Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1875
Many critics who have offered analyses of Petals of Blood have called attention to the novel's unusual narrative structure. In the work Ngugi uses multiple points of view to weave together the tales of his four main characters and the people around them. Fragmentary bits of information are revealed by...
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Many critics who have offered analyses of Petals of Blood have called attention to the novel's unusual narrative structure. In the work Ngugi uses multiple points of view to weave together the tales of his four main characters and the people around them. Fragmentary bits of information are revealed by two narrators and persons of varying backgrounds, and the reader must fit together characters' confessions, reminiscences, reports, musings, and sometimes dim remembrances to understand the truth of the story. The cumulative effect of the many-sided narration is that the reader must decide what and who to believe, but at the same time is presented with a quite clear social and political message. This narrative technique seems at least to some degree to be Ngugi's nod to the Kenyan oral tradition, in which tellers recount stories—often in the form of an exchange with others—for the moral education of their audience.
Some commentators, notably Stewart Crehans, have found Ngugi's style in the novel to be aesthetically unsatisfying. Crehans says that the threads in the novel are not well tied together, that the text ‘‘never rests, pinpoints, or focuses attention ... [I]t has a kind of fugitive, alienated, almost neurotically anxious quality...’’ While Crehans seems to be right about the disjointed and sometimes strained tone of the novel, what he seems wrong not to allow is that the tangled web of narration serves important purposes in the work. The disparate viewpoints, interrupted accounts, and shifting sense of time in Petals of Blood produce an effect of confusion and dissonance that underscores the sense of alienation and dislocation of the Kenyan peasantry that is at the heart of the novel. The narrative method is also an effective device in this mystery story where the pieces of a ‘‘jigsaw puzzle’’ must be fit together to solve the crime. And the multiple perspectives that are used to express the ideas in this deeply political novel may be seen as warning against unquestioning acceptance of any one point of view.
The feeling of dislocation is apparent from the beginning of the novel. It opens with the arrests of the four protagonists, in four different places, in quick succession. This back-and-forth movement continues throughout the book. The first voice that is heard is that of a third-person narrator, but others soon chime in. In addition to the voices of the characters that tell their personal stories, there is another unnamed narrator, the collective voice of the villagers of Ilmorog. This "we" voice stands above the characters and judges their actions from the point of view of the community and the values it embodies. The "we" voice expresses bemusement at the new teacher Munira, surprise at the appearance of the first car in Ilmorog carrying Wanja's belongings, and joy at the singing and dancing at the festival before harvest time. The other, omniscient, narrator is more detached and authorial, and offers judgments of a different sort: sometimes factual, sometimes ironic, sometimes damning. It explains, for example, the cycles of rains on the land and comments on Munira's father's ‘‘holy trinity’’ of Bible, Coin, and Gun.
The four protagonists of the novel, the school-teacher Munira, the shopkeeper and ex-freedom fighter Abdullah, the bar-girl Wanja, and the activist Karega, reveal the details of their lives not only in their confessions to others but in their musings to themselves. The confessions in the novel are powerful and again reminiscent of tales told by oral storytellers, drawing listeners in and creating a heightened expectation of a dramatic revelation. Through the confessions readers learn of the remarkable events in the characters' past and also discover how their lives overlap. The characters' private thoughts also are revealed as they meditate to themselves. Munira, in particular, as he recounts the details of his twelve years in Ilmorog to the police (in a combined public and private disclosure) allows readers into his singular world. By juxtaposing each of the characters' private thoughts about themselves with the narrators' and the other characters' perceptions of them, Ngugi presents complex portraits of these often very troubled human beings.
Indeed, one of the striking features of the novel is the complexity of the four protagonists, all of whom turn out to be quite different than they at first appear and who in many ways remain enigmas to the end. Munira is not an idealist who comes to teach at this rural outpost, it becomes clear, but a weak and fearful man who has escaped from the derision of a cruel father. He shies away from action throughout the novel, but it is he who performs the final, decisive act. Abdullah, it turns out, is not the insignificant shopkeeper of the early chapters of the novel, but a brave man of action who fought for his country in its greatest time of need. Wanja, whose unswerving energy seems to bring the possibility of positive change to Ilmorog, is both temptress and savior, dreamer and practical-minded businesswoman. Karega is an idealistic young man carrying scars of the tragic loss of his first love and in search of an outlet for his intellectual and political energies. Detailed pictures of all four characters emerge not from a third-person description of their lives, but from the multiple perspectives that shed light on their most public actions as well as their private self-deceptions.
Other characters in the novel also add to the narrative richness with their descriptions of events and situations. The old bard Nyakinya recites to the Ilmorog's grand past and tells of her husband's heroic struggle against the British. The lawyer explains to Karega what he thinks to be the political situation in Kenya and the best means to remedy it. All the viewpoints are, again, presented in quick succession, one following the other, sometimes with little or no indication of the narrative shift. The back-and-forth movement of the novel, the varied voices, and the explorations of Kenya's situation past and present have a sometimes dizzying effect. This sense of instability mirrors masterfully the alienation and disorientation in the lives of the villagers in the novel. Subjected to colonial rule, stripped of their land, forced to answer to corrupt governments unconcerned by their plight, their past values corroded by a new culture of money and power, this is a community in turmoil. The disorder in their lives is expressed not only through the details but in the telling of their story.
