On a rainy and cold Monday, the 21st of November 2011, a few writers, Professors and book lovers gathered at the Goethe Institut on Monrovia Street in Nairobi for the monthly public reading.
Being the 200th death anniversary of Heinrich Von Kleist, a German genius who committed suicide together with his girlfriend on a sunny Saturday at age 34, we were to read from some of his works, and, according to Eliphas and Lillian, the organizers of the event, the readings were going on all over the world in honor of the writer.
We read a number of excerpts from his works most of which were stories from his book, ‘The Marquise of O and other stories’.
From the son of a schoolmaster whose sense of justice made him a robber and murderer, to a lady of unblemished reputation who put an announcement in the paper imploring the father of he unborn baby to disclose his identity, these stories are witty and hilarious fictions, based on events that happened during Kleist’s lifetime.
The second reading included the story of an embarrassed magistrate who set out to convince a man he had just sentenced that it was more advantageous to part with a few bucks than to die. The man, refusing to pay the charges, claimed that he was tired of life and wanted to die. This left the magistrate, who hated to see blood, with no other option but to waivered the fine after which the culprit shamelessly declared that given such changed circumstances, he chose to remain living awhile.
‘The foundling’ is a sad story that plays around with human emotions when a wealthy Roman dealer, out of the goodness of his heart chooses to save a little boy in great distress, this turns out badly as the dealer loses his son in a twist of events which leave the reader almost wishing that the dealer hadn’t saved the boy.
As any good writer would, we conclude the reading with a piece on Modern education theory in which the writer regards the schools of moral instruction as having failed.
He goes ahead and proposes the establishment of a school of vice in which his wife would teach quarrelsomeness, bickering, swishiness and slander while he, proudly offered to take the learners through gluttony, drunkenness and gambling at a very cheap price.
The floor was then opened to the public and Dr.Anna Mwangi, a lecturer and wife of renowned Kenyan writer Meja Mwangi was the first to speak. Coming from an academic background, she recommended the writer, who, despite having lived during a Romantic period, managed to write very good historical fiction, thereafter, Dr. Tom Odhiambo, the literary activist, like I like to call him, picked a phrase from the modern education theory piece, combined it with the current debate on legalization of corruption, morality of church going Kenyans and the recent strikes by civil servants and like a true teacher, threw it to the audience to ponder on.
As though he had shaken a bee-hive, the university students’ from Nairobi University jumped at the chance to ask about the morality of the lecturer’s strike, their individualism and the selfishness of our present society. They even went further to ask the elites WHY the writer had committed suicide, a question that, in my opinion, they should have written to Dr. Phil to ask.
All in all, the reading was very interesting, enlightening and the soft drinks afterwards helped wash down emotions built up during the heated discussions.
As I ran off to catch my Matatu at nine in the night, a question kept lingering in my mind, ‘Just how did Heinrich manage to convince his girlfriend to join him in his quest to leave this world prematurely?