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KMT: in the house of life
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B+ : oversimplified arguments and vision, but also appealing with its huge sweep
See our review for fuller assessment.
The complete review's Review:
KMT: in the house of life, set in an unnamed African every-country, is narrated by Lindela Imana and she begins her story with her schooldays.
Early on, she found a mentor in a man named Wennefer, who pushed her towards more academic ambition -- not to be satisfied with merely going on to the nearest secondary school but rather to try to get into the Whitecastle School -- the best in the country, with: "a monumental reputation as a place for the free growth of the intelligent spirit".
Wennefer takes her and then also a new boy whose family moves into the same building, Biko Lema, under his wing, nudging them to apply their curiosity and abilities and helping them prepare for the school entrance exam.
He had reached the point where he was explaining that Africans, or to be more precise, black people -- sad, extraordinary fact -- had no part whatsoever in the development of thought, when Biko raised his hand.Young Biko has been reading his Aristotle on the side and mentions that the suggestion there is quite different. Not only that, but:
"Apparently, sir," Biko continued, "Aristotle said the ancient Egyptians were black."Biko even goes to fetch the book with the offending passage ("οἱ ἄγαν μέλανες δειλοί ἀναφέρεται ἐπὶ τοὺς Αἰγυπτίους, Αἰθίοπας") from the school library, but Bloom is having none of it; his worldview permits only white superiority and so he dismisses Biko's example by insisting: "this is a matter of context. In this particular context, the word cannot have meant black". Biko can not understand why his teacher won't accept what seems to be plain evidence -- but the teacher is the one in a position of power, tossing the uppity youngster out of class, and then seeing to it that he is expelled ("rusticated for insubordination"), the principal siding with his white colleague in the matter. Even the word they use for the expulsion says it all: "Rusticated. Sent back to the bush. Nothing could be clearer",
The scholarly Biko is crushed by the expulsion, drifting aimlessly; there is no other institution in which his talents can properly unfold (he gives Freemasonry a try, but it's a short-lived experiment) and soon enough he commits suicide. Lindela is crushed by these events but soldiers on, doing well academically, if without the kind of enthusiasm she and Biko previously had: she did what was required -- careful not to: "complicate life with inquiries into truth and falsehood". She does look into the background of her school and its three founders (and "the strange, fecundating synergy" of this trio, "the African, the Asian and the European woman") -- in a chapter titled 'The Abattoir of Minds' ... -- and now recognizes also what the mission of the school was -- not enlightenment of the locals, but rather:
We were being trained, through our education, to occupy specific places, subordinate stations in a hierarchy. It was a requirement that we make a habit of subordination. That would prepare us to occupy the places set aside for us in an established structure.The school, she sees, is a cleverly designed training ground:
The idea of the Whitecastle School had the bright irresistibility of a master stroke. It was fundamentally conservative -- in that it was designed to work for, to strengthen and to perpetuate the imperial system. But it was also superficially innovative -- in that it offered entry into the system to two categories of people formerly excluded from the machinery of imperial power: Africans and women. They were to be allowed into the system as movable parts in the engine of subordination.(Armah lays it on thick but creatively here: there's a drainage canal surrounding the school -- easily seen as a moat, to keep it separate from the outside world -- and: "Chunks of masonry from Eton, Harrow and Winchester were embedded in the foundations", just to make absolutrely clear what they were trying to (re)build here.)
Lindela is intrigued by Egyptology -- as also both Biko and Wennefer had been -- but the standard line: "called ancient Egyptian linkages with Africa controversial" (and those who could afford to give their opinions more bluntly simply: "called the linkages arrant nonsense"), and so it's a field she pursues on her own, on and off also as she continue her studies at university. She gets her degrees, through a doctorate, and moves then: "like another sleepwalker into the somnolence of a research fellowship". But with the arrival of a new Classics professor, Sipha Jengo, she again finds someone who rouses her intellectual ambitions.
Sipha was educated at a different school, but got a similar life-lesson from the experience as Lindela had, as he explained to her:
"You were at the Whitecastle School. You got the same European ideology, but in secular form. More deceptive, wearing attractive disguises, like Humanism. You children there were probably encouraged to imagine you'd come to a place for the free expression of ideas."He has great ambitions, however -- and sees Lindela as an ideal colleague to work with him on his goal -- to do:
Work. Purposeful work. Accurate work. We can replace the old established lies from Europe, the complex we call our education, with real knowledge.The key is to come to understand African history -- its true history, going far back, before the Europeans and Arabs imposed their systems on it. Egypt is the key, he maintains:
Egypt is where the European consciousness gets confronted with the mirror of history. If Europe looks open-eyed into that mirror, it will see its own face, made up with lies. The most ancient European texts say that Egypt was African. Crack. They say the Egyptian population was black, before succeeding waves of nomads, immigrants and pillagers came. Crack. Crack.So that is what he sets out to do, easily enlisting Lindela to help him with this cause. The plan is to hold a conference and seminar -- but not the standard sort, held in a fancy hotel. Rather, he seeks to go to the source, and to enlist the help of the 'traditionalists' who represented a long, unbroken chain to the distant past, as "the memory of the people".
The town these traditionalists who he believes hold the key live in is Yarw, a place shrouded in some mystery also because the traditionalists there: "refused, no matter what the inducement, to talk to outsiders about their work". Sipha and Lindela's great task then is to try to get one to open up -- and, in Djiely Hor, they find one. He sees that they come in the spirit of the 'sharers' of old -- and so he is willing to make a great sacrifice: to apparently break the oath that all trained traditionalists take, that they will not share their knowledge. Now, however he sees it as his obligation.
