A few years ago I was bowled over by Ngugi wa Thiong'o's Wizard of the Crow, a bitter satire about an African dictator whose corruption has reached surreal heights and a few ragtag rebels who combat his regime. I joined in an extensive discussion of Wizard of the Crow at the Litblog Co-op, which chose the novel as its Winter 2007 selection.
Dreams in a Time of War, Ngugi wa Thiong'o's new memoir, shares an attractive cover concept with Wizard of the Crow, but otherwise could hardly feel more different. Sarcastic anger was Wizard's top note, but Dreams captures the author as a child, observant and innocent, devoid of hatred even as the emerging independent nation of Kenya dissolves into civil war around him.
The author's subdued self-portrait is a surprise, and adds much dimension to the earlier book (I strongly recommend reading them together). The first few chapters describe what life was like half a century inside a polygamous farming family in East Africa's Rift Valley. Ngugi's father had four wives who lived in four separate huts around his solitary hut. The children lived with their mothers and navigated complex relationships with their siblings and cousins. Ngugi's family provided him with a welcome feeling of stability as he struggled to follow the political news that swirled around him: African armies returning from World War II, British colonization yielding to unsteady nationhood, an exciting rebel movement gaining power under the leadership of Jomo Kenyatta.
But Ngugi suddenly loses his place in this large family following a dispute over property. His powerful father is gone from his life, but young Ngugi finds new purpose in school, applying himself intensely and slowly gaining the self-confidence that will later define his writing career. Others around him become embroiled in the violent Kenyan conflict that eventually becomes known as the Mau Mau uprising. Ngugi's sympathies are with the rebels, though members of his family straddle both sides.
The glimpses of life in Kenya are riveting, especially the detailed recounting of Ngugi's public rite of circumcision and passage to manhood, a ritual that seems to have meant a lot to him at the time (the important thing was not to cry when the operation was performed). Something very happy occurs near the book's end: many students take a test to determine whether or not they will go to high school, and Ngugi scores above all his peers and is chosen to attend the best school in the country.
The young Ngugi was also fascinated by trains, and by cities, and in the book's last sequence he is finally able to ride on a train, something he had long wished to do, in order to reach his new school. This slim and satisfying book ends there; we know that the vivid bitter comedies and tragedies of this important writer's future career await.