The precipitating event of this novel set in Kenya, ranging from the late 1890s to the end of empire in 1960 was the building of the railroad from Mombasa to the shore of Lake Victoria. The railroad the British built with Indian and native labor was called the Lunatic Express and is the subject–and title–of one of my favorite books. References to Charles Miller's book turn up from time to time as that 4-year undertaking was such a dramatic story with an impact for so many. Peter Kimani says it well: the seers like Kioni foretold the evil of the iron snake as "a beast whose belly would require communal feeding for an eternity, accurately presaging the years of colonialism that lay ahead."
One character we come to know well is Babu, an Indian who came to Africa to work on the railroad. Upon landing (shipwrecked, actually) in Mombasa, he has a run-in with Ian McDonald, the British former officer in charge of building the railroad. This animosity cropped up for the remainder of their long lives and affects the life of Babu's grandson Rajan. Their stories do not follow a linear pattern; an exchange occurs that remains mysterious for chapters. This sentence not far from the end of the book could have been used throughout the book: "To understand how this came about, let's turn back the hands of time once again and return to September 1901 in Nakuru…."
Among the pleasures of this book are the descriptions:
When the lights went out one night in the club where Rajan sang, "Rajan stopped abruptly, torn between proceeding to the bathroom and groping his way to the safety of backstage. A moment or two passed before some illumination glowed in the distance. A candle beckoned in the walkway, stretching a tongue that licked the walls at every swoosh of the wind."
A momentous event occurred when the sky was darkened by a gigantic flock of flamingoes, birds unknown to the Indian workers.
The strange creatures, with wings flapped open for balance, fluttered soundlessly in the breeze, amazingly effortlessly, without crashing into others. They glided on the lake's surface, their webbed feet slicing the thinnest film of water whose iridescence flashed like the flip of a mirror toward the sun. They dived in, coiling their necks at awkward angles to scoop algae, before repeating their aerial displays and feeding afresh….All this while the cooing and squeaking and the hissing from the pink-colored flamingos rose and fell with the harmony of a philharmonic orchestra.
Babu's wife Fatima lost use of her legs on their journey from India. She remained in Mombasa as work on the railroad proceeded inland. Years into the project, Babu's friend Ahmad returned to Mombasa to find her.
She ran a small shop that opened into Mombasa's fish market, a semicircular outlay of dwellings that brought in men, women, and children to the duka. The space couldn't have been bigger than a cupboard, so how Fatima fit in there and was still able to take in sacks of cereals and cooking oil and sugar and salt and spices and cigarettes and kerchiefs and simsim and mango and coconut and guava and toothpaste and bread and anasazi and mahamri and kaimati and what have you, seemed a great accomplishment…. Fatima's own torso appeared to grow out of those wares, her pale yellow melding with the colors and textures of her products.
The richness of the texture of the backdrop to the tale made it all the more complex.
The Lunatic Express turned up for me most recently for me in another book set in Africa, Three Weeks in December.
Peter Kimani, Dance of the Jakaranda, Akashic Books, 2017, 320 pages (I read the Kindle version).