The odds are Ngugi will take the Nobel

What you need to know:

  • This year’s Nobel Prize for literature to be given out on Thursday

With the announcement of the winner of this year’s Nobel Prize for literature set for Thursday, Kenyan literary giant Ngugi wa Thiong’o is the punter’s favourite.

Ngugi has emerged as a late favourite at the bookmakers, and by Tuesday, bookmaker Ladbrokes had installed him in prime position, slashing his odds from an opening price of 75-1 to 3-1.

“We’ve never seen anything like it,” said Ladbrokes spokesman David Williams of Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s rise through the odds. “Ngugi was a rank outsider when we first looked at the candidates, but we fear we’ve got it horribly wrong. Punters can’t get enough of him and we’re dreading him being announced the winner.”

Also rising up the ranking is US novelist Cormac McCarthy, now in second place at 6-1, with Japanese writer Haruki Marukami in third position at 7-1.

Last week’s favourite, the Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer, is now ranked fourth in the Ladbroke’s odds with a 9-1 chance of winning the award.

A novelist, post-colonial theorist and social activist, Ngugi is a Distinguished Professor of English and Comparative Literature at the University of California, Irvine. His highly politicised work as a novelist, playwright, critic and activist has brought him peril — imprisonment, exile, physical attack — as well as acclaim.

He began writing in English, but following his arrest and imprisonment without charge at the Kamiti Maximum Security Prison after the performance of his critical play, Ngaahika Ndeenda (I Will Marry When I Want) in 1977, he made the decision to work in his mother tongue, Gikuyu.

He wrote the novel Caitani Mutharabaini (Devil on the Cross) on toilet paper during his time in prison; his other works include the sweeping satire Wizard of the Crow (Murogi wa Kagogo), which is widely considered to be his finest work.

His latest book, the memoirs Dreams at a Time of War, goes back to his grandparents’ era, the time of the Berlin Conference of 1885 where the European powers divided up Africa.

His father, having evaded the draft during World War I, avoids the political turmoil of Nairobi — where Gandhian nationalism and Garveyite black nationalism had Kenyan links — by fleeing to a rural town.

Born in Limuru, central Kenya in 1938, under the shadow of the Second World War, Ngugi was the fifth child of the third of his father’s four wives. Limuru, where he grew up, was in an area earmarked after 1902 as “White Highlands”.

The railway that brought European settlers and Indian workers, while forcing Africans off their land, also provided a literal platform for social activity, as people converged on the Sunday train.

Railway carriages, like schools, were segregated, in a British version of apartheid: first-class for Europeans; second-class for Indians; and third-class for Africans. Sex between an African man and a European woman was illegal.

His books are first written in Gikuyu. Ngugi said: “In writing, one should hear all the whisperings, all the shouting, all the crying, all the loving and all the hating of the many voices in the past, and those voices will never speak to a writer in a foreign language.”

Additional reporting by The Guardian