The narrative structure using multiple points of view also fits appropriately with the work as a detective story. At the beginning of the novel it is learned that three prominent businessmen have been murdered, and the four suspects are called in for questioning. Inspector Godfrey, in charge of the case, means to solve the problem like a ‘‘jigsaw puzzle.’’ The details of the crime slowly unfold, with the various reports and revelations that are offered by the different characters and narrators, but readers, like the inspector, must be careful whose account to believe. It is interesting to note that Godfrey leaves Ilmorog thinking that he has in fact solved the case even though he is missing a crucial piece of the puzzle. He has learned that it was Munira who burned down the house with the three brewery directors in it. However, he does not know that Wanja in fact killed one of the three men before fire broke out. This information is only gleaned because readers are allowed insight into Wanja's private thoughts.
Many critics have faulted Petals of Blood for its overtly political message and for the didactic voice that emerges from the narrators as well as individual characters. They find that the damning tone of the book, as it criticizes capitalism, colonialism, and neocolonialism, detracts from the work's artistic integrity. It is also assumed by many commentators, including Eustace Palmer and Simon Gikandi, that the voice of Karega is the voice of consciousness in the novel, and that Ngugi endorses Karega's socialist analysis and solution. They find this to be a shortcoming for a piece of an imaginative literature in which the reader should not be told what to believe. However, it should be noted that although Karega is a character who is portrayed very sympathetically, he is not the most prominent figure in the novel. Most of the events are not seen through his eyes, but rather through Munira's. Also, interestingly, although Karega seems to be the voice that echoes that of the author, he in fact issues a warning against taking any person's viewpoint too seriously. When Munira insists that what children in the school should learn are ‘‘simple facts,’’ Karega disagrees, saying:
I cannot accept that there is a stage in our growth as human beings when all we need are so-called facts and information. Man is a thinking being from the time he is born to the time he dies. He looks, he hears, he touches, he smells, he tastes, and he sifts all these impressions in his mind to arrive at a certain outlook in his direct experience of life. Are there pure facts? When I am looking at you, how much I see of you is conditioned by where I stand or sit; by the amount of light in this room; by the power of my eyes; by whether my mind is occupied with other thoughts and what thoughts. Surely the story we teach about the seven blind men who had never seen an elephant is instructive. Looking and touching, then, do involve interpretation. Even assuming that there were pure facts, what about their selection? Does this not then involve interpretation?
So then even if the author does sympathize with the solution offered by Karega, he in fact uses the voice of this character to point out to readers that any solution must be scrutinized closely by those who are presented with it. And, he says, at all stages in humans' lives they are equipped to learn the truth for themselves. Karega himself, in searching for a solution to the pressing social problems he sees all around, does not unquestioningly accept the position of the activist lawyer, but seeks out his own understanding and answer. This emphasis on different interpretations, again underscored by the use of varying perspectives in the narration, seems to urge readers not to take at face value any political viewpoint but to sift through the different impressions and think through possible solutions. This appeal seems to soften the otherwise didactic thrust of the novel.
Of course the fact that Ngugi in his novel uses his unusual narrative device to achieve certain effects does not mean that the technique is without flaws. Certainly in some parts of Petals of Blood the language is stilted and ideas put into the mouths of certain characters jarring. But despite these failings, Ngugi's work offers a bold and original style that is eminently suited to its subject matter, and the unusual method of storytelling in Petals of Blood adds richness and depth to this ambitious and complex novel.
Source: Uma Kukathas, in an essay for Literature of Developing Nations for Students, Gale, 2000.
Kukathas is a freelance writer and a student in the Ph.D. program in philosophy at the University of Washington specializing in social, political, and moral philosophy.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2900
Commonwealth literature is not everyone's notion of a viable or useful category, and some may think that it smacks of post-colonial cultural imperialism, but it is a wider (if less precise) category than "world literature written in English" and has the advantage of admitting regional and national literatures that would otherwise have to find shelter under the not-necessarily appropriate umbrellas of the "third world," "black," "Asian," or "Pacific" writing. One does not have to approve of British (or Australian, New Zealand, or United States) colonial rule to recognise that its effects on education, legal systems, writing, and culture generally continue to be evident, so that there are still useful comparisons to be made between the literature of one former British colony and another. That does not mean, of course, that the comparisons are necessarily very important ones; certainly it does not mean that they constitute the most interesting features of the literatures. It does mean, though, that "Commonwealth literature" still makes sense as a category, somewhere between national literature or the literature of one language and world literature (of necessity partly in translation).
One of the questions much debated over the past three decades has been "How political should Commonwealth literature be?" To ask this question is to beg a great many more and to invite a multitude of glib, qualified, relativistic answers. "What is the difference between literature and propaganda?"; "Can we afford literature in desperate times and circumstances?"; "Can worthwhile literatures be written in a corrupt society?" are some of the obvious questions. "As political as the writer wants or the society needs"; "As political as is compatible with literary (or permanent, or human, or social, or cultural, or ... ) value": "It doesn't matter" are some of the obvious answers ...
