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Philip H Spires

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by Philip H Spires   

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Books by Philip H Spires
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Literary Fiction

Publisher:  Andrews UK ISBN-10:  B004NNVWC0 Type: 

Copyright:  February 9, 2011

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Philip Spires
Philip Spires

Mission describes how five people arrive outside a church in a small provincial Kenyan town to participate in the death of one of them. Kenyan politics, history, economic change, development and culture have all played their part.

Michael, a missionary priest in Kenya, has just killed Munyasya, a retired army officer. It might have been an accident, but Mulonzya, a politician resentful of the power of foreign churches, tries to exploit the tragedy for his own ends. Boniface, a young church worker, and his wife, Josephine, have just lost their child. They did not make it to the hospital in time, possibly because Michael made a detour to retrieve a letter from the Mission, a letter from Janet, a former volunteer teacher who was the priest's neighbour for two years. It is Munyasya who has the last laugh, however, when he reveals that he was probably in control of events all along. Thirty years on, the same characters find their lives still influenced by his memory.  
The title of Mission's first chapter is Michael. Here is how it starts ...

Enter Michael, dishevelled and panting. His movements are hurried, agitated and anxious. The kitchen door creaks on its hinges after his disinterested push. It does not close and it swings ajar behind him. In an instant, Michael has crossed the room as if out of a desire to distance himself from some pursuer, but now he is cornered. He stops, thinks for a moment and, realising the futility of trying to run away, returns to the door. He pauses there and, with his head cocked on one side, listens intently, trying to discern the frantic sounds of a shouted argument taking place outside. The sounds are dulled and muffled by echoes, but he stays where he is, afraid to approach them. There are several voices: at least five are shouting in apparent opposition without any one gaining the ascendancy. Thus all blend to form a single, incoherent and meaningless noise. Trying to listen is pointless and so, with a rueful shake of the head, he advances into the room again, but this time he moves more slowly, with greater resignation, beneath some weight.

He decides to sit but cannot relax. Perched on the very edge of the settee, he leans forward with his head bowed and his hands resting on his knees. He seems poised to act but is powerless. He can do nothing, now. It is too late. Still without success he tries again to make.........

The second chapter, entitled Mulonzya, deals primarily with the local member of parliament, James Mulonzya. But his father, Abel, and son, Charles play significant roles, as does an idealistic administrator, John Mwangangi, recently returned from a successful legal career in London. James and Charles are having dinner with John ...

“So the idea is this,” John continued. “The Father has been told he can use the school bus from Mutune once a week for nothing. All he will do is provide the petrol. The nuns have been very generous to us. Without the vehicle we could do nothing. Near Nairobi there is a group of Europeans who are researching into agricultural techniques for some agricultural research agency. Their farm is very productive but is subsidised, so it does not need to make a profit. Michael has persuaded them to sell us their maize and beans at a cheap rate. We will then bring it to Migwani, Mwingi, Mutonguni or wherever in the lorry and then sell off some of it to people who can afford it until we have covered costs and raised enough money for the next trip and then we will distribute the rest free to people who have nothing.”

“That is illegal,” said Charles curtly. “You need a licence to trade grain.”

“Ah, but we are not trading, Charles...”

“You are selling some of it so surely the law would rule that you are trading.”

“But that's only to get us started. If we can get enough reasonably well-off people to give a hundred shillings each - and regularly - we will be able to carry on without having to sell any of the food. It could then never be argued that we were affecting the traders' business because we would be supplying only those people who had absolutely no money to buy food for themselves.”

“And how would you identify such people? On whose word do you judge whether a particular family can or cannot afford to feed itself?”

“Priests, Chiefs, District Officers, Members of Parliament....”

The argument had suddenly become very serious. “This food... It will only go to Catholics, then?” asked Mulonzya, as usual firmly grasping quite the wrong end of the other's meaning.

“Oh no. To anyone who is in need of it.”

Charles spoke again. His voice spoke the words of a mind already made up. “What you propose is illegal. You need a licence to trade grain. Your school bus is licensed to carry children, not merchandise. Mutune is a government-funded school. I am sure that the Ministry of Education would not like to think that their property is being misused in this way. It is definitely illegal.”

