Critical Context

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Last Updated on May 11, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 622

Political detention, a far too common twentieth century reality in Africa and elsewhere, has often been, for those who have recorded it, a mind-altering experience. Ngugi’s fellow African, the Nigerian Wole Soyinka, imprisoned during the Biafran War, had his vision darkened considerably as he faced the threats of spiritual and physical death. His memoir, The Man Died (1972), much different from Ngugi’s in its immediacy, its subjectivity, and its metaphorical density, like several works following his release exhibits a bitter, cynical tone while nevertheless intensifying a commitment to social justice. Though some have called Soyinka’s account narcissistic, it might more appropriately be called profoundly humanistic—the individual’s agony symbolizing that of all men in the valley of despair. Ngugi’s, on the other hand, is a controlled, reflective, ideological statement, the author seeing himself as only one in a historical line of political scapegoats. It is a product of study that yielded, not pain and acrimony, but enlightenment, confidence, and determination. If it was not a more profound experience than Soyinka’s, it was more stabilizing, at least in the short term.

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Detained is actually part of a changed perspective that seems to have begun a few months before imprisonment with Ngugi’s involvement in the writing and production of the play I Will Marry When I Want. In Detained he calls it “the most exciting [time] in my life and the true beginning of my education. I learnt my language anew.” He began to see his communal role more clearly. While detention at first seemed to inhibit his progress, it soon became evident that the year in prison continued his education; he came to understand the colonial history of Kenya and detention as part of colonial repression. His prison novel, Devil on the Cross, proved to him that he could apply the linguistic lessons learned in the play to the form he knew best. Devil on the Cross, a more confident novel than its predecessor, Petals of Blood (1977), emerges like Detained from a simply conceived ideological position.

Yet one wonders, even at this stage of his career, even after the soul-searching of the detention experience, to what extent Ngugi made himself intellectually independent of his colonial heritage. Early in his career his style and thinking were greatly influenced by British sources, especially Joseph Conrad and D. H. Lawrence. The latter’s neo-Romanticism is evident, for example, in the early novel The River Between (1965), and vestiges of it persist in Detained and in the plot and idealized portrait of Wariinga in Devil on the Cross. Even his later statement that he wished he had begun with the works of Emile Zola and Leo Tolstoy instead of Lawrence suggests continued reliance on foreign models. His statements about the craft of fiction, expressed in Detained, seem Western in language and substance as he insists on the importance of organic unity: His subject must arise “logically . . . out of the development of theme, character, plot, story and world view,” and fictional devices must arise “naturally in the development of character, theme and story.” In his politics, too, there is some question. Ngugi has not embraced a strict Marxist line, yet his language is clearly drawn from a Marxist vocabulary. It is difficult to judge how far Ngugi had actually come by the early 1980’s in discovering a voice to express his African self and culture. What is clear, however, is his commitment to that identity, to Kenyan independence and individual freedom of expression, to indigenous culture and indigenous languages. What is more, after his prison experience Ngugi was able to identify himself as one of the faithful, as one among many who have withstood the test, who have continued to resist cultural assimilation.

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