In studying the satirical allegory of Ngugi in Petals of Blood, Devil on the Cross and Matigari it would be possible to raise a number of rhetorical questions concerned with the blending of modes. It is sufficient at this stage to note that Ngugi moves effortlessly between realism, satire, farce, fantasy, and exhortation. Narrative fiction is not just for telling a story in a realistic mode; but can also discuss the telling of the story, raise questions about the reliability of the narrator or the speaker, and create spaces where the story is held while exhortation or discussion occurs. For Ngugi, fiction can both create its own illusion and strip away the illusion of others. That is why it is so dangerous to the authoritarian state. That is why, in Matigari, the Minister for Truth and Justice bans all dreams, desires, and songs (120, 125), why he attributes 'distortion' to fiction (103) and announces that "All we are interested in here is development. We are not interested in fiction." Ngugi's sense of irony makes him immediately follow that anti-fiction pronouncement with a fiction created by the Minister:
... Let us now forget that such people as Matigari ma Njiruungi ever existed. Let us with one accord, like loyal parrots, agree that Matigari ma Njiruungi was just a bad dream. That bid of history was just a bad dream, a nightmare in fact. We have qualified professors here who can write new history for us ...
Here is an example of the narrator creating a fictional character, the Minister for Truth and Justice, who creates the fiction that the fiction of which he is part does not exist. In putting things this way I am, of course, using "fiction" in at least two different senses (narrative and falsehood), but the blurring of these two senses originates not with me but with Ngugi. It is, indeed, part of the fabric of his satire, for one of the major objects of satire in the novel is a government Doublethink or Newspeak that bears comparison with that found in Animal Farm or 1984.
Satire, like metaphor, symbol, allegory, and myth, is a notoriously artful and intricate process. In this regard it is like Newspeak, one of its own targets. In other words, it partakes of the qualities of what it is condemning. This is an inescapable feature, because both the objects and the process of satire are conveyed by language, which is itself notoriously wayward and devious.
Ngugi's specific satirical purpose is made more intricate because he wants to condemn one kind of transnationalism while advocating another. He wants to condemn the transnationalism of the Theng'eta Breweries, which are foreign owned but to advocate a kind of trasnational romantic socialism based on small self-managed units, both rural and industrial. In such an ideal community of international socialism national boundaries would be transcended or at least rendered inconsequential. The capitalist power struggle would be eliminated. It would be a world quite the converse of the one in which Petals of Blood is situated. In such a newly constructed world Wanja would no longer have to say "This world ... this Kenya ... this Africa knows only one law. You eat somebody or you are eaten" (291).
The satiric target in Petals of Blood is a neo-colonialism that represents economic and intellectual bondage. The economy of Kenya is controlled by multi-national corporations that provide local directorships to government ministers and other capitalists. The education is represented by Siriana Secondary School (mentioned also in Weep Not, Child) where Cambridge Fraudsham has been replaced as headmaster by Chui, "a black replica of Fraudsham." Petals of Blood presents, then, an indictment of "development," multi-national corporations, international finance, and neo-colonial education.
In the novel, Karega (the Gikuyu name meaning rebel, or he who refuses) is not prepared to accept that there is no alternative to the law that "You eat somebody or you are eaten." His answer to Wanja is that "Then we must create another world, a new earth." When interrogated by Inspector Godfrey, he explains how this might come about:
I don't believe in the elimination of individuals. There are many Kimerias and Chuis in the country. They are the products of a system, just as workers are products of a system. It's the system that needs to be changed ... and only the workers of Kenya and the peasants can do that.
Karega has become disillusioned by the constitutional methods advocated by the compassionate lawyer who helped the people from Ilmorog when they came to Nairobi to petition their MP. According to Karega, the lawyer (who is subsequently murdered) placed too much faith in such institutions as parliament and private property. Karega is opposed to most sources of political and economic power. He abhors the venality and tribal manoeuvrings of parliamentarians; private ownership of land; the business-infiltrated trade unions; and the churches. Karega's final vision, at the very end of the novel, brings together most of these attitudes. Although cleared of complicity in the fire at Wanja's brothel, he is to be detained because "I am suspected of being a communist at heart." The young worker-girl who visits him in prison tells him of rumours that there will be "a return to the forests and the mountains" to complete the revolution that the Mau Mau leaders, Stanley Mathenge and Dedan Kimathi, began. Karega's mind reviews the situation:
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 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 prying 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 of human flesh. Then, only then, would the kingdom of man and woman really begin, they joying and loving in creative labour ...
The Christian Eucharistic imagery of eating flesh and drinking blood is consistently used here to convey predation and exploitation. God and angels are used as images for the demonic intentions and practices of capitalism.
For Karega and for Ngugi there is a particular reason for using Christian imagery with a demonic interpretation. Christianity, particularly in the charismatic form represented by Lillian's movement, is both a rhetorical and a political rival to socialism or communism. The school teacher, Godfey Munira, for instance, was obsessed by the notion of a new world, a notion expressed in the kind of language he had previously heard from his white Christian headmaster (Cambridge Fraudsham) and from his narrow, sanctiomonious, Christian mother and wife. Disillusioned with education, his work, and his whole life, he is a ready convert to Lillian's movement. The street evangelist preaches about a new earth, a new world, to be achieved through Christ.
For Karega and for Ngugi the apocalyptic imagery has to be recaptured for socialism. One of the best ways of discrediting the Christian interpretation and agenda is to appropriate and subvert basic Christian terminology about the Eucharistic feast and apply it to what is obviously evil.
The process of appropriation includes both subversion and re-direction. Some of the imagery (the signifiers) must be transferred from a favourable signification (or set of signifieds) to an unfavourable one. The primary example is that of the Eucharistic feast. Some must be retained with a favourable signification but transferred to a different set of referents. In other words, the connotation and ambience of the images have to remain auspicious and commendatory but what they refer to has to be shifted. The primary example is of the new heaven and the new earth, transferred from a Christian apocalypse to a socialist one.
