First, it has been in the publisher’s pipeline for seven years.
Secondly, its release in this so-called “month of love” fills up the weekly quota of romance that we have missed because of the absence of Mexican soap operas from our TV screens, as the digital migration row rages on.
One of the first literary offerings from local publishers this year is Seasons of Love and Despair, a collection of short stories by Tee Ngugi, released under the Spear Books series of East African Educational Publishers.
There are many reasons to celebrate the arrival of this collection.
First, it has been in the publisher’s pipeline for seven years. Secondly, its release in this so-called “month of love” fills up the weekly quota of romance that we have missed because of the absence of Mexican soap operas from our TV screens, as the digital migration row rages on.
But the more significant thing is that Tee Ngugi’s book gives us cause to (re)examine the value of the short story and prompts us to debate the relationship between raw talent and skill in this business of art.
As the title suggests, the seven stories in this volume scrutinise two extreme human emotions — ecstatic love and deep, suicidal angst.
Diagnosing love requires no real expertise and yet, describing its nuances and effects takes the work of a studious mind.
Tee has such a mind.
He cuts through the mass of emotions with the patience of a botanist peeling off the layers of love’s twisted paths in its cycles of infatuation, passion, acceptance, commitment, heartbreak, anger, angst, and renewal.
But in Tee’s world, things rarely move towards a predictable outcome. His stories, especially “Love and Damnation,” are packed with (un)pleasant surprises.
“Love in the Age of Innocence” captures every variety of love — affection, attraction, attachment, intimacy, kindness, compassion and even, simple pleasure. By ‘age of innocence,’ Tee clearly means childhood. But he is also portraying that bygone, earthy time before cellphones and social media changed the way we relate and redefined romance.
Tee’s stories can be read as incisive social commentary on the unwanted outcomes of an unjust economic system — poverty, run-away crime, debauchery, alcoholism, unemployment, quasi-literacy and ill health in unplanned towns and forgotten hinterlands.
But great art transcends reality. It uses a lot more than the tools of the sociologist, the historian, the political scientist and the human rights activist to communicate its view of society and its analyses of human character.
Aside from his considerable stock of figurative language, Tee distinguishes himself as an artist by using several rhetorical devices.
He has an ear for music and an eye for painting and he incorporates these arts into his writing with the ease of a consummate curator, one whose exposure to the arts covers several cultures.
In one instance, Tee freezes the action in a story with a murder scene that is likened to a painting. In another instance, he places a deceitful character, Esther, at the feet of a painting of the Virgin Mary.
As she dusts the painting she confronts her fraud: “Esther pitied the virgin. She had lost her son so that human beings might be saved, but they continued to lie, murder, fornicate and steal”.
To summarise plot, character and action, Tee sometimes resorts to Biblical fables and Christian hymns, aware that his audience will already be familiar with these texts. Even so, he is not afraid to question religion, to show up the ironic hypocrisies of those who claim to act in God’s name. But in a country that is now neck-deep in the gospel of prosperity and vulgar panda mbegu preachers, Tee’s portrait of fallen church leaders might be dismissed as too mild, if not downright old-school.