“You forget that I am trained in law. I would certainly be prepared to test what you say in the courts. Anyway, the whole project would be done in the name of the Church. Would you like to be seen to bring about a case against the Roman Catholic Church?”

“If it is illegal we would oppose it,” said Charles. “It would certainly be against our interests. We would have to consult with our legal advisers, of course, but I have no doubt in my mind when I say that, whoever started such a scheme, we would seek to stop it through the courts.”

James Mulonzya almost interrupted his son. “Would you, Mr Mwangangi, a magistrate and civil servant openly break the law?” There was some sincere as well as calculated shock in his voice.

“If the law were to stand in the way of a simple, non-profit-making humanitarian scheme such as this, especially in an area racked with famine, then the law must be changed.” There was a hint of the beginning of anger in John's voice. “If there must be a test case then so be it. Meanwhile people who would have gone hungry will be fed.”

Charles and James Mulonzya began to laugh as he spoke. There was no disrespect, however, only familiarity. Both father and son knew that they had trod this ground far more regularly and successfully than their potential adversary. “Ah John, but now you are talking politics.”

The third chapter, called Janet, is set mainly in London, thirty years on from the other four. When she left college, Janet worked in Migwani's school and was Father Michael's neighbour for two years. For two years after she returned from Africa, she corresponded with Michael, during a period of personal crisis, but she had not met him until unannounced he reappeared in her life.

Turning back into the hall, the pause having done no more than shortened her next step, she looked down to see the long Kashmiri runner reveal herringboned terracotta tiles at its edges abutting the now stripped skirts and Janet Smythe, née Rowlandson, felt a sudden and unexpected twinge of nerves, a slight tightening of the breath alongside the slightest tingle of the spine, the kind of shiver she thought she used to feel when her first boyfriend arrived at the family home to pick her up. Now more than thirty years beyond such nonsense, the unexpected nervous trill forced a pause, a mere shortening of the rhythm of her step, just as she passed the second door on her left, which looked into the front room, beyond the closed folding doors. There, presenting the back of his large head above the back of a voluminous easy chair that faced into the room, was David, her husband, precisely where she expected to find him, holding the double spread of his broadsheet high up to catch the brighter light of the hallway behind him, absorbed in a minor piece at the foot of page seven, his head gently nodding to the regularity of the Bach fugues that Janet could just hear scratching from within foam pads of his headphones.

“I’ll get it,” she said ritualistically, as she passed the open door, knowing full well he couldn’t hear. Thus she did not even check for a response which even at best would be a minor noise, not quite a grunt and definitely not a word, if, indeed, such a reference to the obvious might merit any recognition.

And so Janet reached the door, a large, wide and heavy hardwood structure, white within and black to the street, hinged on the right, solid panelled in the lower half, but admitting two decorative stained glass panels above, their uneven frosting not allowing any view of those waiting outside, who invariably presented only fuzzed silhouettes against the scattered back-light of the streetlamps. As she turned the latch, Janet’s memory momentarily recreated childhood, prompted by the beautiful symmetry of the diffused street lights and thus reminding her of those same shapes her infancy called ‘angels’in the frosted glass door of her parents’ suburban semi. Swinging the door open, she smiled at the two priests waiting in the cold and dark of a November evening.

Boniface, the fourth chapter, describes the difficult life of a young teacher in a town near to Migwani. He is chosen by Father Michael to manage one of the Church's projects, but his chapter is primarily concerned with his family relations.

A violent crash shook Boniface out of his dream. He had seen it coming for almost a minute, but had not prepared himself for the shock. The car had laboured to the summit of a shallow rise to reveal a view of the road ahead. In a broad curve it swept across a wide valley, at the bottom of which a grey and narrow concrete bridge contrasted with the brown unedged earth of the rest of their route. On the down slope, Michael pressed his foot to the floor and the car quickly picked up speed. Boniface knew that at the bottom of the valley, where the road crossed a river bed, the junction between the murram of the road and the concrete of the bridge had worn badly, leaving a vertical step between the two surfaces, several inches high in parts. Everyone who travelled the main road knew the spot. Even the more irresponsible bus drivers would slow to a crawl here to negotiate the bump, but could still not prevent the flow of abuse from the rear seats when their vehicles lurched as they crossed onto the bridge and threw the most vulnerable passengers momentarily into the air. There was simply no way of avoiding it.