The delicacy of the manoeuvre that has simultaneously to subvert and retain well-known symbols is equally in evidence in the treatment of attitudes to nation, colour, class, and gender. Ngugi wants on the one hand to examine and criticize aspects of these cultural indicators, and on the other to redirect them towards his utopian vision of a socialist world. There is, I believe, a latent theory in Ngugi that cultural expression is bound up with, and can be an index of the quality of social and political life. In a simple form this theory can perhaps be attributed to John Ruskin. In a more complex form, involving the circular or unevenly reciprocal process of "over-determination," it might be attributed to such theorists of cultural production as Louis Althusser. The source is, however, of less interest than the fact of Ngugi's having such a belief. When Petals of Blood was launched in Nairobi, he stated, in rather Althusserian terminology, that
Literature, as part of culture, is really a reflection of the material reality under which we live ... I have come to realise that no people can develop a meaningful national culture under any form of foreign economic domination. (Writers in Politics)
Two other points can appropriately be made about the process of subversion and retention. The first is that, unlike parody, it does not—indeed must not if it is to succeed—destroy the efficacy of the original model; the power must remain though its object is altered. The second is that Ngugi did not himself invent the process of re-directing Christian symbolism in this way. In his 1973 paper, "Literature and Society" he draws attention to an identical process occurring among the Mau Mau revolutionaries in the 1950s:
They [the Mau Mau] took Christian songs; they took even the Bible and gave these meanings and values in harmony with the aspirations of the struggle. Christians had often sung about heaven and angels, and a spiritual journey in a spiritual intangible universe where metaphysical disembodied evil and good were locked in perpetual spiritual warfare. Christians sang: ... (Writers in Politics)
The example Ngugi gives is the Gikuyu version of the hymn "Stand up! stand up for Jesus! Ye soldiers of the Cross." He quotes the text from Nyumbo cia K'uinira Ngia, Hymn No. 115. Retranslated into English, one of the stanzas becomes:
Young men arise
Jesus calls you to
Take up spears and shields and to
Throw away your fears.
For what's the point of fear?
Go ye with bravery;
Led by Jesus
You'll be victorious.
In a song book published by Gakara Wanjau about 1952, the words of Song No. 41 represent a re-alignment of "Stand up! stand up for Jesus!"' towards the Mau Mau cause. The translation offered by Ngugi is as follows:
Young men arise
Mbiu calls you to
Take up spears and shields
And don't delay,
Get out quickly
Come help one another
The white people are foreigners
And they are very strong (i.e. well-armed).
This is clearly not a parody of the Christian hymn, but a reorientation of it to a different worthy object. In Ngugi's words:
It was as if the people of Kenya did to the Christian universe and spiritual idealism what Marx did to Hegel's dialectics: made them stand firmly on the ground, our earth, instead of standing on their head. The aim, in other words, is to change a people's world outlook, it is to seize back the right and the initiative to define oneself.
Christianity is, then, ripe for the appropriation of its imagery, its re-direction to other ends. It has a powerful hold on the cultural thinking of the people; it is foreign and multi-national; it is, as Karega says in Petals of Blood, a "a weapon against the workers"'; and it has many adherents among the neo-colonial classes of parliamentarians, civil servants, and business people. But some of Ngugi's objects of satire are not readily amenable to the re-direction of Christian imagery. The British concept of the rule of law, for instance, has been satirised through exaggeration and absurdity in its own terms, as it is in the speech of the Minister for Truth and Justice in Matigari. The Christian doctrine of quietism and obedience to civil authority ("Render unto Caesar what is Caesar's, and unto God what is God's"') cannot be re-directed. It has, on Ngugi's principles, to be opposed and rejected, for the allegory of Matigari leads to the discarding of the belt of peace and the return to the weapons used in the war of liberation. In order to have its due place in this allegorical meaning Christian quietism must be made to seem irrelevant or inappropriate (except for hypocrites), and this is the effect when the doctrine is enunciated by the priest to the earnest seeker Matigari. At the beginning of Part 3 Matigari thus comes to the conclusion that one could not defeat the enemy with arms alone, but
one could also not defeat the enemy with words alone. One had to have the right words, but these words had to be strengthened by the force of arms.
In this final part, Matigari comes to the conclusion that distinctions and discriminations through colour, gender, class, and nationality have been imposed by colonialism and continued by neo-colonialism. They must be abolished, an action which involves taking up arms against the privileged class of "the imperialists and their retinue of messengers, overseers, police and military" by "the working people."
The status of one form of distinction is left ambiguous. Near the end of Matigari the children of the rubbish dump begin a chant against oppression, treason, the governmental doctrine of parrotology and parrotry, and "nationality-chauvinism." To what extent this is intended to be an anti-nationalist or pan-African slogan is unclear. It could be interpreted as that or it could be equally plausibly interpreted as a cry merely against jingoism and the equation of the national interest with the ruling party's interest. It may well be that Ngugi, in order to remain a credible alternative national leader, needs to obscure this point. It is just as ambiguous in Petals of Blood and Devil on the Cross. Perhaps the most succinct of the ambiguity occurs in Petals of Blood, where Karega, in one of his streams of consciousness, reflects on who should own the land:
Why, anywhy, should soil, any soil, which after all was what was Kenya, be owned by an individual? Kenya, the soil, was the people's common shamba, and there was no way it could be right for a few, or a section, or a single nationality, to inherit for their sole use what was communal ...
