06 February 2012
Nairobi Heat by Mukoma wa Ngugi
I read Mukoma wa Ngugi's Nairobi Heat (part of Melville House's International Crime series) a few weeks ago, but haven't had the time to write much about it, so what I say here is likely to be more general than it would have been before. Though I think the novel has some significant flaws, those flaws are mitigated, for me at least, by a number of real strengths, and in the weeks since finishing it, moments from the novel have scratched through my thoughts and memory. For that reason, I think it's a book well worth reading.
First, to get unpleasantness out of the way, here's what I see as the novel's flaws: Events often feel like they exist for the sake of the plot's convenience and not for any reason organic to the narrative; some moments that should evoke an emotional connection from readers are not set up in a dramatic way that would allow such emotion to come to the surface and are instead sped through (a particular fault in the romantic relationship that propels some of the major events of the second half of the book); some of the characters are little more than hardboiled detective novel clichés in their general outline, if not their particulars.
However, I would not write about a small press publication of a writer's first novel if I didn't think its virtues were greater than its flaws, and it is the virtues I think worth spending time with here.
The greatest virtue of Nairobi Heat is the way it uses a page-turning story to do what a lot of mediocre, self-consciously literary fiction aims to do, and does dully: show the complexities and paradoxes of identity, particularly identity as it is constructed through geography, race, and ideology. The narrator, a black American cop in Madison, Wisconsin, is named Ishmael, and at first I groaned at the obvious Melville reference (hey, and it's published by Melville House! How cute!) — of course he says at one point, "Call me Ishmael" — but by the end of the novel I liked it, because while of course there are all the possible religious meanings of the name, I kept Melville in mind: I liked thinking of him as sharing a name with the narrator of one of the most revered American novels — indeed, one of the novels most frequently cited as defining the American part of American novels — and yet wearing it not as a badge of honor, but as a burden or, at best, a joke. He's got the wrong name to be a character in his own story. (Or, alternatively, the novel may be in part the story of how he grows into his name.)
Ishmael starts out by peppering his narration with a bunch of blunt statements about race in the U.S. For instance, "If I was to give advice to black criminals, I would tell them this: do not commit crimes against white people because the state will not rest until you are caught", "My partner, a white guy, had just retired and I knew where this was going — a white partner for the nigger cop to make everyone feel safe", and "The whites felt they were under seige; the black folk felt that white justice was going too far in incriminating Joshua." In a more naive or amateur book, these statements would be bare-faced statements of theme. They would reflect the writer's sense of an objective reality outside the narrator's perceptions. That's not the case here. While anybody even half conscious to structural racism and white supremacist ideology in the U.S. will have no trouble seeing Ishmael's interpretation of the world around him as likely valid, we still don't necessarily want our fiction to be so blunt, because it denies one of the pleasures of traditional tales: gaining knowledge through drama. Such pleasure is the goal of the old cliché for writers to show rather than tell.
I think, though, that such statements in Nairobi Heat, while superficially telling us some of what's going on in Ishmael's environment, are really more about developing Ishmael's character than they are about setting up a didactic narrative. Fundamentally, we see that Ishmael is the kind of person who easily makes such statements, and so we are left to wonder not what that means — how has he gotten to be who he is? What is he willing to say to us the readers and what is he willing to say to other characters?
This is confirmed later on, once he goes to Kenya to track down some leads. Now his sense of identity gets complexified: "I wondered," he says, "what it means for an African to meet an African American." (See also Mukoma wa Ngugi's essay, "African in America or African American?") Everything in U.S. society has pushed him to see his relationships with other people through a lens of black/white. But in changing his environment, he has to also change his conception of identity, because he is now in a world where he is not just black or white, but also, indelibly, American — and that American identity will sometimes put him in conflict with Africans.
His frustrations with American society are important, too, in motivating his ultimate sense of being more connected to Kenya than to the U.S. "In Africa," he says, "I could live out my contradictions, or at least my contradictions would be reconciled by the extremes of life there." This revelation comes to him at the end, though — first, he has to be entranced by the exotic, then move toward a more nuanced understanding of the connections between seemingly disparate worlds. He must see what crimes are committed in the name of "helping Africa" and he must reconcile contradictory feelings about a Mormon missionary family. He also gets to learn some hard lessons about the power of money and greed to wipe out all other distinctions between people.
By the end, Nairobi Heat has offered a complex, nuanced portrayal of Ishmael, and through him a sometimes complex and nuanced portrayal of Kenya, of international aid organizations, and of the idea of Africa. As a crime novel, it's almost always entertaining, though it sometimes feels thin and sometimes feels ludicrous, but it is as a novel of identity and personal exploration that it really shines.