Saturday, July 24, 2010

"the true universal connection between things, events, persons, places, time"

We can imagine the fatal meeting between the native and the alien. The missionary had traversed the seas, the forests, armed with the desire for profit that was his faith and light and the gun that was his protection. He carried the Bible; the soldier carried the gun; the administrator and the settler carried the coin. Christianity, Commerce, Civilization: the Bible, the Coin, the Gun: Holy Trinity.


Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o was born in Kenya in 1938. Although raised a Christian, he also learned the values of his family's tribe, the Gĩkũyũ, and underwent a traditional initiation ceremony. After graduating from college in Uganda in 1963, he went to work as a journalist and published his debut novel Weep Not, Child the following year. 1967's A Grain of Wheat signaled his break with cultural nationalism in favor of Fanonist Marxism. His acclaimed play, Ngaahika Ndeenda (I Will Marry When I Want), led to his arrest in 1977 and imprisonment for a year without trial. 1978's Petals of Blood, the last of Thiong'o's works to be written in English, reflects his shift in focus from the colonial era to present-day exploitation and corruption.

Following the publication of Caitaani Muthara-Ini (Devil on the Cross), the first modern novel in the Gĩkũyũ language, constant harassment forced Thiong'o to leave Kenya for London in 1982. Living abroad, he became known for his theories on language, colonialism, and cultural identity. In 2004, after twelve years in the United States, Thiong'o decided to end his self-imposed exile and return to Kenya. Instead, his high-security apartment was broken into by a gang of thugs of who stole money and a computer, tortured Thiong'o, and raped his wife, Njeeri, who has since spoken publicly about her ordeal to help combat the shame and silence experienced by many women following sexual assault. Subsequent investigation revealed that the attack was a politically-motivated inside job.

Thiong'o currently lives in California. His most recent novel, Wizard of the Crow (self-translated from Gĩkũyũ), was published in 2006.

I felt I had to get all that out there because, like Victor Serge, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o is one of those authors you really have to get to know first.

Petals of Blood is a 410-page epic that chronicles the lives of its four protagonists over a ten-year time period, stretching from the mid-sixties to the mid-seventies. Munira has settled in the sleepy backwater village of Ilmorog to work as a teacher. He is the son of a wealthy landowner who converted to Protestant Christianity to gain favor with the Europeans and acquire property seized from other Kenyans. Local shopkeeper Abdullah is another newcomer. He was crippled in the leg during the Mau Mau Uprising but refuses to speak of it. Wanja is an ex-barmaid who has left the big city to live with her grandmother, Nyakinyua. She too has many painful stories to tell. Last to arrive is bright-eyed Karega, far younger anyone else, and full of radical new ideas.

The story opens with an arson and the triple murders of Chui, Kimeria, and Mzigo, all of them prominent men celebrated and reviled for the wealth and power they've achieved as black leaders in post-colonial Kenya. Munira, Abdullah, and Karega have been arrested and are in the process of being interrogated. Wanja is in the hospital, hysterical.

What follows is an expansive view of the forces that shaped post-liberation Kenya, as seen through the eyes of four people living it. The result is humanized history (like Jorge Volpi's Season of Ash) that's alive in a way no textbook ever could be. As in most socialist-themed novels, the characters of Petals of Blood slowly develop an awareness of the unfair capitalist system in which they live and its harmful effects, which the author hopes will convince the reader as well. National in scope, Thiong'o also infuses a strong Christian overtone that elevates his message to near-cosmic proportions and recalls Jesus's admonitions that the meek would inherit the earth and the difficulty of a rich man entering paradise. ("She felt an excruciating love for them and she would have liked, at such moments, to embrace and give milk to all the little ones of the earth. Lord forgive our sins, Lord forgive our trespasses, and let the children come unto me.") Kenya's traditional religions are present as well, and set against Christianity's ironic identification with elites and sell-outs such as Munira's father.

Marxism itself is another all-encompassing worldview that posits an age-old struggle between the wealthy few and the producing masses whose labor they exploit for their own selfish ends. Set against each other are Karega and Munira, both of them well-read Ilmorog schoolteachers in love with Wanga. Karega's mother lived and worked on Munira's family's farm and they were both expelled from the same boarding school. But whereas Munira is never able to move out from under his father's shadow, Karega's experiences as a landless tenant, combined with his educational background, leads him into the study of history and the search for that one eternal answer.
Karega did not know what it was that he really wanted to get, but he vaguely hoped for a vision of the future rooted in a critical awareness of the past. So first he tried the history books. It had seemed to him that history should provide the key to the present, that a study of history should help us to answer these certain questions: where are we now? How did we come to be where we are? How did it come about that 75 per cent of those that produced food and wealth were poor and that a small group - part of the non-producing part of the population - were wealthy? History after all should be about those whose actions, whose labour, had changed nature over the years. But how come the parasites - lice, bedbugs and jiggers - who did no useful work lived in comfort and those that worked for twenty-four hours went hungry and without clothes? How could there be unemployment in a country that needed every ounce of labour? So how did people produce and organize their wealth before colonialism? What lessons could be learnt from that?
From here we get a brief overview of the prevailing historiography of Africa. Its Eurocentrism implicitly backs imperialist ambitions by erasing African history between the ancient era and the arrival of white colonists. But Karega's conclusions - which will influence his actions for the rest of the book - are familiar to anyone even slightly knowledgeable about Marxist theory. Kenya, Karega believes, once had a system in place, one that worked, in which everyone had access to land and basic necessities. Capitalism came with colonialism and seduced a few who set about adopting the ways of the foreigner at the expense of their own people. But if the workers join together we can overthrow the leeches and build our own Utopia.