"Nationality" here primarily refers, of course, to the various peoples who inhabit Kenya—the Gikuyu, Luhya, Luo, Kamba, Kalenjin, and so on. But the statement does raise the question of how the boundaries of present-day Kenya were imposed and whether the European concepts of "nationality" and "nationhood" are appropriate. The dilemma of balancing national affection or acceptability with intellectual pan-Africanism affects not only Ngugi; it is the dilemma of many African patriots, whether pro- or anti-government.
Source: K. L. Goodwin, ‘‘Nationality — Chauvinism Must Burn!: Utopian Visions in Petals of Blood and Marigari,’’ in The Literary Criterion, Vol. XXVII, No. 3, 1991, p. 1-14.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5269
Time present and time past Are both perhaps present in the future, And time future contained in time past. — T.S. Eliot, ''Burnt Norton’’
Considered with his earlier novels, Ngugi's Petals of Blood shows a relative complexity which is inseparable from the ambitiousness of its author's aim and scheme: to examine the tangle of human relationships (and identify an underlying principle), to make clear patterns comprehensively observed in the history of a people (and show the wholeness of that history), and, above all, to achieve these objectives in a way that captures the changeable, dramatic and often chaotic qualities of life or history as it unfolds. Consequently, Petals of Blood shows a greater attention to form than Ngugi's earlier novels, of which he has said, "I put a lot of emphasis on content and language, not so much on form'' (Ngugi, "Making of a Rebel’’).
Ngugi takes care to elaborate his view of human relationships, to which is closely related his view of the history of his society. He demonstrates the complexity of human relationships, exploring the whirlpool effect of people's actions, social interactions and personal dreams and schemes. Then, out of the confusion emerges a clear pattern described by Wanja in the image of the Siamese twins of love and hate:
Love and hate—Siamese twins—back to back in a human heart. Because you loved you also hated: and because you hated you also loved. What you loved decided what you would have to hate in relation to what you loved. What you hated decided the possibilities of what you could love in relation to that which you hated. And how did one know what one loved and hated?
Further explanation is provided by the view of history that in the life both of the individual and the community, the past, the present and the future are dynamically interrelated, each melding with the others. In Karega's words to Wanja—‘‘To understand the present ... you must understand the past. To know where you are, you must know where you came from, don't you think?’’—there is the appreciation of the necessarily basic links between past and present—without, perhaps, awareness of the dynamic qualities of those links. The awareness, underscored by the scope and pattern of events in the novel, is implicit in Karega's demand for a "critical'' study of the past, not as a museum piece but in order to secure ‘‘a living lesson to the present’’ (Awooner). Yet another view of history which the novel demonstrates is that in many ways the present (as by the force of logic, the future) tends to replicate the past. Thus, on the individual level, one life not only shows parallels to and repetitions of motions in another (past) life but also repeats aspects and moments of itself as it twists and turns in its career; on the national scale, the pattern of historical repetition and parallel all but acquires the qualities of cyclicalness, giving the impression of progression without progress.
In Petals of Blood, the past is a living and very active reagent in the life and events of the present; in the affairs of individuals and of the community, past (immediate as well as distant) and present explain, complement, reinforce and comment on one another. It is to achieve these aims that the story of the novel is served, as Munira says of one month of his life, ‘‘in broken cups of memory.’’ And to give order to the lives of the leading characters as well as draw all into a pattern of unity and symmetry, Ngugi assigns a significant role in interpersonal relations to what may be described as the burdens of the past, what Munira refers to as the ‘‘claims of some shadowy connections in our past.’’ Thus, to reveal the characters fully, the novel focuses less on their present and more on their past; for the greater part, it digs into the past in trying to understand the present. Sometimes, of course, the present sheds a new light on the past just as most other times, the past illumines the present; consistently, both past and present serve to fill out, clarify or complete the character sketch. In the process the story takes on a quality of complexity and the method of its telling is revelatory, moving from a position of seeing darkly to one of seeing clearly: a method not incompatible with the nature and means of the detective-story frame which loosely but clearly girdles the events of the novel.
One consequence of the revelatory method or approach is that the story gains in interest as rather profuse patterns of repetitions, parallels and ironies emerge. Bit by bit, a number of things are revealed, exposed, even explained; often the effect is surprise. The life and career of Munira may serve to illustrate this method, which draws attention to the complexity of things yet seeks to resolve the complex totality into comprehensible strands, which tries to find recurrent patterns in the life of the individual, in his relations with others and within the larger context of his society. Considered a non-achiever by his father, Munira is burdened with guilt; the feeling of guilt explains his choice of Ilmorog, ‘‘his rural cloister,’’ as the place to settle down at as well as the devotion and enthusiasm he shows in working there. His feeling that he is part of the family without actually belonging to it is partly explained by, and says something for his admiration of his sister Mukami's rebellious spirit before her early death; and his attitude and moral position are implicitly commented on by the gradual disclosure of the dishonesty and mammonism which are the true foundations of his father's success. The notion of success or failure (real or apparent) provides the background to Munira's sense of achievement after setting Wanja's house on fire: "He, Munira, had willed and acted, and he felt, as he knelt down to pray, that he was no longer an outsider for he had finally affirmed his oneness with the Law.’’ His willingness to surrender to "the Law'' must be related to his youth with his over-zealous Christian father, to the influence of Lillian, the reformed prostitute (whom Munira himself patronized a number of times) and leader of a religious sect and, finally, his own persistent if unadmitted desire to evade responsibility. It is interesting to observe that it takes the religious activities of a one-time prostitute to imbue Munira with a religious fervour that makes him see in the burning of Wanja's whorehouse an act of purification. His action and the moral intention which prompts it reach back to Munira's school-boy days when, after patronizing Amina the prostitute, he built an imitation of her house and set it on fire as an act of atonement; then, he "watched the flames and he felt truly purified by fire.’’ Ironically, fire has never been far from the thoughts of Wanja herself; she finds in fire a continual threat to her family, citing her aunt's death by burning, her own narrow escape from the flames at the Kamiritho Heavenly Bar (the very place where Munira the school-boy had patronized Amina) and the little fire which mars her celebration in Ilmorog. But, curiously, she has always also found in fire something similar to Munira's thoughts on the night he sets her house on fire; a symbol of purification—
''—but I have liked to believe that she burnt herself like the Buddhists do, which then makes me think of the water and the fire of the beginning and the water and the fire of the second coming to cleanse and bring purity to the earth of human cruelty and loneliness.''
