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Thiong'o’s ‘Devil on the Cross’ a bracing slap at Kenya corruption

"Devil on the Cross" by Ngugi Wa Thiong'o
"Devil on the Cross" by Ngugi Wa Thiong'o TNS

“God help Kenya, my love.”

So says Wariinga, heroine of Kenyan novelist Ngugi Wa Thiong'o’s “Devil on the Cross,” a classic indictment of neocolonialism and corruption in Kenya. First published in Gikuyu in 1980 and then in English in 1982, it’s being republished this week as the latest addition to the Penguin African Writers Series.

Like Ngugi, who secretly wrote “Devil” on toilet paper while in prison after his arrest for writing and staging a subversive play, Wariinga has reason to mourn what’s gone wrong in a country where institutionalized corruption allows bullies and thugs to do as they please.

As things get under way in “Devil,” Wariinga has been fired from her job because she won’t sleep with her boss. Refusing to believe her story, her boyfriend dumps her. When she seeks legal help following her landlord’s demand for more rent, she’s evicted and threatened. No wonder she tries to kill herself; even here she fails.

Instead she leaves Nairobi to return to her parents, taking passage on a dilapidated matatu – think minibus – driven by a colorful but wily character who the reader quickly suspects is more dangerous than he seems.

What ensues calls to mind “The Canterbury Tales,” as Wariinga and her fellow travelers trade stories involving who they are and why they’re on the road.

An old woman remembers her days as a freedom fighter under British rule. A worker decries what’s happened to Kenya. A musician describes the polyphonic oratorio, inflected by Kenyan tradition and culture, he hopes to write – even as it becomes clear that he has little feel for Kenyan folklore. A quiet passenger recounts one of Jesus’ parables, as a means of describing how foreigners continue to rule Kenya following independence.

This road novel is mere prelude to what awaits upon the matatu’s arrival in Wariinga’s native town: a formal competition sponsored by the Organization for Modern Theft and Robbery. Various Kenyan businessmen take the stage to offer profiles in exploitation, as they each vie for the honor of being deemed most rapacious of all.

Their schemes for getting rich take on increasingly bizarre and exaggerated form. From stealing land and women, they devolve to selling peasants and workers the air they breathe, while literally stealing their sweat and blood – funneled to foreign markets via pipes directly connected to their exploited bodies.

Subtle this freak show isn’t. It’s filled with passages like this one: “There is nothing as terrible as a people who have swallowed foreign customs whole, without even chewing them, for such people become mere parrots.”

As such passages might suggest, Ngugi writes with the sort of bitterly funny, over-the-top satire that calls to mind Soviet dissident writers. In an informative introduction, Namwali Serpell likens “Devil on the Cross” to Mikhail Bulgakov’s “The Master and the Margarita,” and I agree.

But while the outrageous bad guys are what’s most memorable about Ngugi’s portrait of Kenya, they’re not the whole story.

True to his dialectical frame of mind, Ngugi also gives the people their say. There’s the above-referenced stories told by Wariinga and her fellow travelers (although Wariinga’s own tale is occasionally marred by bursts of Stakhanovite fervor about the diligent and perfect worker).

Ngugi has also made room for folktales, parables, proverbs, poetry, popular songs, fragments from a play and an outline of the musician’s oratorio.

The resulting dialogism is a formal embodiment of the novel’s theme: While the many devils in this novel may think they control the narrative, competing voices make clear that Kenya’s story is still being written, with the outcome not yet determined.

“Our lives are a battlefield on which is fought a continuous war,” the worker tells those traveling with him. On the one side are “the forces that are pledged to confirm our humanity,” fighting against “those determined to dismantle it.” Ngugi dedicated his novel “to all Kenyans struggling against the neocolonial stage of imperialism.”

“Devil on the Cross”

By Ngugi Wa Thiong'o (Penguin African Writers Series, $16)

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