Of course, with colonialism also came Christianity. For all the irony inherent to its use as justification for exploitation, there's also something to be said for the link between its millennialism and the post-historical Eden that socialism/communism aim for. Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward, for example, features a literal mass conversion experience that brings about a secular paradise. Despite his own rejection of Christianity, I don't think this is lost on Thiong'o. While his embrace of American-style Protestantism eventually destroys Munira, he also arrives at a sort of neo-Platonic position similar to that of his counterpart, Karega.
And Munira would hold himself ready; he felt an incandescence of the spirit, a glow of the intellect, the pride of an inventor or a discoverer, and he was eager to communicate this to any listener. He felt even more than before that he now held the key which opened up, once and for all time, the true universal connection between things, events, persons, places, time. What caused things to happen? The New Ilmorog of one or two flickering neon-lights; of bars, lodgings, groceries, permanent sales, and bottled Theng'eta; . . . what brought about this Ilmorog from the old one of sleepy children with mucus-infested noses, climbing up and down the miariki trees? And why did things happen the way they did at the time they did and no other? How was it that the puny acts of men, arising from a thousand promptings and numerous motives, could change history and for ever condemn and damn souls to eternal torment and loss, guilt and cruelty, but also to love - yes - love that passeth all understanding? No there was a design, a law, and it was this that he would have liked to impress on Inspector Godfrey.
Both Munira and Karega become infused with an evangelical spirit, intent on spreading the Word and saving their fellow man. But whereas Karega's revolutionary socialism is portrayed as hopeful and constructive - despite the persecution and possible martyrdom he faces - Munira is driven to superstitious madness. I think Thiong'o is asking us to choose between doctrines here: a corrupted form of Christianity or a rising political movement that promises real results in this life. It was Marx himself, after all, who famously called religion the "opiate of the people" and argued that it pacified the masses by offering reward in Heaven only after the suffering of mortal life.

Now Thiong'o's message was never subtle but it was always well-integrated into the story despite a few instances of character filibustering. As with The Grapes of Wrath (another socialist novel), the political ideas we're supposed to pick up in Petals of Blood are pretty obvious and it certainly qualifies as an author tract. But although Thiong'o is never as graceful as Steinbeck, he continues along comfortably enough for the first 3/4 of the book. We genuinely sympathize with his characters and learn along with them.

Until he goes all-out anvilicious.

To his credit, Thiong'o never loses control of the plot, which is still perfectly coherent in its downhill climax. It's just that the Big Point starts to completely overpower the work in a way that can only happen in novels that are either very religious or very political. I mean, yes, we get it already. Quit preachin.' Pretty much the entire final 1/4 reads like this:
Her voice only agitated further images set in motion by her revelation. Imperialism: capitalism: landlords: earthworms. A system that bred hordes of round-bellied jiggers and bedbugs with parasitism and cannibalism as the highest goal in society. This system and its profiteering gods and its ministering angels had hounded his mother to her grave. These parasites would always demand the sacrifice of blood from the working masses. These few who had prostituted the whole land turning it over to foreigners for thorough exploitation, would drink people's blood and say hypocritical prayers of devotion to skin oneness and to nationalism even as skeletons of bones walked to lonely graves. The system and its gods and its angels had to be fought consciously, consistently and resolutely by all the working people! From Koitalel through Kang'ethe to Kimathi it had been the peasants, aided by the workers, small traders and small landowners, who had mapped out the path. Tomorrow it would be the workers and the peasants leading the struggle and seizing power to overturn the system and all its preying bloodthirsty gods and gnomic angels, bringing to an end the reign of the few over the many and the era of drinking blood and feasting on human flesh. Then, only then, would the kingdom of man and woman really begin, they joying and loving in creative labor . . .
WHAMWHAMWHAM! For comparison, here's part of the Johnny Got His Gun ending:
It will be you - you who urge us on to battle you who incite us against ourselves you who would have one cobbler kill another cobbler you who would have one man who works kill another man who works you who would have one human being who wants only to live kill another human being who wants only to love. Remember this. Remember this well you people who plan for war. Remember this you patriots you fierce ones you spawners of hate you inventors of slogans. Remember this as you have never remembered anything else in your lives.
Okay, they're not exactly alike but the spirit is the same. I heard this happens at the end of The Jungle too: we get this big socialist screed that sums up the Lessons Learned by Proletariat Protagonist. The Grapes of Wrath, by contrast, manages to avoid such heavy-handedness, which is probably why Steinbeck is a Great Author while Dalton Trumbo is a One-Hit Wonder Who Wrote a Cult Novel. I haven't read any other Thiong'o but he's otherwise quite talented so I'm hoping he eventually learned how to tone it down. Although granted, there's a real immediacy to the political message: people are out there suffering and being exploited right now. So maybe anviliciousness is largely unavoidable?