By the time Michael's car hit the ramp, it was doing fifty miles per hour, but of those inside the car only Josephine, Boniface's wife, seemed concerned by the looming danger. Not until the wheels hit the step and lifted the entire car into the air did either of the men in front of her show any reaction. A split second before impact, she tried to utter a warning shout, but it was already too late. The car hit the ridge, flew into the air and came down with what seemed like a gigantic crash, flinging her from her seat and transforming her intended shout into a long high-pitched scream.

Boniface simply held on. Michael's previously vacant expression disappeared, transformed by the widening of his eyes to one of undiluted shock and surprise. After only a short skid, which the priest quickly and easily controlled, the car sped on without either a word or glance shared. Some moments later, Boniface did turn to face his wife who was bent low over the child in her lap and holding the top of her head which had bumped hard against the roof. He offered a short comforting smile to ease her discomfort and said, “Don't worry, Josephine. Father always drives like this.”

The final chapter introduces Munyasya, an ex-army officer who, late in life, has become destitute. It is his mission, however, which endures, despite being revealed as misguided. He is apparently possessed by the spirit of his long-dead step-father.

In the bottle is my madness, the spirit which haunts me, exhausts me, taunts me, entraps me. I, the hunter, the warrior, am caged like a monkey. Let me free! Let me free to live my own life and die my own death. You hold the key, not I. I would break the lock but I can't find the door. Another drink. Another drink to bring me closer to you, to hold you near until you let me go. Do you hear? You? Nzoka? Do you hear?

He had been ignored until then. Hundreds of people had passed him by, but even those whom he had befriended in the past offered neither greeting nor any sign of recognition. People had met and stood in conversation less than spitting distance from where he lay without even acknowledging his presence. It was as if he had become a part of the tree beneath which he sat, merely an exposed root to be stepped over and avoided lest one should trip. His constant, almost silent murmuring remained always inaudible amongst the daily bustle of the market place, especially on market day, itself, when this flat triangle of hardened, bare, red earth rang with the noise and commotion of trade and humanity.

These last words which he said, however, this oft-repeated question, habitually delivered with the air of a command, these words were never a whisper. Every muscle in him strained and shook to throw out the sound. His entire skeleton of a body stiffened and convulsed, the words grumbling forth from deep within his squelching chest. Thrown out as if spewed in rejection, the sound bellowed like thunder, chased by its own echo. It demanded attention, and received it, albeit begrudgingly and obliquely. It forced people to react, to look his way and thus acknowledge his presence. At such moments, all conversation, all business stopped for a moment as heads turned towards Munyasya's tree. Those with no direct view craned their necks to see, would jostle for position for just a glimpse, but no-one would want to go too close. No-one would ever answer. No-one would ever intervene.

Professional Reviews

A memorable and quite remarkable book, - Nik Morton on
If you enjoyed Paul Scott's The Raj Quartet, I suspect that you'll like this book too. The Jewel in the Crown was about a lot of things, but essentially a [...] and how that affects a number of interlinked individuals. Mission covers a great deal in 1970s Kenya, but is essentially about a death and how the lives of several people are entwined. The writing style is similar, too. Another author Spires favourably reminds me of is Louis Bromfield, especially his classic The Rains Came.

The man killed is Munyasya, a retired army officer who devoted his life to his colonial masters. The book is divided into five sections, related from the viewpoints of Michael, Mulonzya, Janet, Boniface and Munyasya. Time shifts from the instant of the death to the past and also forward to the present, showing the incident's repercussions. As Michael says, some thirty years later, `Sometimes things happen to you in life which are so momentous, so mind-blowing, that you never forget them. You live with them forever, vivid and clear in your mind. It's as if you can relive them moment-by-moment.'

