5 oktober 2010

Secret Lives - Ngugi Wa Thiong'o

On Thursday 7 October, the winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature 2010 will be announced. As every year an intense speculation is going on among book lovers: what name will the chairman of the Swedish Academy reveal this year? Whose turn will it be to gain eternal glory? Who will be added to the list with such names as Thomas Mann, Ernest Hemingway, Gabriel García Márquez and JM Coetzee? Will it be a Dutchman this time? One of the traditional contenders Cees Nooteboom or Harry Mulisch? Or even the now 92 year old Hella Haasse? Probably not. There are clear indications that it will go to the Kenyan writer Ngugi Wa Thiong'o (1938), roughly pronounced as (u)Ngu-gui wa th-yong-o, with gui as in guitar. It is by no means a fait accompli, but a glance at the list of the bookies, particularly Ladbrokes, suggests that the prize money of up to one million U.S. dollars may be collected by the Kenyan. Why? Well, normally the name of the winner is kept strictly confidential until the day of the announcement, always a Thursday in October. The previous two years, however, has shown with almost 100% certainty, a leak. An insider had secretly revealed the winner to some friends or acquaintances, resulting in a skyrocketing of the candidate on the list, just days before the announcement. For the more frequently one wagers a bet on a name, the higher that name will go up in the list.

In the first publication of the list Ngugi was somewhere at the bottom (just above Bob Dylan, who is considered eligible because his lyrics, quite rightly, are seen as very high standard poetry; it is in itself already an honor to be placed in the betting lists). 
But since the day before yesterday Ngugi suddenly jumped up like an impala, this morning he was found at the second place in the list behind the Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer and a few hours ago Ngugi had also caught up with Tranströmer.

Coincidence or not, during the evenings and free moments in the weekends, I had been spending some time in Secrets Lives and other stories, written by this by far best known Kenyan author. Secret Lives dates from the early days of his career. 
I read about Mukami who fell in love with an older man, a tough warrior, about how she married him as a fourth wife. She was so happy when she was suddenly lifted on the shoulders by some unknown man, to be brought to the hut of her Muthoga. It turned out to be her wedding day, pure joy... But Mukami proved to be a thata, a barren woman, infertile and therefore useless. Ngugi mercilessly dragged me into the mindset of this rural woman and the pain she must have experienced. I read about John, the son of a local pastor, who was sweating and shivering in bed for weeks because he had a secret, something he had created himself, but could not be shared with his fanatically gospel preaching father. I read about a white man who had thought for years that he had been successful in Kenya, but ultimately had to lose out on what he did not know, the mysterious, the African. I read about Wanjiru, who preferred to be called Beatrice because that Western name gave her hope to escape her wretched existence as a prostitute. But Beatrice was not attractive enough and barely succeeded to survive by selling her body. Until she, on one day, took an act of revenge and showed who she was, Wanjiru, Beatrice, a strong woman.

Thirteen wonderful, timeless stories of a writer who has an unmatched ability to move in the lives of a wide-ranging type of characters, young and old, men, women, whites, settlers, colonized, missionaries, followers of traditional religions and so on. 
And all without a value-judgment. Ngugi makes you feel how these people must have felt under different circumstances in different times in this one country, Kenya.

It is difficult on the basis of a book, in this case a collection of stories, to determine whether someone is really among the world’s top class. 
And then again, who decides? Tastes differ, times change. If it were up to me, I would award the prize to the Albanian Ismail Kadare, unmatched in uncovering how deeply a political or ideological dictatorship can intervene in human existence. Or to the French-Czech writer Milan Kundera, best known for his novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being, who as no other, knows how to treat major philosophical themes in a comprehensive and light, but very poignant way. But if on Thursday it will be announce that it is Ngugi Wa Thiong'o who may come to Stockholm to receive the prize, then the committee has, in my opinion, certainly made a wise decision, although I  base my opinion on only one book, Secret Lives and other stories.

Ngugi Wa Thiongo, Secret Lives and Other Stories, (1963), 144 pages
ISBN: 9966-46-917-6

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