Ngugi wa Thiong'o

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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.)

John Reed

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[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 comprehensible and his characters act out their destinies under social pressures that are made clear to us. In The River Between this is not so. Although like Achebe, Ngugi has set up certain connections between his two novels—for example the school at Siriana occurs in both of them—the exact historical period of the events in The River Between is never revealed, at least to the reader unversed in the details of European penetration into the various regions of Kenya. The social structure of the tribe and its political organization, although the plot turns on these matters, is never demonstrated to us in such a way that we can understand their operation in the action of the novel. Hence the characters are seen...

(This entire section contains 1032 words.)

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in relationships only sketchily defined except in terms of emotion, and the real content of the social and political ends which they set themselves remains unspecified. (pp. 118-19)

What really interests Mr Ngugi is the inner life of his characters, their brooding on the nature of life as they stare at the falling rain or the water flowing in the river, their cloudy idealism, their religious ardours. In Weep not, child this inner life both contrasted with and also reflected apocalyptically the terrible passage of events as the emergency continued. But in The River Between the weakness of the writer's grasp on the details of social and political reality cripples the novel. For example, in the book, the growth of militantly anti-White feeling is attributed to an organization called the Kiama. Waiyaki is at first its secretary but later resigns. It is the Kiama that at the end of the book is responsible for the destruction of his influence. It is not that Mr Ngugi fails to explain or show how the Kiama works in the society he is describing. He makes no attempt to explain it. So the whole story turns on something of which we know only the name. (p. 120)

The tale of Muthoni is the most successful part of the novel. Her death falls into the situation, receiving different and I think developing interpretations among the other characters; to the Christians it confirms their belief in the barbarity of Gikuyu customs; to the tribalists it is a punishment because of the new faith. To Waiyaki and Muthoni's sister, Nyambura, it becomes almost a martyrdom suffered in the attempt to reconcile old and new ways and achieve a marriage between Christ and the ritual of the tribe. Perhaps a better novel could have been written with Muthoni instead of Waiyaki at the centre.

The novel Mr Ngugi has written is broken between his interest in the problem of the reconciliation of Christ with the tribe and his uneasy recognition that the real difficulties of the situation he is describing lie elsewhere. Thus he mentions several times the alienation of the tribal lands, yet almost in passing. He never demonstrates to us the concrete effects of European settlement, and I think the reason for this is that his characters do not live in any defined economic or political context at all. We hear nothing of their livelihood, the sources of their wealth or the causes of their poverty. Of course novels can be written about the personal and spiritual concerns of characters with their social context neglected. But The River Between I think makes a claim to be about a whole society at a critical moment without making the claim good. (p. 121)

John Reed, "James Ngugi and the African Novel," in Journal of Commonwealth Literature (copyright by John Reed 1965; by permission of Hans Zell (Publishers) Limited), September, 1965, pp. 117-21.

Charles R. Larson

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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.

Charles R. Larson

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[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.

Andrew Salkey

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[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.


Thiong'o, Ngugi wa