Detained is, on the surface, a political document, a piece of propaganda for a quasi-Marxist, populist, cultural revolution. Ngugi emphasizes its ideological purpose, exposing and attacking the capitalistic mentality that has wasted Kenya for almost a century. Nevertheless, the memoir is also something else—something that may very well reflect an ideology of its own but which is much more personal and humanistic than political. Despite his announced intention, Ngugi writes, after all, an intensely personal document. As he rather unassumingly remarks, he needed not only to understand “the events . . . clearly” but also “to make out . . . what’s happening to me.” Thus, underlying Detained as an expose of colonial oppression is a writer’s discovery of himself.
In fact, Ngugi is at his best not as a propagandist and critic but as a novelist, a man of creative talents. His identity and his role as a novelist are inseparable in his thinking, even about politics. Discovering the self, understanding the self, is a prerequisite for good writing and for understanding the public role of literature in nurturing and fulfilling the lives of others. To a large extent, literature has been Ngugi’s life, and his literary background forces its way into the text. Literary expression is a major topic throughout the memoir. It is significant that Ngugi’s fellow prisoners felt the need to write during their detention. Getting works of literature through the censors was a major concern. One of the detainees, Wasonga Sijeyo, reminded Ngugi of the line from the sixteenth century morality play Everyman, reprinted in Everyman Library editions—“I will go with thee, and be thy guide,/ In thy most need to go by thy side”—and tells him, “books have kept me mentally alive.” Ngugi makes frequent reference to authors who have touched him during his life, citing, for example, Isaiah, William Blake, Maxim Gorky, and Wole Soyinka. More important to Ngugi than a particular political ideology are the right and freedom to believe and express it. The political revolution in Kenya will depend upon literature to help awaken the minds and energies of the people.
Underlying Ngugi’s account is a concern that gets to the heart of Ngugi’s perception of private and communal life. Detained is about individual and collective freedom, the right of a people to express itself according to its own insights, in particular in its own cultural heritage. It is no accident that Ngugi begins and ends “Prison Notes” at the same historical moment, the completion of his prison novel, for his survival depended on his right to free expression. Detained was written after the fact and thus allowed Ngugi to manipulate the literary text into an artistic form. The text, far from being a pure ideological tract, touches upon the mysteries of human life, of chance and purposefulness in human history, as though the coincidence of the novel’s completion and his release were meaningful in real historical terms, as though metaphor and reality were one. To press this mystical level too far would be a mistake: Ngugi was surprised that his release came at that moment; the coincidence might be mere accident. He did, after all, have a contingency plan for succeeding years—he would translate the novel into Kiswahili and English in 1979 and 1980—in case his release did not come. His romantic notion of historical purposefulness is considerably modified by material realities. Still, premonitions were at work on that final night and urged him to write with abandon to finish before his announced deadline of December 25. In yet another sense, the coincidence works for him and helps, within the literary text, to validate a conviction that human will can impress itself on history. Even without that coincidence, his actual survival through willed resistance, in particular through the creative act of free expression, must have given Ngugi considerable confidence in the moral rightness of his cause and in the real possibility of resistance against British imperialism.
Ngugi approached the task of survival consciously and methodically: “In addition to it being an insurrection of a detained intellect, writing this novel has been one way of keeping my mind and heart together.” He then calls his novel “Free thoughts on toilet-paper!” and describes what he set out to do. He would use his own Gikuyu language, in which a novel had never been written, in order to show its “possibilities,” to resurrect it as a political force against imperialism. He determined to make it express any subject in the modern world from music and politics to science and technology. He would make it express all the techniques of modern fiction that he might need. A key element in his choice of Gikuyu was freeing his language from the British imperialism which had repressed it.
Just as the act of creation and the use of language were expressions of freedom, so was the content of Detained, which he regarded as the center of any work, literary or not. He says of his novel: “Content—not language and technique— would determine the eventual form of the novel. And the content? The Kenyan people’s struggles against the neo-colonial form and stage of imperialism!” The theme of Detained and Devil on the Cross is the same, though one is generically referential and the other metaphoric.
Themes and incidents in the novel came from bits and pieces of real-life situations. Ngugi thus tries to incorporate all life into the creative act in an effort to make his literature a collective endeavor. It joins him with the people and reinforces the idea, central to Detained, that what the ruling regime fears most is an active, creative community of free people.
These motifs of freedom, creativity, and communal solidarity are captured in Ngugi’s final words in “Prison Notes”:The novel is virtually complete and I am possessed . . . imagination, once let loose, keeps on racing ahead, and the hand cannot keep pace with it . . . I have regained my name, I am no longer K6,77. . . . . . . We are free . . . We are free . . . and I feel certain that at home my mother, Nyambura [Ngugi’s wife], the children and the good people of Limuru and Kenya are gazing at the same stars.
In an ironic turn of events, prison oddly became a continuation rather than an interruption of the most satisfying moment of his life. Ngugi had returned to the language of his people and had overcome the greatest challenge to his faith.
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