I'm worried at this point that I sound overly critical because I really did enjoy Petals of Blood. Along with The Genius, it was the first book in awhile I found genuinely gripping, and I recommend it for the educational value alone. Yes, it turns into a full-blown diatribe but there is still a great story here with strong characters, a vivid setting, and a swift-moving plot. Way cool.

A big thanks to Richard for sending me this! Here is his review.

For more information on the Mau Mau Rebellion, Caroline Elkin's
Imperial Reckoning: The Untold Story of Britain's Gulag in Kenya sounds like a definite must-read. Ironically, Britain did this shit a scant ten years after trashing the Nazis for doing virtually the same thing!

11 comments:

rhapsodyinbooks said...

I love the tropes site! And anvilicious is the best! It will come in very handy for me, I'm sure!

I see what you mean about the socialist screed, but a sense of injustice does make one passionate. I'd be inclined to give him a pass on that one. (What this really tells you is that I am prone to socialist screeds myself so of course I'd be sympathetic to it!)

Nicely reviewed!

E. L. Fay said...

I LOVE TV Tropes. My favorite article is the "Uncanny Valley." So creepy! The examples in "High Octane Nightmare Fuel" are a lot of fun too.

I think it's in either the "Author Tract" or the "Anvilicious" articles, but they do talk about how your agreement with the author's message usually determines if a particular work falls into those categories or not. I like to think I'm pretty fair, though. Thiong'o really does go overboard.

Richard said...

E.L. Fay, glad you liked this and anvilicious was a nice new word for me as a bonus to an already enjoyable post (glad it has nothing to do with burnout Canadian hair metal bands)! While I agree that Thing'o can be overbearing at times, the immediacy of his political message (as you point out) and the force with which he delivered it made it all a net gain for me. Btw, I saw a different highly-praised history of the Mau Maus at my local bookstore...but I can't remember the name of it offhand. Ack!

Josh said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Vintage Reading said...

I'd like to read more African fiction. Petals of Blood sounds fascinating. I'm also thinking of reading Things Fall Apart and re-reading Out of Africa (not fiction I know). Excellent review.

Emily said...

Ah, the wrap-up screed, time-tested tradition of the political/religious/philosophical novel.

I haven't decided whether I want to read this or not - basically the immediacy Richard mentions & the fact that the politics in question seem actually interesting to me, vies with this lazy part of me that doesn't ever feel like picking up such a book right now. But, we shall see. Very well reviewed!

rhapsodyinbooks said...

Oh, reading about Nightmare Fuel led me to squick - I love that one too! And eye scream - how true! Ack! Must pull myself away from trope site and go back to reading actual books!!!

E. L. Fay said...

Richard: Canadian hair metal??? Does such a thing really exist? I hope not.

The first I ever heard of the Mau Maus was actually in a '60s-era book by one Louis Cotlow called In Search of the Primitive. Cotlow, since the '30s or '40s, had been traveling the world and documenting the cultures of isolated tribes in Africa, South America, New Guinea, and Antarctica. He described the Mau Maus as incredibly violent and guilty of many atrocities. And while I'm not denying that they might have done some questionable things, it looks like it was the Brits who were the real thugs. I don't know what happened to that book. It would've been great to have for this post.

Deleted a spam comment.

VR: Thiong'o HATES Out of Africa. He called it one of the "most dangerous" books written about Africa because of how it totally whitewashed (no pun intended) European colonialism. Not saying no one should read it but I think we need to keep that in mind.

Emily: It's a surprisingly fast read for such a dense book. But because there is so much going on I would recommend saving it for when you feel like doing a lengthy blog post! I almost didn't know where to begin.

Oh dear, are there other books guilty of the big Wrap-Up Screed as well? We should make that an article on TV Tropes if there isn't one already.

Jill: Eye Scream? What the heck is that? *heads to TV Tropes*

amckiereads said...

This book sounds great, though too bad the last quarter gets a bit preachy. I'm really glad to see you included information on Thiong'o, great addition to the post. I read and reviewed Weep Not, Child earlier this year - I really loved it and didn't find it was too preachy so it might have just been this one book, or a few of his books. We'll just have to read more and see I guess!

E. L. Fay said...

I heard Weep Not, Child and A Grain of Wheat are his two really acclaimed novels. One of those will be my next Thiong'o selection.

For another great African book, I recommend Tayeb Salih's Season of Migration to the North. It's basically a reverse Heart of Darkness.

nicole said...

Whamwham is right. I didn't really know anything about Thiong'o before but that's not what I was expecting at all. Like Emily, I'm somewhat interested, but realistically never feel like reading this type of thing.

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