Our dear David Maillu is the only Kenyan writer I follow closely. So I hadn’t heard about Tony Mochama’s Nairobi: A Night Guide (2013) until some Americans asked me to bring them copies on my way back from Nairobi.
I’d get reimbursed, they reassured me after I made it clear that I didn’t have donor funding to waste on junk by self-promoting writers of no consequence.
Out of sheer bad manners, though, I decided to open one of the copies with a plan to sneak it back into its wrapping before my flight touched down in Chicago.
I was not wholly disappointed by this small book about hopping from one pub to another at night. The 134 chapters that make the 142-page book are short, and there are no complicated philosophies embedded in the chatty narration.
One may even be forgiven for surmising that the book is a collection of articles meant for a newspaper humour column that did not get to see the light of day because the targeted editors happened to have some literary taste. The writing is not hilarious, but the author makes several attempts to tickle his readers.
God is dead throughout the nihilistic narrator’s life as a pub-hopper on no sublime mission, but Nietzsche would still turn in his grave on reading the narrator’s escapades because of the book’s glorification of alcohol, which Friedrich had nothing good to say about when he was the narrator’s age.
Though a grown man, the narrator in Mochama’s book still considers himself young, and his language tends to be infantile at times. His topics of interest range from girl friends to high school nicknames.
He claims to be an urban night-runner and compares himself with his nocturnal companions from the rural Gusiiland, but there is nothing openly creepy about him. A jovial fellow who loves his drink, the Night Runner doesn’t try to scare us or claim supernatural powers to harm.
To be sure, he works hard — sometimes too hard — to create some rapport with the reader through the use of colloquial language and sometimes Sheng, Nairobi’s slang. This self-ingratiating tendency can be irritating, but we understand he is just a loquacious drunk who loves to be around jolly folk.
The only scary thing is if you read the book as symptomatic of post-independence Kenya: a fragmented society out of joint, full of contradictions, alienated like the drunk overgrown teen the narrator in the book is. This is a society where alcoholism has become the norm and intellectuals are too self-absorbed to care about the plight of the majority of the people.
The loose sentences we are accustomed to in African literature of disillusionment to signal blurred vision, alienation, and disappointment are largely absent in the book. Maybe this is because the narrator (and everyone else involved in the discourse) is unaware of his alienation and lack of focus.
There’s something I like about this guy: although he claims to be “creative”, he isn’t vain enough to quote sentences from critics who have praised his drab writing.
In The African Psyche, the philosopher Joseph Nyasani defends night-runners, found in several African societies, against the colonial accusation that they are malignant witches and wizards. However, Nyasani points out that night-runners are psychopathic. But except for some degree of childishness for a person who holds a law degree, there is nothing that openly reveals the narrator in Mochama’s book as suffering any mental illness.
He is a sociable man who exhibits no forms of sexual deviance or the desire to rape anybody the way the night-running porcupine does in the Congolese Alain Mabanckou’s Memoires de Porc-épic [Memoirs of a Porcupine].
Like Mabanckou’s character, Mochama’s narrator is quite conscious of the many things one can do with language, although he, unlike the porcupine, seems unable to harness that power to achieve literary subtlety, assuming he would know what that is. Plain puns are announced when they appear in the short narrations, and literary allusions to Dante, Soyinka, Meja Mwangi, or Maillu are quite shallow. It reads like a fool’s book meant to be enjoyed by fellow dunderheads. If there is any literary value in this book it must be deeply hidden. I encountered none anywhere, in spite of my determination not to come out of the reading empty-handed.
It is a playful work that suggests what Kenyan writing might become at the hands of our writers. Its complexity lies in its simplicity and literary emptiness, maybe.
Contradictions seem unconscious. Although the Night Runner fashions himself as a cosmopolitan, throwing around names of friends from Scotland, Miami, Montreal, and other far-flung places, there is something quite crass and nativist about him. He doesn’t seem to give a hoot about higher ideals like the Pan-Africanism of Kwame Nkrumah and Steve Biko, which serious African writers have put a premium on. This is just fine with me these days.
But I think it’s in bad taste to call a mixed-race African a “Mulatto” (with apologies to eminent Black British poet Jackie Kay, do you think they are mules?). This is not out of my belief in global black consciousness, but because the word is now considered offensive.
Despite unremarkable experiments with a mixture of languages in his use of Sheng, the narrator, like our ethnocentric politicians, seems to uphold a primitive desire for cultural purity.
I suspect the book will be difficult to critique seriously because such an attempt would amount to a degrading personal attack on the author. Unlike Kiriamiti’s Jack Zollo, Charles Mangua’s Dodge Kiunyu, or the characters Maillu features in his narratives of urban prurience, there seems to be no difference between the narrator in Mochama’s book and the author himself.
Yet it would be unfair to attribute the foibles of the self-declared young fellow in Mochama’s book with the flesh-and-blood person who has created him. And this narrator has many weaknesses, including shallowness, quite a bit of narcissism, and obsequiousness towards foreigners that borders on racial inferiority complex.
Like a post-colonial nation, the Night Runner is a person who has refused to grow up; he still considers people in their late 20s “young” and he probably would at double his age and, peradventure, when archaic and toothless continue marketing himself as young.
Even cynics weaned on the pessimism of Arthur Schopenhauer would be overjoyed to see some silver lining anywhere near the gloomy clouds of Kenyan literature. And there’s hope radiating from the weaknesses of Mochama’s book.
One lesson young writers could learn from Mochama is that you don’t need to have anything profound to say to put your pen to paper. Some incompetent editor might just publish you.
Additionally, there is no longer any need to display mastery of technique. Apart from the use of the first person narrator, there isn’t any other literary technique in the book that is worth writing home about. Maybe this is because the book is not meant to be a literary masterpiece or to be read by intelligent people. Most importantly, you don’t need to talk about corruption and other ills facing the nation. Don’t say that corruption is as endemic as alcoholism in Kenya or that even if you don’t receive bribes, you would be an imbecile to swear that you would never bribe a government official to go waste in a pub.
Incidentally, most of the money received through corruption is not used to add any value to the corrupt guy’s life. It is all spent in bars; nobody would waste their clean hard-earned money the way Nairobians spend money on booze. That money is most likely stolen or obtained through other dubious means.
Most of the people you see in pubs are therefore thieves, pimps, prostitutes, or drug dealers. But don’t say all this. Just play with the little English you know, and all will be fine. The publishers of this book, Goethe-Institute and Native Intelligence, have done a superb job. The paper and ink used are fantastic, and so is the binding. As a physical object, this is the most beautiful Nairobi-published book I’ve come across in my many years of just touching books.
But besides its outward beauty, the book has nothing of value. I learnt nothing new about Nairobi from it. Yet I wouldn’t condemn it. There must be people who love this kind of writing, and there’s a part of me, an inner doppelganger of sorts, that admires people who can audaciously open their mouth wide to speak even when they absolutely have nothing to say.