By Alexander Ikawah
The chronicle of Binyavanga’s life begins with an anecdote from a playful childhood afternoon. He is clumsy, happy, unsure but in good company. His siblings provide a lead for him to follow and for a long time, that hides his weaknesses. The country has just gained independence and opportunities are plenty. His father is busy, life is alright, and the writer has yet to become life’s apprentice.
Gently he guides you through an awkward childhood rich with description and life. The pages explode with sights and sounds as vivid as only a child can see them and Binyavanga delivers them as vividly as only a master’s pen can render them. It is fitting indeed that he writes this part with a childlike voice from which he breaks away only to provide insight into matters whose subtext his young self could not have understood at the time. Optimism and patriotism turn into greed, tribalism, xenophobia and corruption and through a veil of childish innocence; a young Binyavanga watches it all. The country is hitting adolescence, the end of its innocent years. Soon it will have to stand up for itself and it is so for his character as well. It is the most beautiful half of the story, the most beautifully written too. It is truly the narrative of ‘this place’ just as he dreamed of writing it. This is how to write about Africa.
It is in the second half of the book where a unique thing comes to my notice. He is navigating his adolescence with difficulty; the country is stumbling and stuttering as its post-colonial saviors turn into its worst enemies. The childish voice is gone, the gaze is grown, and the innocence of the child has been replaced by a clumsy young man’s biases, opinions, apathy, complacence… the transition is stark. It is still beautifully written; the imagery just as evocative as before, the prose just as elegant, and yet something has changed in the second half of this book. The young boy has discovered books and is so buried in them that it seems he notices nothing else. He has begun to dream of writing now. He is alienating himself from his family, from his friends, from the reader. He has lost his wonder. There is no ‘young voice’ for this part. Binyavanga writes it as his current self and the dreams of writing that he gives his younger self are his Chekhov’s Gun. The inevitable gunshot is the very book I hold in my hand.
The narrative has changed. He is no longer writing about ‘this place’… he is writing about his writing. ‘This Place’ has been relegated from the subject of the book to a mere setting for a new narrative: The story of a writer. The culmination of a craft in a difficult land and though I read on, captivated by the masterful strokes of his prose, deep down I know what has been done and I’m not sure that I like it. I’m not sure that Binyavanga should have shifted the story into this new one; that he should have stopped writing about ‘this place’ at all. This new story seems as though it should just bear the title: ‘One day I will write’.
So he goes to College in South Africa, a chance to make a future for himself. This new Binyavanga that I do not like. He has left Kenya behind, engaged in the same endeavor, this new Kenya that I do not like. It is not long before both are busy wasting away. Kenya under its corrupt leadership, Binyavanga alone in his book-strewn candle-lit room. The protagonist has become the antagonist. The story of that boy, eyes aglow with wonder, has become the autobiography of some unsavory person and it seems to be headed for a sad epitaph. I struggle before I can bring myself to root for his character in his pursuit of his writing ambitions. In fact, I think I root for him only because of his other works; because of what I know of him outside of this book.
He will pull himself out of his failure later, spurred on by guilt and desperation and finally begin to write. The country will get rid of a president whose term threatened to become eternal and ignite new hope. Both will become the versions we know and experience today.
I close the book at the end of the narrative and stop to feel. It is a beautifully written book, rich with description, history, culture and language. I am greatly impressed, even enlightened from it; yet I am also unsatisfied. My mind drifts back to a passage from the first half of the book, my favorite half:
“One day we are told, Kenyatta’s Mercedes was stuck in the mud and he shouted ‘Harambee’ so that people would come and push and push his long Mercedes-Benz out of the mud, so we all push and pull together; we will get the Mercedes out of the mud.”
This book is Kenyatta’s Mercedes Benz: I am proud of it, awed by it, impressed and inspired by it; all the while well aware that I can’t get a ride on it. It is not for me. Kenyatta rides it on my behalf while I make do with simpler fare.
Indeed looking at the book in hindsight, it seems tailored for an audience that brings no knowledge of ‘this place’ to their reading of the text. It has done well in foreign markets and has received much critical acclaim worldwide and its success will no doubt increase interest in and awareness of the talent in Kenya’s literary scene. When they look to ‘this place’ to see the shiny Mercedes it is likely they will spot us walking about and in an increasingly inter-connected world, perhaps this is for the best.
These ideas and expectations I brought to this book are mine alone and despite them; the quality of this work is outstanding. It is truly a beautifully written book. You must see this Mercedes at least once in your lifetime, if not for the ride at least for the wonder. You will be better off for it.