IN THE HOUSE OF THE INTERPRETER. Ngugi wa Thiong’o. Pantheon Books. 240 pages. $25.95.
The tension is palpable “In the House of the Interpreter,” a memoir by Kenyan author Ngugi wa Thiong’o. Outside Alliance High School, where the author is a student, there is a national state of emergency while the British combat anti-colonial Mau Mau guerrillas.
Inside the school, the author sweats through each day praying that the authorities won’t discover that his brother fights with the guerrillas. Even the mission and prayer of the school foreshadow rebellion and Kenya’s independence.
Thiong’o writes that the school, established for black Kenyans by European missionaries and modeled after the Tuskegee Institute, “actually subverted the colonial system it was meant to serve.” And students pray: “That from it (Alliance) may go out, strong in body, mind and character, men who in thy name and with thy power will serve their fellows faithfully.”
The tension erupts when the author is arrested for a minor offense as he travels home to share his first schoolteacher salary with his mother and family. The arrest and the days after will anger the reader.
However, Thiong’o isn’t just listing the evils of colonialism, he is pointing to the universal truth that the passion for freedom, regardless of race, is not doused by burning down villages, relocating villagers and detaining citizens.
Although the author isn’t writing in his first language, his English prose and cultural perspective are gifts to the reader.
Reviewer Hayden D. Shook was a Peace Corps volunteer in Micronesia. She teaches English as a Second Language in Charleston.