There can be no over-emphasizing the sense of discovery which the revelatory approach creates in the reader as well as among the characters themselves; from past facts or actions and present knowledge, significances are built up and these draw further attention to the intricacy of the web of human relationships. There is something in the manner of telling which lends a startling quality to our knowing: that Karega is the son of Mariamu, a settler labourer on Munira's father's plantations whose other son Nding'uri was the friend and companion of Abdulla in the Mau Mau struggles; that the two of them were betrayed by Kimeria, who has since risen to become one of the three African directors of the Theng'eta Breweries; that Kimeria seduced and abandoned Wanja as a school-girl who, since coming to Ilmorog, loves Karega in preference to Munira, whose own sister Mukami had committed suicide when their father opposed her love for Karega; that Chui, another director of the Theng'eta Breweries, was as a boy expelled from Siriana together with Munira; that Munira taught Karega at Manguo, serving as referee when the latter applied for admission to Siriana; that Karega was later expelled from the school for leading a strike; that the Nairobi lawyer is himself a product of Siriana; that Abdulla, having found Joseph scavenging for food at a refuse dump (a thing Abdulla himself had done as a boy), will find part of his final satisfaction in life in Joseph's admission into Siriana, his fees paid by Wanja who makes the money as a prostitute from patrons who include Chui, Kimeria and Mzigo. Thus utterances, actions and events which by themselves appear insignificant or ordinary are endowed with new meaning and new significance through the unravelling skein of the relationships between the individuals as well as through the interplay between the past and the present.
To achieve the interlacing of past and present, the separate worlds of memories and of present actions are mapped out, sometimes side by side and other times mounted one on the other; always, the strength of the links which bind the two worlds is clearly demonstrated. Occasionally, Ngugi draws attention to the concreteness of the realm of memories, this other world which is as physical and solid as the plains of Ilmorog. Munira may thus be shown ‘‘absorbed in thoughts he did not know he had, speaking from a past he should have forgotten, crossing valleys and hills and ridges and plains of time to the beginning of his death ...’’ Abdulla seems to suggest, on one occasion, that to revisit that world is an exertion which registers on the features or that he is able to recall that world with a freshness which leaves its mark on his mood:
Abdulla cleared his throat. His face changed. He suddenly seemed to have gone to a land hidden from them, a land way back in a past only he could understand.
Indeed, recognizable signposts are put up in the shape of face, the turn of thought or the sound of voice, pointing the way from the present to the past, from the world of the present to that of memories. In all, these signposts emphasize internal space as the ground for much of the action of the novel. Thus, recalling his school days in Siriana, Munira's voice could "become more and more faint with the progress of the narrative. But it retained the weight and power of a bitter inward gaze''; similarly drifting into the past, Wanja ‘‘lowered her voice a little as she said the last words and Munira could somehow imagine a tortured soul's journey through valleys of guilt and humiliation and the long sleepless nights of looking back to the origins of the whole journey.’’ A character's transport from the one to the other world is easily recognized by the reader when the charcter becomes ‘‘absorbed in himself’’ or dwells ‘‘alone within that inward gaze’’ or when adverbs such as "thoughtfully" and "dreamily" occur in the narrative. The occasions or reasons for the frequent journeys into the world of the past do not always have to do with introspection or thoughtfulness; sometimes a face, a situation or an event may remind a character of something similar, analogous or explicatory, just as a story or an account of events offered by a member of a group may set off another member on such a journey. There is, besides, the unique night at Nyakinyua's when the drinking of Theng'eta seems particularly to sharpen the memory, shed inhibitions and loosen the tongue.
For the larger purpose of Petals of Blood the interconnections of past, present and future on a communal scale are stressed. Narratively, this purpose dictates the use of multiple points of view so that the vast expanse (in terms of time and place) of events either as lived out or filtered through the individual minds and memories can be adequately and convincingly reported and so as to emphasize the entwined complexities of the realities, facts or events which cumulatively constitute the history of a people. Although events are seen through the eyes of a number of other characters, there is the voice of a chief narrator whose role ought perhaps to be more properly regarded as that of a presenter. The absence of a clear definition of that role explains why the chief narrator, in relating communal events and developments, is sometimes an individual observer/ participant (‘‘I’’), sometimes a member of the participant group (‘‘we’’); at other times, he is the observer, aloof, omnipresent and omniscient; yet other times, he is the invisible recorder of folk history, the disembodied voice of the group.
