Some Penguin Classics look so darn elegant in their special anniversary editions, which certainly applies to the 50th anniversary reprint of The River Between, the lean and powerful 1965 debut novel by Kenyan author Ngugi wa Thiong’o, here presented with a new Introduction by Beasts of No Nation author Uzodinma Iweala and sporting a gorgeous cover photo by Nigel Pavitt, with the whole production opening with a “message” from Chinua Achebe welcoming the reader to the Penguin African Writers Series. This is the fourth of this author’s novels to join the Series (although it’s probably still to early for the induction of his 2006 masterpiece Wizard of the Crow).
Iweala’s Introduction is earnestly passionate, although reading offers the same kind of uphill struggle the reader faces on virtually every page of Beasts of No Nation: namely, it can be a trial to be lectured quite so sententiously by somebody who’s young enough to be my grandson (if a quick mental calculation is correct, our revered authority has only just crept out of his twenties). Penguin ran into this same problem a few years ago when they commissioned a teenager to write the Foreward to a John Steinbeck book, and things are only a little better here, with Iweala assuring us that Ngugi wa Thiong’o is a writer who’s “profoundly allergic to the simple” and lapsing quite often into lines like this:
It is not an easy text, primarily because it advocates abandoning many assumptions that the postcolonial African (which is to say every living African) has about the struggle for freedom and the institutions that structure everyday life.
I believe the native Kenyan term for that kind of stuff is twaddle, but even twaddle is preferable to thinly-disguised self-promotion. “Writers,” Iweala intones at one point, “have never been an easy lot. More than anyone – except perhaps soldiers or mercenaries – they thrive on conflict, viewing it as an integral part of any society.” Apart from the fact that a good fifteen occupations spring instantly to mind that “thrive on conflict” more than book-writing, there’s also the convenient fact that the main character in Beasts of No Nation is a mercenary. Wouldn’t want to be undercutting our own PR, now would we?
In fact, it’s a jarring jump to move from this Introduction written by a young man to the novel itself, which was written by an even younger man and yet never indulges in either bloat or self-congratulation. Re-reading The River Between is every bit as knife-edge uncomfortable now as it was the first time I read it, right around the time Uzodinma Iweala’s father was teething. This is a novel of only about 150 pages (a lifetime ago, such things were called novellas, according to the rule of a cherished and now long-gone Harvard fixture, who maintained that a short story was a work you could read in one sitting and that a novella was a novel you could read in one sitting “provided there’s tea”), but the London Guardian was right (though a trifle condescending) to say it “sometimes touches the grandeur of tap-root simplicity.”
The river of the title, the Honia, flows between two ridges in Kenya, and the ridges are occupied by two very different villages of the Gikuyu tribe, Kameno and Makuyu. The dividing issue is the newly-introduced Christianity, which will eventually come to divide the villagers, some wanting to embrace the new faith, others wanting to stick with their ancient tribal customs.
Caught in the middle is the book’s main character, a noble young man named Waiyaki, the rising star of the Gikuyu tribe. Waiyaki is on the brink of manhood, a time when “the hidden things of the hills were being revealed to him,” and, after a stint away from home in a prestigious secondary school, he returns ready to undergo his “second birth” in the tribe’s ritual of circumcision, a harrowing scene that’s presented with crystalline brevity:
All his life Waiyaki had waited for this day, for this very opportunity to reveal his courage like a man. This had been the secret ambition of his youth. Ye, now that the time had come, he felt afraid. He did not, however, show it. He just stared into space, fear giving him courage. His eyes never moved. He was actually seeing nothing. The knife produced a thin, sharp pain as it cut through the flesh. The surgeon had done his work. Blood trickled freely on to the ground, sinking into the soil. Henceforth a religious bond linked Waiyaki to the earth, as if his blood was an offering. Around him women where shouting and praising him. The son of Chege had proved himself. Such praises were lavished only on the brave.
The plot tangles further with the introduction of both family tensions (the relationship between Waiyaki and Chege is still, for my money, the most memorable part of the novel) and the forbidden love of the wrong young woman, and Ngugi wa Thiong’o plays it all very expertly against the impassive backdrop of the great ridges of the land itself (“they just slept, the big deep sleep of their Creator”). It’s a moving, brittle performance, just about as impressive a start to any literary career as could be imagined – and it’s great to have it in the Penguin Classics line at last.
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