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 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 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...
(The entire section is 1,579 words.)