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Red_Strangers.jpgIn Richard Dawkins' Introduction to Elspeth Huxley's Red Strangers, he calls the novel "anthropologically illuminating," and that phrase struck me as the most insightful of the compliments he bestowed on the book ("epic," "gripping," "moving" and "humanistically mind-opening" among them).  

Red Strangers recounts the history of Kenya from 1890-1937 through the eyes of three generations of Kikuyu men: history, still written by the victor, but seen through the eyes of colonized, as that perspective is imagined by the colonizer.  

The ambition of Red Strangers is huge, and I have great admiration for the project.  With Red Strangers, Huxley courageously undertook an "experiment," as she put it in her Foreword, to record "the way of life that existed before the white men came" because "within a few years none will survive of those who remember" those days.  (Red Strangers was published in 1939.)  The experiment was unquestionably worthwhile, and the record she has created is of tremendous historical and anthropological interest. 

Nonetheless, Red Strangers suffers two serious flaws.  First, Huxley's storytelling is overshadowed by her agenda.  She wants to describe a bygone society and explain its reaction to the appearance of the colonists more than she wants to tell us a story.  As a result, events occur without narrative pay-off:  Muthengi seduces his adopted sister Ambui . . . but nothing happens as a result.  Matu runs away to live with the Athi people for some time . . . but we never find out why this matters for the plot.  A conflict erupts between the Kipsigis and the Kikuyu on Marafu's farm . . . that goes nowhere.  More disturbingly, the book has the "one thing and then another" feel of poorly-written historical treatises.  Events appear in the Red Strangers because they correspond to actual historical events that happened, not because they advance the plot.

Second, Huxley attempts to describe to a literate society a world that was preliterate, from the point of view of the preliterate.  I am not sure that this goal is achievable.  The thought processes and consciousnesses of preliterate peoples is different from that of literate, modern peoples, and I am not convinced that either methodology can be transmitted directly, that is, without an intervening process of interpretation.  As Huxley herself posits, "[t]he old Kikuyu . . . cannot present their point of view to us because they cannot express it in terms which we can understand."  To circumvent this problem, Huxley has chosen to depict "old Kikuyu" who express their point of view in terms we can understand; in other words, she has created a hybrid character who never existed: a Kikuyu from a preliterate, precolonial society who nonetheless communicates in a literate, post-colonial way.  Unsurprisingly, this character is unsatisfactory.  He (because all three generations of Kikuyu protagonists in Red Strangers are men) doesn't come across as resourceful, intelligent, reflective . . . or believable.  Rather, he's flat and two dimensional.

Following the lead of Dawkins' "anthropologically illuminating" comment, I would guess that a better vehicle for the information Huxley wanted to convey would have been the long-form personal history, something like Marjorie Shostak's Nisa: The Life and Words of a !Kung Woman, a compelling page-turner about a Kalahari bushwoman.  Nisa is an anthropological text, and I suspect that Huxley - who disclaimed any anthropological rigor in Red Strangers - avoided that option because she didn't want to be accused of sloppy scholarship.  All the same, Nisa succeeds where Red Strangers fails.  Although Nisa came from a preliterate society, and although her story was being told through the agency of a literate academic, Nisa comes alive in her book in ways that Muthengi, Matu and Karanja never do in Red Strangers.  A novel, after all, must have a story; but a personal history must only have a life.

(Image of Red Strangers from Fantastic Fiction)     

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