Literally and symbolically the main characters relate to different generations and periods of the history of the people, in broad terms, the past, the present and the future. The very old characters— Njuguna, Ruoro, Muturi, Nyakinyua, etc.—are in the novel not as "decorative" background or even because they provide the nostalgia which hovers about the fringes of the novel. In their persons these characters make the distant past live and through their reminiscence and occasional use of legends the novel in effect encompasses the history of the Kenyan people right from the legendary founding patriarch Ndemi through the period of ‘‘the Arab and Portuguese marauders from the Coast.’’ Abdulla advances the history through the ‘‘Mau Mau’’ struggles, bridging the past and present when the main actors are younger: the lawyer, Wanja and Karega, with the last two pointing the way to the future when the child Wanja is expecting alongside the unnamed children daily being born (‘‘New Mathenges ... new Koitalels ... new Kimethis ... new Piny Owachos ... these were born every day among the people ...’’) will take up the continual struggle.
The people's spirit to fight, to struggle, to reject what is objectionable in the social institutions represents in a deeper, less physical sense the continuity between the past, the present and the future. This fact supplies one rather subtle dimension to the description of Nyakinyua: ‘‘The old woman, strong sinews forged by earth and sun and rain, was the link binding past and present and future.’’ Nyakinyua's husband, it must be remembered, had come back from the jungles of the Second World War a changed man, carrying with him the mysterious knowledge of the significance of the fire emitted by the fabulous creature that he and others had encountered in the jungles; in his words:
‘‘... When it spat out the light, I thought I saw sons and daughters of black people of the centuries rise up as one to harness the power of that light, and the white man who was with us was frightened by what would happen when that power was in the hands of these black gods ...’’
Part of that"power'' glimpsed by Nyakinyua's man was to be demonstrated during the Kenyan struggle against the British colonial government. And because the "black gods'' of the vision turned out after independence to be considerably less than divine, even human, the struggle once again was taken up, to stop ‘‘the gigantic deception being played on a whole people by a few who had made it, often in alliance with foreigners.'' Nyakinyua plays a leading role as a member of Old Ilmorog people's delegation to the city; much older and much weaker in body, she demonstrates the same spirit in New Ilmorog when her land is in danger from the grasping hooks of the new economic forces. She summons her old spirit and courage, tries to rouse and rally similarly placed peasants and is let down; but she decides to fight alone: ‘‘I'll go alone ... my man fought the white man. He paid for it with his blood ... I'll struggle against these black oppressors ... alone ... alone ...’’
Abdulla also symbolizes continuity in the history of a people through the spirit of struggle; but his significance is not confined to this role. A living, maimed testimony of the people's struggle in the past when Kenyans took the oath—of which the new KCO oath is a perversion—Abdulla helps by association to extend temporally and spatially the history of struggle and resistance, recalling and evoking Ole Masai, Dedan Kimathi, Chaka, Toussaint, Nkrumah, Nasser, Cabral. Abdulla in addition demonstrates the cohesive force of the epic journey in the structure of the novel: besides its obvious symbolic signification of a search into the kingdom of knowledge (where Munira for one discovers ‘‘that man's estate is rotten at heart,’’) the journey affords Abdulla an opportunity to relive his past as a battler, on the same old plains and valleys. Because of his activities on this journey, which parallel, recall and reinforce his activities during the nation's struggles in the past, he is "transformed" in the eyes of the people; every member of the delegation appreciates his courage, and
Wanja, sitting just behind Nyakinyua and Abdulla, was particularly happy: she had always felt that Abdulla had had a history to that stump of a leg. Now it was no longer a stump, but a badge of courage indelibly imprinted on his body.
Even before Nyakinyua and Abdulla are dead, Karega proves to be an insurance that the spirit of struggle in the land is not about to die. He rejects the lawyer's liberalism as the answer to the problems of the land because of its inherent contradictions, contemptuously disregards Munira's (and Lillian's) offer of religious piety or even moral purity as the means of establishing justice on earth or of preparing the self for a future life after death, shares Wanja's rejection of the role of victim (but rejects what she sees as the solution, to join the exploiters if one cannot beat them) and believes firmly in the collective struggle as the one path to a New World, a New Earth. If the New Jerusalem is not reached today, Karega feels sure, the fighters among the children daily being born will struggle through into its walls tomorrow.
Because struggle has always remained one of the permanent realities of the history of the people, Petals of Blood may arguably be considered a celebration of the spirit of struggle and of the people's heroes who lead such struggle. Indeed, the impression is created that the fact of struggle can in itself be an end worth celebrating; because a single struggle or an act of defiance must send reverberations down the corridors of history, that struggle or defiant act easily acquires larger-than-life dimensions in the minds of the people. Hence the "epic journey'' to the city is soon incorporated into popular history through songs so that, for instance, in singing about it, Nyakinyua is careful to emphasize the representative aspects and the timeless qualities of the experience:
it was no longer the drought of a year ago that she was singing about. It was all the droughts of the centuries and the journey was the many journeys travelled by people even in the mythical lands of two-mouthed Marimus and struggling humans. She sang of other struggles, of other wars—the arrival of colonialism and the fierce struggles waged against it by newly circumcised youth.
