Baby should not have drunk coffee. He urinated all of it during the night and now the smell lay thick and throat-catching, overcoming even the perfume of his mother's bed across the room. In the bed Ben lay with the boy's mother curled in his large arms, warm and soft and fast asleep. But Ben was not asleep anymore. The pungent baby urine stink had awakened him long before his usual waking up time. He released the woman, turned and reached on the bedside table for a cigarette to combat the musty smell from the baby's bed. There were no cigarettes in the packet. He lit a half-smoked one from the ash-tray and lay smoking in the early morning gloom. Wini breathed soft and low by his side. Her nude body lay stretched out against his, her hand resting on the inside of his hairy thigh. She would be waking up soon to make his breakfast. He did not stir her. She had her own clockwork system that first turned her over once or twice before she opened her eyes to complain about the shortness of the past night. In another half hour he would be on his way to work.And so we are welcomed into the world of Meja Mwangi's Going Down River Road, first published in 1976. In Urban Obsessions, Urban Fears: The Postcolonial Kenyan Novel, J. Roger Kurtz says Mwangi's "urban novels remain the paradigmatic and in many ways most interesting examples of the urban genre from Kenya," and he calls Going Down River Road "the Nairobi novel par excellence".
I do not have the knowledge or background to judge how accurate Kurtz's perception of the novel's importance is, but it was recommended to me strongly enough that it become the object of a quest I and some friends went on when we were in Nairobi. A Kenyan had told us that the book is a fine example of how to write about a particular place and time, and that it evoked a lost Nairobi that was nonetheless familiar enough. The book was described with such passion that we became determined to find copies for ourselves. We went from one bookstore to another, but though they all had books by Mwangi (he's a prolific writer), they did not have Going Down River Road. The afternoon turned to evening and all the shops in the city center closed. We asked around, and someone told us that if anybody would have copies of the book, it would be a bookstore over in a mall in Westlands, and so we got into a taxi and sped off in search of the book -- and lo and behold, we found a pile of them. One for each of us.
It amuses and disturbs me to think that I bought Going Down River Road in a mall in one of the richer areas of Nairobi, because the book itself is so much about the traps and travails of utter poverty. It tells the story of Ben, who works at a construction job and spends most of the little bit of money he makes on alcohol and prostitutes, until one day his (ex-prostitute) girlfriend leaves him with her young son (known only as Baby) and never returns. Ben is often miserable, and just as often he is an observer of worse misery than his own. Becoming the caretaker for Baby does not turn him into some sort of saint -- he only barely takes care of the boy, though eventually he does pay his school fees and make sure he goes to school.
Ben is vehemently misogynistic, and after Wini abandons him, his misogyny becomes worse than it ever has been. He is not an appealing character, and yet Mwangi writes about him in such a way that we can feel some sympathy, and so we care about his fate. I found myself becoming frustrated with him in the way I would become frustrated with a friend whose opinions seemed ridiculous to me and whose actions even more so, but who nonetheless possessed enough elements of goodness to make me want to remain in his company for at least a short time. Mwangi avoids both cliche and sentimentality by making Ben such a difficult character to like, and yet there is enough to like -- an intelligence that gets fiercely beaten down but won't disappear completely -- that the book doesn't slide into frigid cynicism. Though the narrative verges on fetishizing the squalor and reveling in the misery, it never quite descends to that (in my eyes, at least) because Ben's intelligence does occasionally prevail, and he recognizes not just the pain he feels himself, but the pain of other people -- including pain he causes. He is incapable of escaping this world for himself, but he holds out hope that Baby might, and he tries as best he can to maintain the friendship most important to him so that he doesn't sink into a bleaker world of his own making, a world of only himself.
Going Down River Road is, indeed, a good example of a novel that is as much about its setting as its characters, because the characters are so inextricable from the setting, so entwined with it. The book grows repetitive at times, perhaps to indicate the borders of the life Ben has made for himself. The writing varies in quality from sometimes breezy and a bit thin to evocative in its descriptions of physical sensations -- at its best, this is a novel that assaults all the senses.
There is a political element to the book, too, as Ben watches people try to solve problems around him and address the political situation of Kenya. The book does not offer much hope here, as in this passage twenty pages from the end:
There are many things Ben knows that Bhai will never understand. Machore can never raise the necessary deposit to register as a candidate. And even if he could raise the money he would then have to find a consituency to contest and convince the constituents to vote for him. And who would listen to him? Only the labourers, and only at lunch time when there is nothing else to do. And he would still have a certain amount of trouble. The labourers are a tired hungry people. They don't believe in anybody or anything anymore. They do not even believe in the building anymore. Now they know. Just as a man will turn his back to you, a building gets completed and leaves you unoccupied. The hands just do not believe. If he bought them beer, Machore might convince the hands to listen to his promises. But they would still not vote if they got up with a terrible hangover or the weather became lousy on polling day or the queue got too long or something. To the hands it makes little difference: just another name in the newspapers, another face in the headlines, a voice on the radio, more promises...We are left to decide for ourselves what such feelings amount to. Ben, clearly, has not been helped by politicians, and his growth, such as it is, is from leave-me-alone individualism to a recognition of his need for something other than himself, even if everything else -- the government, Baby, his friends, his employers -- seems to be an impediment or a threat. The novel ends with a small moment of connection, a moment that shatters the profound and futile loneliness the city instills. The ambiguity of this moment, its inability to be summed up as a simple moral and its many implications within the context of the story, makes Going Down River Road so much more than a simple portrait of a particular time or group of people -- it is a scream against the waste that life allows.