The conference is soon a reality, and begins with the familiar kind of scholarly, academic presentations -- but then Djiely Hor has his say. It is revelatory, a previously unheard of (in academia) way of seeing. But Djiely Hor then also pays for what other see as a great violation. Before that, however, he also makes sure that Lindela takes photographs of some hieroglyphics and charges her with translating them and spreading the word, the stories they tell -- a text that "has lain hidden for the greater part of two millennia".
The first two hundred or so pages of KMT: in the house of life are, in a sense, a preamble, leading to these ancient texts; the long final part is then almost entirely devoted to them, presenting the translation, a history made up of first-person accounts from across thousands of years, relating an (African) history much richer than the ones the late-comer Europeans and Arabs allowed for. Though (relative) dates are occasionally given, alerting readers to the passage of centuries, there's a timeless (and to some extent myth-like) quality to much of what is related.
It is an historical account from distant beginnings on, covering significant events and describing the shaping and changing of this culture and society (so, for example: "the art of writing changed our apprehension of life"), all in personal voices. Long at the fore is a sense of community, as well as an appreciation of the importance of remembering: "Memory is soil, water and light for life" -- a reminder also that memory (of these texts, and the stories they relate, among much else) has long been suppressed in the Africa Armah presents.
As the chronicle(s) progress, the sense of community is challenged. There are those who argue for fundamental changes -- the introduction of much clearer-cut hierarchies among them:
Through belief and respect the people will move earth, dig channels, build dams, plant seed, harvest crops and make roads when we tell them to. We have seen prosperity rise from the little cooperation possible because one house of life speaks to other houses of life in the valley. Imagine if the entire valley obeyed one king, sustained by keepers of knowledge. It is not only the nobles who would gain. The people themselves would live more safely, their livelihood secure. As for us, keepers of knowledge, nothing would separate us from kings. We shall have all the land we need, and slaves to work it for us all our lives.This is countered by the argument that:
The thinker who cannot understand that slavery is a crime has stopped thinking. The house of life becomes a house of death the moment its members accept that one human can be master, another slave. The house of life is nothing if not a place of justice, a home of balance. It is a natural part of life in the house of life that we know no slavery.But the strain between different interest groups increases. There is a widening gulf between 'Keepers' and 'Sharers'; there are those who want a clear distinction between rulers and the ruled -- and for the ruled to know, and stay in, their place.
As throughout the novel, knowledge is key -- for understanding, for control. There are those who argue for keeping it among a select few -- as is then the case with the traditionalists Lindela encounters -- but, as one of the ancients points out: "Knowledge unshared may start as mystery. It ends by dying out". So also KMT: in the house of life makes, in a variety of ways, the case for spreading knowledge, as widely as possible.
Armah's novel consists of essentially two quite different halves, the one a near-contemporary account of just-post-colonial Africa, still held back by the system imposed on it, and a much more freely imagined take on the possibilities of human society -- presented in an almost timeless, mythical state, but as such with the suggestion also of what might be possible in the contemporary world.
If some of the colonial critique in the parts narrated directly by Lindela is a bit heavy-handed and simplistically sketched, the basic points are valid and the exaggerations at least make the points succinctly. The romanticizing of the 'traditionalists', and the suggestion that an opening up and spreading of knowledge about African history could be as quickly transformative as, for example, Sipha believes, seems also too simplistic; Armah suggests a return to an ideal(ized) society that once existed is readily possible, given proper understanding of that past (including understanding that the 'knowledge' and systems imposed by the Europeans and Arabs were and remain self-serving, rather than in any way beneficial for Africans), painting a rather starkly black-and-white picture -- but there's something to be said for not being too concerned with nuance. Certainly, as Armah makes clear in having the mythical-historical accounts he presents covering thousands of years, what Armah is after is very much the big picture.
The intentional vagueness -- especially of place -- conveniently allows Armah to elide issues such as tribalism and nationalism; his vision is a pan-African ideal (and idyll). While some of these problems plaguing modern Africa -- certainly that of how a system of nation-statehood, with all its arbitrary and messy would-be borders, has been imposed on it -- can be blamed on Europeans, even pre-colonial Africa was subject to many local forces (and ideologies) that were far from benign. Ultimately, Armah's simplification of everything 'African' is as unsatisfying as his lumping together of everything 'European'; continental richness and diversity is everywhere considerably more complicated (the same goes for 'Asian', etc.).
If occasionally simplistic in a variety of ways, and hurried, Armah's writing and presentation are nevertheless consistently compelling. His characters and their stories are engrossing, and while there could certainly be more to all of this, he tells a good story -- or rather, many of them. Certainly, his argument that a Eurocentric approach to history has completely failed Africa -- indeed, actively undermined it -- can only be endorsed; as to whether the alternative kind of history-telling that he then offers in the latter half of his novel is the appropriate rejoinder, that would seem to be a more open question.
KMT: in the house of life is a quite good idea- and (pre-)conception-challenging novel, even if its arguments (though fortunately not so much its tone) can come across as rather righteous. Armah isn't too subtle in the arguments he makes and examples he offers, but for all that the novel doesn't feel too strident. It makes for interesting reading, and certainly the perspective offered here is one that one would wish to see far more of.
- M.A.Orthofer, 15 February 2022
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Ayi Kwei Armah was born in what is now Ghana in 1939. He studied in the United States and is the author of several novels, including The Beautyful Ones are Not Yet Born.
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