Titles: My Life in Crime and My Life in Prison
Author: John Kiriamiti
Publication Year: 1984 and 2004 Resp.
Literary giance in Kenya, especially in crime fiction, has since the 1970s been a norm as crime strands became a typical facet and a theme in literature.
John Kiriamiti made a debut in the authorship platform after publishing My Life in Crime in 1984, a crime fiction book he wrote while in prison to detail how he became a novice pickpocket and advanced to greater and more risky crimes until his arrest and imprisonment on January 6, 1971.
Among major crime novels is Charles Mangua’s Son of Woman, authored in 1971; Marjorie Macgoye’s Murder in Majengo, published in 1972 and later Victoria and Murder in Majengo in 1993, and 1973’s Kill Me Quick, by Meja Mwangi, among others.
However, Kiriamiti becomes a figure of admiration throughout his first two novels and gains the sympathy of the reader despite being “on the other side of the law”.
The morality of the author, authority and the reader too is therefore put into question.
This feature will seek to see how John Kiriamiti alias Jack Zollo, in both My Life in Crime and My Life in Prison, executes the exigent task of portraying his villainous role as heroic and justifies his every crime.
Unlike Dodge Kiunyu in Mangua’s Son of Woman and Emily Katango, a protagonist in David Maillu’s After 4:30, both who unapologetically play the villainous roles without being sorry for who they are, Zollo introduces himself to the reader as a rather reformed person.
“Before my life in crime, I never believed that a man or group of people could sit together and conspire to rob, blackmail, kidnap, murder or commit other acts of felony. But now I know.” (Page 1, Par. 1).
By introducing himself as stated above, Zollo presents himself as a remorseful and apologetic man, showing that even before he begins to narrate his ordeal, he regrets his life in crime and shows that his jail sentence has changed him.
Further, he introduces his background as being born of “a relatively well-to-do family”.
“My father Albert Kiriamiti and my mother, Anne Wanjiru, were teachers, and therefore in my youth, I was well provided for,” he declares in his introductory statements.
This statement nudges the curiosity of the reader to know what reasons led him into crime seeing that he had done away with the constraint of poverty or socio-economic challenges.
Throughout the book, Kiriamiti uses the first person “I” which resonates with the reader as it unconsciously turns them into the novel’s protagonist because they are conscripted by the text.
He states, “… an unputdownable story of the life of a boy who graduated from a mere pickpocket to a charismatic gang leader. Even if you hate robbers, you will enjoy reading this book.”
Fictional criminal figure
Among other ways that Kiriamiti pulls his readers include humor, characterization and, most importantly, addressivity or personification.
Kiriamiti unconsciously makes the reader a silent partner in his crimes by asking rhetorical questions and addressing the reader directly as someone who willingly steps forward to justify his villainous deeds.
For example, when he gets stuck in Rwanda after escaping from Congo for fear of facing the consequences of impregnating two ladies and robbing his boss of 1.5 million francs, Zollo demands the reader’s loyalty and to understand his predicament and validate his action.
He states on Page 161 of My Life in Crime, “Do you, the reader, pick anything there? If you don’t, then you have not been following my story.”
This personification and direct address limits the options of the reader and they are captivated to like the constructed criminal figure.
Kiriamiti depicts himself as a thriller hero as he continues to ladder up in the criminal world while still winning even in the most impossible situations; in such a way, he enchants the reader by constructing a hero rather than a villain.
In his second book, My Life in Prison, he admits that he is wrong and evil, which leaves the reader charmed by the protagonist’s honesty.
He says, “I was lost in all that misery when I heard the judge say, ‘If you have nothing to say…’”.
He continues to tell the reader, “Put yourself in my place, though you have never been a robber, and tell me what you would have said. I said nothing; I knew I was guilty.”
In the same book, he feigns madness in prison as a tactic to escape from the Naivasha Maximum Security Prison.
In such thrilling instances, the reader is indebted to support his unlawful projects, and when it fails and he is re-arrested, both Zollo and the readers are nauseated by the failure.
Zollo, in this context, reconstructs his image, which obliges more sympathy from the reader who has liked his heroic character since the first book that detailed his criminal life.
Crime as part of life
In the blurb of the book “My Life in Crime”, Kiriamiti terms the book as a journal of the romantic, crime and adventure side of the fast and furious town life.
He reconstructs his image as not just a full-time criminal but a son and brother, a husband, a friend and an adventurous young man in the city of Nairobi.
Before his first pickpocket “job”, Zollo terms Nairobi as a place of open opportunities where he can create unimaginable survival networks.
Throughout the book, we see that he occasionally gets together with friends at different bars and restaurants for different reasons.
In Chapter 3 of the story, he shows that other than crime, Zollo was capable of having emotions when he collected Milly’s bus pass and after seeing her photo, in his words, “he felt like he liked the owner of the photo”.
He presents Milly to the reader in a manner that shows he was a lover and determined in his courses.
“I felt for sure I had at last met my Hellen of Troy. This girl looked feminine! …days passed and I went to see her now and then until we became very intimate friends.”
Milly becomes a big part of Zollo’s life and her character is easily likeable; Kiriamiti even goes ahead to write a third novel about Milly titled My Life with a Criminal: Milly’s Story.
More instances show how crime was a part of life not just for Zollo but other characters in the book.
For instance, Salome Wangari, who is Milly’s mother, operated an illegal business of selling unlicensed beer, and Mota Singh, an Indian who modified stolen cars and, at some point, helped Zollo get illegal ownership documents for a stolen car.
When Zollo breaks out of prison in My Life in Prison, he tries to send a letter to Stanley Githenji’s (G.G) brother, but the messenger never delivers the letter as it has KSh300 inside.
He says that this act goes to show that “the majority of thieves are not even in prison” (My Life in Prison, Pg. 56).
In conclusion, Kiriamiti’s style of writing emphasizes stereotypes as most of his partners in crime are Kikuyus, who are inherently known to love money, and how both genders, especially men, employ survival tactics to live in a fast-paced town.
However, he makes crime admirable by winning the sympathy of the reader.
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His work is set apart as the reader gets to live in the criminal’s point of view to feel that even they, if put in similar situations, would not act differently.