Dance of the Jakaranda by Peter Kimani

Reviewed by Terence Jagger

This is a tricky book to read, though I enjoyed much of it. It is funny and observant, but painful too. Kimani has a strong view on the total evil of colonialism and its creatures, and this unalloyed negativity and cynicism can be corrosive, however justified much of his criticism is. The central characters include a very unsympathetic Briton building the ‘lunatic railway’ from Mombasa into the heart of Kenya, a clergyman who attempts, fairly ineffectually, to rein him in, and an Indian surveyor; and two generations later, an Indian singer, and a mysterious woman who kisses him unexpectedly in the dark. The trope, exciting and innovative decades ago, is now clichéd and needs panache and verve to carry it off: a narrative that switches between two widely separated times, and brings two random individuals together to find out that their backstories are deeply intertwined in ways which are not always comfortable. I don’t think Kimani has really pulled it off, and certainly the structure is a bit tired and even a bit confusing, but here are definitely some very interesting ideas and some very fine writing.

First, and most striking, is the geographical and historical context – the building of the railway was an astonishing act of engineering ambition, economic opportunism and even recklessness, and undertaken without a proper understanding (even any understanding) of the physical, natural and political challenges. The hostility of the Masai, the difficult terrain, the deadly lions of Tsvango, all were tackled with blissful and naive ignorance, imperial and racial confidence, and huge numbers of African and Indian workers. I don’t know enough about the history of the railway to judge the accuracy of the picture painted here, but it certainly has a strong whiff of credible reality, a powerful and no doubt necessary antidote to more traditional writing, say Kipling’s The Bridge Builders, although that too brings out truths, about the dedication, expertise and work ethic of the colonial builders, and their real concern for the economic and social development of the country, even if that was at times rather patronising.

Dance of the Jakaranda starts with a prologue describing, in 1901, the arrival of the railway as:

a monstrous snakelike creature whose black head, erect like a cobra’s, pulled rusty brown boxes and slithered down the savanna, coughing spasmodically as it emitted blue-black smoke. … come and see the strips of iron that those strange men planted seasons earlier … which had grown into a monster gliding through the land.

The Master, McDonald, who had built the railway, and the Reverend Turnbull, who had arrived in 1893 as a Church of England missionary, ride the train on its first journey, and McDonald then builds himself a house, adorned with jacaranda trees to lure back his lost love. This fails, and he lives the rest of his life there, even until after independence and the events of the 1960s which the book describes, but he creates an hotel, a nature reserve, and entertains the young Princess Elizabeth there on the occasion she became our current Queen, Elizabeth II.

The next stream of the book starts with Rajan, a well known popular singer and grandson of Babu, a surveyor who had worked on the construction of the railway for the Master, although there was great antipathy between them. Babu has allegedly fomented rebellion amongst the workers and fathered a child on the daughter of a local chief, and lived in retirement, his real achievements unsung and unknown, even by his grandson. Before going on stage at the Jakaranda Hotel, Rajan goes down a dark corridor to find the men’s room, and senses a woman approach.

Rajan turned to the right to dodge her but her hip was there already, when he turned to the left, the other hip was there too, curved like a strung bow. Without uttering a word, the stranger planted one of the softest kisses he had ever received and then drifted into the darkness.

He is a rampant womaniser, taking sexual favours from his fans without emotional engagement, but this encounter, with a woman he believes is white and who smells ever so gently of lavender, obsesses him, and the next few months become a search for her. We never know why she kissed him, indeed when he finds her, we are not absolutely sure she is the woman, but this is the pivot around which the different threads of the story are spun.

The novel goes back and forth, with episodes from the boat trip which brought Babu and his new wife to India, work on the construction of the railway, the rather brutal politics of a newly independent Kenya and the revenge that was sought for generations of racial oppression, and is often amusing, well written and interesting, but it all comes down to Babu and Mariam finding out who they are and who their parents and grandparents had been and what they had done with their lives. I won’t go into any details, to avoid spoiling the outcome, but while the ending is suitably complex and dramatic, I think most readers will have been expecting something of the sort by the time they get to the final chapters. The narrative rather fizzles out, as stories do in real life, and we don’t get answers to all our questions.

And throughout all this, and indeed up to the present day, the railway carries on, increasingly run down and chaotic but now, I believe, (in reality) being restored, revitalised and renewed with Chinese investment. It carries locals and tourists from the coast to Nakuru, to see the (fictional) rebuilt Jakaranda hotel and the flamingos, and it celebrates Rajan and forgets Babu, who was, Kimani asserts, the man with the vision.

Peter Kimani, Dance of the Jakaranda (Telegram, 2018). 978-1846592096. 344pp, paperback original.

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