Marjorie Oludhe Macgoye has died. Perhaps putting the words down in writing will help to comprehend this. It doesn’t.
Macgoye’s writer’s farewell to the world was encrypted in her most recent work – Rebmann: A Novel, which was published last year, even though she had completed writing it much earlier.
In it, her authorial investment is unusually intense and she allows her intellect to reign supreme, relenting on her lifelong concern for the widest audience reach.
The novel revolves around the life of Johannes Rebmann – the pioneer missionary in East Africa. A sense of weariness may descend upon some contemporary readers at the mention of the name of Rebmann.
A feeling may easily arise that his way belongs to days gone by, that it cannot be our way. He may be seen as too worthy, earnest, and moralistic.
Yet, on reading the novel, one discovers that it is Rebmann’s personal example which is the most powerful element in his legacy. It is an example which will resonate with anyone who struggles for a life of decency and integrity.
It is a type of life that is woefully rare today.
Rebmann’s appeal, however, builds up without any artful manipulation. On the contrary, Macgoye unearths his thought in its original intention and context without direct reference to contemporary concerns and without shielding him from possible criticism
by reinterpreting his ideas and actions along the tempting lines of anachronistic relevance.
In its reanimation of history, the book also debunks the totalising myth of the Bible having paved the way for the colonial sword. Rebmann, as he emerges in this novel, demonstrates, as does Augustine in his masterpiece The City of God, that the guaranteeing of worldly power and success is not what Christianity is about.
In his study, Anglicanism: Conference, Commitment and Communion, Martyn Percy celebrates the “passionate coolness” of Anglican comprehensiveness.
Percy draws on the prophet Zechariah’s warning not to despise “the day of small things” and advises not to “panic about statistics and loss of identity”, but instead be confident in the ways of patience, politeness and restraint. Rebmann’s approach to the
spread of the Faith was of that kind.
SIGNIFIED OUR COMING IN
There is an episode in the novel where Mr Price, newly arrived at the Coast, comes up with the idea of putting up a bell in the local church so as to attract more believers and prove Rebmann’s old mission station at Rabai as having outlived its usefulness.
But even as people, intrigued by the novelty, do start coming to the church in slightly larger numbers, Rebmann wonders about “What is gained? An imitation of an English village church.
I do not recollect that Holy Scripture has anything to say about bells. The drum we used to beat linked our message with other messages given in the community. It signified our coming in, not their going out. But soon enough they will want to be going”.
As one reviewer of Percy’s book observed: “When the world seems deaf to religion, it is tempting to seize the trumpet and give it that certain blast. … But the trumpet can sound without the deaf hearing, and that can be because the volume of the raised
voice, too, often betrays more nervousness than conviction. Might not the unsearchable riches of Christ demand a little hesitant stammering and even awed silence?” Rebmann certainly felt so.
The missionaries left behind them an extraordinary archive. But what can a historian, and a historical novelist, do with all those riches? One can produce, out of them, a history as dry as dust.
Or one may succeed, as Macgoye has done, to confront, to use the words of the French historian Jules Michelet, “the catacombs of manuscripts” with a desire to bring the dead to life again. Sitting in the University of Birmingham Library, Macgoye certainly breathed the manuscripts’ dust, and she made Rebmann rise up.
And it is a double success for Macgoye, who, having achieved historical accuracy, provides not only a narrative of Rebmann’s life but also a meditation on it, in which she amplifies the sources by the exercise of her imagination. What is also admirable is the way in which Macgoye eschews the showy erudition that draws attention to itself in historical novels and works, instead, towards a subtle reconstitution of certain habits of mind — and, particularly, of language.
Rebmann is an epic novel. But typically, Macgoye’s version of the epic is one in which the ordinary becomes illuminated. Here is the description of a tiny scene in the novel:
“We shake hands solemnly, hooking the little fingers in sign of friendship, and Shehe skips along the path, deftly kicking a coconut husk out of my way and holding back intrusive branches.
It remains my duty to thank him and give him a little picture from my store before he runs back to his supper”. By means of such small touches, a whole world, its assumptions and prejudices, comes alive.
The novel abounds in similar minutely observed scenes. One, etched in my mind, is of Rebmann refusing to shake hands with Sparshott, whose behaviour he finds objectionable. It is the credibility of moments like these that gives Macgoye’s voice its unusual moral authority. Paradoxically — or not — it is when the writing is at its most mundane that we feel faint biblical echoes in the background.
Reading the novel makes one remember Macgoye’s scholarly interest in Thomas Carlyle. In his writing, Carlyle often repeated Goethe’s admonition: “Do the Duty that lies nearest thee”. This principle guided Rebmann’s life, as it guided Macgoye’s.
That is why this novel can be read as revelatory of Macgoye herself.
The novel also brings to mind John Henry Newman’s declaration that “Christianity is no dream of the study or the cloister”, that it must of its nature plunge into the stream of history, and that “whatever be the risk of corruption from intercourse with the real world around, that risk must be undergone.” This, while true of Rebmann’s missionary work, is also true of Macgoye’s Christianity, as well as of her writing.
Luis Goytisolo made an observation to the effect that the great novelists have been the unacknowledged architects of the modern world. Macgoye’s name belongs to the list of these great novelists.
For me, as I am sure for many others, Kenya “began to be” in the works of Marjorie Oludhe Macgoye.
With her death, we have come to the end of an era.
Prof Ilieva teaches literature at Egerton University