We begin with the death. Father Michael, a mission priest, accidentally drives his vehicle over the ageing Munyasa, who is a derelict and a drunk. Yet the old man's demise galvanizes the local politician James Mulonzya into making political capital from the tragedy. Father Michael's blooding occurred earlier in Biafra, and his quite shocking memories are powerfully described. Now, officiating in the village of Migwani, he strives to do good and has a dedicated helper, Boniface. Michael finds himself in conflict with many folk who prefer the `old ways' and is openly accused by Mulonzya of politicising school lessons. Michael is a staunch friend of Janet Rowlandson, a volunteer working there for two years.

James Mulonzya is not only at loggerheads with Father Michael. He is against the efforts of John Mwangangi, who has returned from UK to his homeland to improve the lot of Migwani farmers. John has a wife, Lesley, who prefers the city life of Nairobi rather than that of the village. John's problems are manifold: he becomes distant to his wife, he is too absorbed in the village project, and he cannot easily get on with his old father, Musyoka, with tragic consequences.

We meet Janet thirty years after the death of old Munyasa when she is a headmistress of a girls' school in London and by chance she encounters someone from her past, a past that is not buried far beneath the surface because of what she witnessed. While in Kenya, she embarked on an affair with John Mwangangi, but it was destined to end when her two years were up... Here, in Janet's school life we are treated to some wonderful one-liners - `... middle class families who could do without patronising advice about their diet from a politician with certainly questionable morals.' And a truism: `... knowing a language was not the same as teaching it...' The mannered meal with guests and her family is splendidly done, with telling flashbacks and surprises and a marvellous put-down for her husband, David.

Boniface showed much promise as a young man and was destined for the church. Unfortunately, he allowed hubris to dominate him and fell foul of his father who had scrimped and saved to further Boniface's education. The family rift was merely the beginning, however, as Boniface becomes involved with Josephine. Later, Boniface and Josephine are beholden to Father Michael for giving blood that saved their child's life. Fate decrees otherwise, however, as the child later becomes ill and Michael makes an abortive mad dash to the hospital.

Munyasya gained his education and experience from the King's African Rifles. A respected officer in his day, he was ousted when Kenya gained independence. He was seen as a traitor to his people, more interested in adopting a European name and lifestyle. Single and without issue, he descended into a schizophrenic life where his dead stepfather talked to him and he mumbled back incomprehensively. He developed the habit of tying pieces of string to his thumb as reminders of things he'd never remember, then the string seemed to be a part of him, at times sloughed off and renewed like a snake's skin. `It was a fool trying to untie another fool's knot.' This phrase is echoed in the title of Spires's second novel, A Fool's Knot, which examines in more detail the life and death of John Mwangangi. At this point we discover the real reason why Munyasya died under the wheels of Father Michael's car.

Despite the events being trodden over by several people, there's always something fresh to discover, a new insight into a character, a shocking revelation, and even though you think you know everything already, you read on, wanting to understand the individuals and their inner worlds, and still learn more.

The narrative is coloured by the sights and smells of a small town in Africa, the petty tribal disagreements and the long-lasting resentment of past ignominies under colonial rule. It is not a light read, but it is rewarding. It's obvious that these characters lived with Spires for several years, he knows them so well, and by the end of the book, we do too. A memorable and quite remarkable book.

Impressive, - Bill Copeland on
A fine story set in beautiful Kenya, colorful and filled with mystery, intrigue, and twists. The characters are real as is their perceptions when seen through their eyes. A magnigicent story set in magnificent locale.

Much to enjoy, - RJ Grant on
The missionary priest, in Kenya, has done something unforgivable (or has he?) and the villagers will get him. The reader is taken on a journey into the lives of the characters and learns how each one fits and views the unfortunate event. This is thankfully not the end of the role for the priest. His mission continues in London and the story is as interesting as before.

To me the book is about points of view: the same event seems so different depending whose eyes one is looking through. The different maps that people have of their worlds are colorfully painted and this opens up new worlds to the reader. The link between the ancestral spirit and the old man in the last chapter draws sympathy
and gives some understanding of this spirituality.

I like how, in the end, things are not quite what they first seemed.

If you want to experience the places written about here, read this book. If you are interested in different cultures, read it too. There is much to enjoy and much insight to be gained from it.

One has to pay close attention as this is not a linear progressive story. It is a very interesting and delightfully challenging read. Highly recommended.
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