Review of Devil on the Cross by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o (Heinemann, 1980: English translation 1982).
Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o’s satirical novel, written from a jail cell, takes no prisoners in its attacks on Kenya’s crony capitalism.
This novel was written on toilet paper. It reads like it was engraved on tablets of fire. Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o was serving a prison term when he began Devil on the Cross, after angering the Kenyan government with his radical play Ngaahika Ndeenda (I Will Marry When I Want). Rather than quieting him, detention hardened his resolve. Those scribbled scraps of toilet paper told of a country sold as carrion, scavenged by foreign capital, its own elites nibbling at the leftover gristle of Western cars, golf clubs, and meaningless qualifications. Published on his release, after the confiscated manuscript was returned by a sympathetic jailer, Devil on the Cross is a blunderbuss of a novel, merciless in its ire.
The plot is demonstrative, a meld of social realism and phantasmagoric satire. Five people meet in a matatu (shared taxi) on the way to Ilmorog, a fictional town also visited by Ngũgĩ in his earlier novel Petals of Blood. Some have received mysterious invitations to a ‘Devil’s Feast’, a competition to choose ‘seven experts in Theft and Robbery’. It becomes clear that this is a contest organized by international capitalists, seeking to recruit malevolent local agents as they ‘spread their tentacles over the whole of the Earth, like the creeping plant that crawls into all corners of the field’.
The tone of the novel is set early on: the dedication on the opening page is ‘to all Kenyans struggling against the neo-colonial stage of imperialism’. The characters are symbolic sketches, a roster of Marxist favourites. In the improbably dialectical matatu, we hear first from the peasant, and then there are little speeches by the worker, the intellectual and the representative of the local bourgeoisie. We learn about the ‘clan of parasites’, the ‘clan of producers’, and the ‘paths of resistance’ made by the workers. At times it feels like a postcolonial remake of The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists.
This kind of sub-Brechtian agitprop could quickly grow tiring, were it not for the fantastical savagery of Ngũgĩ’s wit. The central spectacle of the Devil’s Feast, where gluttonous capitalists boast of their wickedness, is painted with appropriate excess. One tells of how he has created fake international schools, complete with plastic dummies of white children, to lure fee-paying parents; another describes a plan to sell tinned soil and bottles of imported air. This is satire at its most darkly cannibalistic, in the tradition of Jonathan Swift or Lu Xun.
Ngũgĩ’s target is international capitalism and the local elites that sustain it. But his rage is not just against economic injustice. He is equally concerned with culture, and a sham liberation which has failed (to use the title of one of his essays) in ‘decolonising the mind’. ‘Our stories, our riddles, our songs, our customs, our traditions, everything about our national heritage has been lost to us’, says one of the characters, in full didactic mode. Indeed, Devil on the Cross is itself a declaration of independence: the first of Ngũgĩ’s novels to be written in Kikuyu (the English translation is his own).
Ngũgĩ is also concerned with the role of women, whose bodies are exploited by men in the same way that Kenya is exploited by foreign powers, or workers by bosses. The grotesque bragging of the competing capitalists is adorned with tales of sexual conquest, one man even aspiring to own ‘two cocks’ so that he can enjoy his ‘sugargirl’ without tiring. The heroine of the novel, and the only character who is developed beyond caricature, has herself been the plaything of older men: one abandons her after she becomes pregnant with his child, while another forces himself upon her at work. She scorches her skin with whitening creams and straightens her hair with burning combs; we first encounter her, confused and alone, as she contemplates suicide. Her triumphant transformation through the novel stretches credibility, but stands as a feminist fable within the wider whole.
Ngũgĩ is a towering figure in African literature – perhaps only Chinua Achebe, of the independence generation, shares his prophetic status. He is a versatile writer, often tipped for a Nobel Prize, and subtlety is within his repertoire. But subtlety is not his business here. For that reason, in pure literary terms, his A Grain of Wheat, set during death throes of empire, is a finer novel. Stylistically, the prefab politics of Devil on the Cross can feel dated. Yet the issues Ngũgĩ identifies – neo-imperial structures in politics, in finance, in culture – are as real as ever. This is a flaming indictment from within the prison walls.