "There shall come a people with clothes like butterflies," said his ancestor Mugo, and though this was unheeded like all their line's prophecy, the white men came to Kenya and to the land of the two ridges.

The River Between (1965) is the second novel of Ngugi wa Thiong'o, who originally published under the anglicized version of his name James Ngugi. His early novels were written in English; later he turned to writing his novels in his native Kikuyu and translating himself into English.

The novel exists in an almost timeless zone of fable, but the whites have arrived in this remote region of Kenya not long before, in the form of missionaries and teachers; shortly after the start of the novel, white settlers and government agents start to arrive. Society has broken up into those who follow the new religion and those who practice the traditional ways. Chege tells Waiyaki, his only son, he must learn the ways of the white man, take advantage of his offer of education, and at the same time remain loyal to his own people. Can Waiyaki meet this challenge? One ridge becomes associated with the Christians; the other with traditional practices.

The first thing that strikes about this novel is the declarative spareness of the prose. The quote above is the very beginning. Here's another representative passage:
"Njahi was the season of the long rain. It was the favourite season with all the people. For then, everyone would be sure of a good harvest. The peas and beans, bursting into life, gave colour and youth to the land. On sunny days the greens leaves and the virgin gaiety of the flowers made your heart swell with expectation."
At this particular moment Waiyaki is waiting for Nyambura, the girl of his dreams, to show up.

Educated at the white missionary school, Waiyaki tries to see to his people's education, and to create peace and harmony between the Christians and the traditional faction, so that his people as a whole can best resist the encroachment of white colonialists. Waiyaki, associated both by family and temperament, with the traditionalist faction, is in love with Nyambura, the elder (and only surviving) daughter of the leader of the Christian faction.

But the other thing that strikes is the sense of doom. It's not a long book, and it is also a very good one; nevertheless I read it slowly, almost unwillingly, because I was afraid what might happen. And, though in the end, we do not see the bodies expiring on stage, it has all the inexorability of classic tragedy. Had Romeo and Juliet ended with Act IV would you have expected them to still be alive after another act? The end (not actually much of a spoiler) of The River Between:
"Waiyaki and Nyambura would be placed in the hands of the Kiama, who would judge them and decide what to do. It was the best thing and the crowd roared back 'Yes' as if the burden of judging their Teacher [Waiyaki] were removed from them. They went away quickly, glad that he was hidden by the darkness. For they did not want to look at the Teacher and they did not want to read their guilt in one another's faces. Neither did they want to speak to one another, for they knew full well what they had done to Waiyaki and they did not want to know.
     The land was now silent. The two ridges lay side by side, hidden in the darkness. And Honia river went on flowing between them, down through the valley of life, its beat rising above the dark stillness, reaching into the heart of the people of Makuyu and Kameno."
It seems to me to be a very interesting 1965 novel; an unflinching look back by a Kenyan at the process of colonization in his newly de-colonized country. It was, as the cover of my edition shows, the 17th novel in the African Writers Series, a publishing effort to bring to greater recognition African writers, founded in 1963, and led by its advisory editor Chinua Achebe. Ngugi's first novel, Weep Not, Child, was the first novel by an East African in that series.

This is the second novel of Ngugi wa Thiong'o I've read; earlier (pre-blogging) I read his novel of 2004, Wizard of the Crow. It's very different, but also very good, I thought. Ngugi is one of those writers who gets mentioned when Nobel Prize season comes around, and he's one whom I would be quite happy to see win it.


  1. Sounds thought provoking indeed, and a writer new to me. Thanks for bringing his work to the 1965 Club!

  2. Great review!

    I've had The Wizard of the Crow on my shelf for almost 10 years now...unread! I need a kick in the pants to read it.

    I was considering reading this book for the Back to the Classics Challenge except I would have to buy a copy...then again, WHY NOT?

    1. I did double count it for the Back to the Classics challenge. Shhh....

      I quite liked Wizard of the Crow, but it is very different. This has the spareness of a fable, while Wizard of the Crow is much more capacious & extravagant. I think maybe he read some Latin boom authors in-between & liked what he found there.

    2. Oh, and there may be a few unread books around here as well...sigh...

  3. If you enjoy his fiction, you would probably also enjoy his autobiographical books too. (I, in turn, must give his novels a try!)

    1. I've never read any of his autobiography, but I'll bet it would be good. I've got Weep Not, Child that I picked up at last fall's sales, and that will be next I'm sure.