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Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o: Caitaani Mutharaba-ini (Devil on the Cross)

Ngũgĩ wrote this novel in Gikuyu on toilet paper while in prison. He had been imprisoned for the overtly political play, Ngaahika Ndeenda: Ithaako ria Ngerekano (I Will Marry When I Want). The novel was confiscated but later returned to him. He finished it as his prison sentence ended. He later left Kenya to live first in London and then in the United States.

Like Petals of Blood, this novel tells the story of four Kenyans We start with Jacinta Warĩĩnga. She had worked in Nairobi as a secretary in a construction company. Her boss fired her for rejecting his advances and then her boyfriend dumped her because she had been her boss’ mistress. Her landlord increased her rent and, when she refused to pay the extra, he threw her out. As a result, she decided to return to her parents in Ilmorog, the town of Petals of Blood. On the way she meets a young man, to whom she tells her story, who invites her to a devil’s feast back in Ilmorog, involving a competition to choose the seven cleverest thieves and robbers in Ilmorog. On the bus she meets the three other main characters. The first is Gatuĩria, a music student at the University of Nairobi. The second is Wangarĩ, who cannot pay her fare. She had fought in the war for independence but had been unable to find work in Nairobi. Finally there is Mũturi, a working man who seems to be involved in some sort of revolutionary movement. The four all tell their stories on the bus ride.

They all go the devil’s feast in Ilmorog and Ngũgĩ has great fun, as various people testify to how greedy and corrupt they are. One of them, for example, states that his catechism is Reap where you never planted, eat that for which you never shed a drop of sweat and drink that which has been fetched by others. Shelter from the rain in huts for which you have never carried a single pole or thatching grass, and dress in clothes made by others. This competition takes up a large part of the book and Ngũgĩ spare no-one in his very direct satire. When they leave the cave, our four heroes are shocked by what they have seen and heard. But when they try to do something – report the matter to the police, lead a march of workers to the cave – they are brutally repulsed. While, as in his other novels, Ngũgĩ tries to point to the future, the crimes of everyone committed in the past are there for us to see. However, this book is well worth reading for the brilliant attack on the ruling classes in the cave.

Publishing history

First published 1980 by Heinemann
First English translation by Heinemann in 1982