Wa Thiong'o, Ngugi 1938–
Wa Thiong'o, formerly known as James Ngugi, is a Kenyan novelist, playwright, and short story writer, who, as Nadine Gordimer comments, succeeds in his fiction by placing the Mau Mau movement in the historical, political, and sociological context of the African continental revolution. (See also CLC, Vols. 3, 7.)
[Weep not, child is] an autobiographical novel, and its weaknesses come from the need to make it at once a book about the Mau Mau Rebellion and yet also a book written out of immediate and personal experience. There are scenes when the author is trying to sum up or present the whole situation, for example the conversation between Njoroge and Stephen Howlands, the schoolboy son of the white farmer, at a football match between an African and a European school. This seems contrived and unconvincing. When Mr Ngugi brings the violence of Mau Mau directly upon the scene, as when he describes the murder of Mr Howlands by Njoroge's brother, there is a failure in the writing which is serious enough to damage the whole novel. He also runs into the problem of all autobiographical novels of childhood and youth—that of coming to a conclusion. The scene at the end of the book when Njoroge is prevented from hanging himself by the timely appearance of his mother is not a happy solution.
Weep not, child is at its best presenting the ordinary life and awareness of a young African as he achieves his formal and informal education. The attempts at more dramatic effect fail but do not ruin the book's muted everyday quality of conviction. The very simple and direct style used gives each scene actuality as we read but leaves nothing standing vividly out, and the novel lives on in the mind as an atmosphere and not as a series of sharply drawn incidents.
The River Between uses the same style and achieves the same kind of effect. But in this novel there is a need for more definition and sharpness. For this is a full historical novel—a novel, that is, about contemporary society which examines certain features of that society by exploring their origin and development in the past. The obvious comparison is with [Chinua Achebe's] two novels about the early contacts between Africans and Europeans in his own part of Eastern Nigeria, Things Fall Apart and Arrow of God. The comparison, I think, is fair and the reason why it is unfavourable to Ngugi is that the impressionistic and personal approach used in Weep not, child is insufficient in a novel attempting to explore the roots of a particular problem. Such a novel must show the characters acting in a social context and under social pressures and therefore must demonstrate to us convincingly that nature of their society. Achebe's novels do this. The tribal societies he shows us are completely articulated and...
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The weakness of Ngugi's ["Petals of Blood"] as a work of the creative imagination ultimately lies in the author's somewhat dated Marxism: revolt of the masses, elimination of the black bourgeois; capitalism to be replaced with African socialism. The author's didacticism weakens what would otherwise have been his finest work. (p. 22)
Charles R. Larson, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1978 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), February 19, 1978.
[Though Petals of Blood] may not always fulfill the promise of [Ngugi's] earlier works, there is much to admire and ponder about it.
The narrative pattern is complex and at times difficult to follow, embracing a time sequence of twelve years with numerous flashbacks skipping back much earlier to develop important details in the lives of the four main characters…. Ngugi's narrative assumes the misleading appearance of a detective story, as the police begin to interrogate the main characters—all likely suspects … for the multiple murders. (p. 246)
Petals of Blood is a bold venture—perhaps a risky one—since it is obvious that the author's criticisms of his country's new ruling class will not go unnoticed…. Ngugi attacks neocolonialism manifested in the new materialism, as well as his nation's hasty and often shortsighted attempts at rapid industrialization…. If Ngugi at times becomes overly didactic and simplistic in his framing of capitalism versus African socialism, Petals of Blood is still a highly compelling work of fiction. There are scenes in this novel (especially those depicting the relationships between Wanja and her various lovers) that are as fine as anything I have read in years. Ngugi wa Thiong'o's novel always engages our attention and our admiration—no easy task for any novelist with a burning social conscience. (pp. 246-47)
Charles R. Larson, in World Literature Today (copyright 1978 by the University of Oklahoma Press), Vol. 52, No. 2, Spring, 1978.
[Petals of Blood] announces its radical political intention in the author's choices of sectional epigraphs: from Walt Whitman, William Blake and Amilcar Cabral, among other poets. It's a willfully diagrammatic and didactic novel which also succeeds artistically because of its resonant characterization and deadly irony. It satisfies both the novelist's political intent and the obligation I know he feels toward his art….
[The novel shows] the workers at the overseas-owned Theng'eta Brewery in Ilmorog, a new town near the Trans-Africa Highway,… planning a militant strike, after the directors' meeting declared a no pay-raise decision; hours later three Theng'eta directors are found burnt to death; three townspeople are arrested….
It becomes clear that the excoriating conflict of interests in Ilmorog is a microcosm of the larger national one in Kenya. (p. 681)
The novel closes with the people of Ilmorog not just sensing a mere illusory feeling of having experienced before their present revolutionary situation; it is déjà vu without the distance of illusion—with, in fact, the stark actuality of the approaching event of revolution. (p. 682)
Andrew Salkey, in World Literature Today (copyright 1978 by the University of Oklahoma Press), Vol. 52, No. 4, Autumn, 1978.