Devil on the Cross

This book knocked my socks off! Becoming an author has enhanced my appreciation for good writing and expanded my horizons in the exploration of the world of literature; I’ve read some African authors like Chinua Achebe and, of course Alan Paton, but Devil on the Cross was an epiphany for me.

          Kenyan author Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o wrote Devil on the Cross while he was imprisoned in Kenya without a trial in 1978. He was “detained” as part of the crackdown on voices considered subversive by the conservative, pro-Western government of Jomo Kenyatta (who died in office in August of that year.) During his imprisonment, Ngũgĩ documented his experiences in Kamĩtĩ prison in Detained: A Writers Prison Diary as well as Devil on the Cross. Both of these were written on toilet paper that was intentionally designed to be coarse: “what was bad for the body was good for the pen.”

          The heroine of Devil on the Cross, Jacinta Warĩĩnga, is a young woman with aspirations toward engineering, whose advancement was inhibited by numerous bosses who imagined women as only being good for “spreading their thighs;” one of them, the Rich Old Man from Ngorika, wooed, impregnated, and abandoned her. She reaches a turning point after she is evicted from her home, serendipitously receives an invitation to attend an event called The Devil’s Feast in her distant home town, and travels there in a matatũ, a communal taxi, with a handful of strangers, whose stories and destinies are linked together. The capstone of the feast is to be a contest of thieves and robbers to see which is the greatest of all, a contest sponsored and judged by the IOTR, the International Organization of Thieves and Robbers.

          The feast and its associated events take up about half of the narrative, and is a stinging satire of economic systems designed for the accumulation of wealth by foreign investors using obedient and obsequious local leaders. The author’s ability to weave a strong economic and philosophic theme in a compelling narrative is, for me, a bit reminiscent of though more compelling than Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged; the viewpoints, of course, are diametrically opposed.

          Even though Devil on the Criss was written over forty years ago, it resonates clearly with events of 2021. Ngũgĩ puts racism, sexism, economic disparity, and #MeToo all on display, and, from my vantage point as a middle-aged affluent white American male, with subtlety and honesty enough to cause discomfort. His authentic African voice is enhanced with pithy aphorisms, novel to my ear and intriguing to my mind, such as: “A borrowed necklace may lead to the loss of one’s own,” “No one applies old perfume that has lost its scent,” “Only a fool sucks at the tits of his mother’s corpse,” and a somewhat shocking but relevant and astute metaphor, “the mouth that ate itself.”

          I look forward to reading more of Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o’s writings (I encountered him by chance browsing the local library). His work is now published by Penguin Classics as part of their African Writers Series (the image above is from the first edition in the 1970s). What a joy it was to discover a nugget of gold like this!