Yet, the truth is that if the fact of struggle and the act of heroism have consistently recurred in the history of the people, it is in part precisely because oppression, social injustice and disaffection have been also recurrent in the community. In other words, if the people can proudly point to a pantheon of heroes, past and present, it is because the community has known the presence of the Arab slave traders, the marauding Portuguese, the European settlers and colonial administrators—each group needing and obtaining the services and collaboration of some members of the community—and now (worse still) the new African elite, enjoying a disproportionate share of the wealth of the land. It is the fact of failure in the past, the respected past, as in the present which has always necessitated the act of struggle—and created the fabled and living heroes. In the description of the present state of the nation which Wanja gives in terms of Ilmorog countryside, the past she refers to is that of the period about the time of political independence; Munira's contribution to the discussion draws attention to the fact that there is nothing exactly new in the present dis appointments:
‘‘So green in the past,’’ she said. ‘‘So green and hopeful ... and now this." " A season of drought ... so soon ... so soon!’’ echoed Karega, remembering past flowers of promise. ‘‘It's the way of the world,’’ said Munira ...
The disappointments (past and present) which constitute a major focus of interest in the novel always bear the marks of betrayal. Recalling her husband's observations about the struggle for political freedom, Nyakinyua remarks: ‘‘There were a few traitors among them, those who wanted to remain porters at the gate, collectors of the fallout from the white man's control of that power ...’’ Ezekieli, formerly Waweru, the father of Munira, is a surviving member of that group, living on as a materially bloated Christian. In general, the quality of life of most members of the community and the socio-economic structures which are accountable for the way things are turn Karega's thought to "Massacres of hopes and dreams and beauty.'' To prove the point, there is Abdulla who in old age moved about in "the wilderness of his bitterness, of his consciousness of broken promises, of the wider betrayal of the collective blood of the Kenyan fighters for land and freedom.’’
One reliable piece of evidence that failure or disappointment betrayal (like victory and the feeling which attends it) is a self-repeating thing is Ngugi's frequent recourse, in reference to hopes, yearnings and desires in persons and social situations in the present as in the past, to phrases such as ‘‘new hopes," "new beginnings," "new horizons,’’ even ‘‘new world’’ or ‘‘new earth.’’ Obviously the frequent appearance of these phrases means clearly that a gap has frequently separated attainment and expectations. In frequently promising herself new starts in life and entertaining fresh hopes, Wanja's life becomes a metaphor for the career of the nation. Her coming to Ilmorog to settle, for example, is the result of one such promise: ''Wanja had made a pact with herself. She would have a completely new beginning in Ilmorog.'' Her discovery later in life is equally interesting as a metaphor for the conclusions to be drawn from a survey of the national history: ‘‘Maybe life was a series of false starts, which once discovered, called for more renewed efforts at yet another beginning.’’ Additionally, of course, the discovery is significant because it helps to clarify and to make acceptable Karega's conviction that "There are times ... when victory is defeat and defeat is victory.'' Together Wanja's discovery and Karega's conviction (itself a discovery for Karega) make possible the final vision of the novel which in turn allows the mood of optimism to predominate over that of despair.
In order to summarize comprehensively the cyclical patterns he observes in the history of Kenya (as well, of course, as to add local colour to events) Ngugi often turns his attention to the seasons and the human activities related to the different seasons; from these he draws images and metaphors. It is appropriate for instance that the people of Ilmorog (mostly peasants and herdsmen) live and feel in accordance with the rain-drought cycle; besides, in the prevalent season Ngugi finds metaphors with which to make statements about the quality of life of the people. In periods of drought Ilmorog is frequently described in terms such as ‘‘this wasteland’’ and ‘‘desert place’’; in the rains, the metaphorical, even symbolic, possibilities multiply. For example, there can be the simple, direct descriptions of the peasants "busy putting seeds in the soil'' and the combination of fact and symbol in a statement such as:
At the beginning of April it started raining. The eyes of the elders beamed with expectation of new life over Ilmorog ...
The process by which the fact takes on symbolic significance is illustrated in the linking of the journey to the city with rain and crop (in the sense of hopes and expectations):
Yes, it will rain. Crops will grow. We shall always remember the heroes in our midst. We shall always sing about the journey in the plains.
Steadily and cumulatively the significance of the cycles of the seasons is compressed into the symbols of seeds, flower and harvest.
These symbols are used with such freedom and flexibility that complications, if not confusion, could be the reward of the unwary reader. It is easy enough to see the relationship between effort and achievement in terms of seed-time and harvest-time—as, on a personal level, Munira comes to Ilmorog in the hope of finding ‘‘a safe corner in which to hide and do some work, plant a seed whose fruits one could see ...’’ It is also easy to understand the flower in terms of the period leading up to, or the expectations of, crop or harvest. It is not as easy to see or accept the flower in Petals of Blood as a symbol, among other possibilities, of disappointed hopes. The comments made by Munira, for instance, to his pupils reveal the startling use of the symbol of flower, the relevance of Munira's words to the social realities touches on hopes and disappointment and, by implication, the necessity to fight the oppressive agents who produce among the suffering masses a state of etiolated existence:
‘‘Right. This is a worm-eaten flower ... It cannot bear fruit. That's why we must always kill worms ... A flower can also become this colour if it's prevented from reaching the light.''
From this level, the mental leaps required of the reader become relatively easy: the flower as the state of promise actually or potentially unfulfilled, as when Karega remembers "past flowers of promise"; the flower as a symbol of destruction, spiritual or physical, as when Munira acknowledges his role as ‘‘a privileged witness of the growth of Ilmorog from its beginnings in rain and drought to the present flowering in petals of blood’’; and the flower as the symbol of the means of achieving moral and social purification, as when Munira has set Wanja's whorehouse on fire:
He walked away toward Ilmorog Hill. He stood on the hill and watched the whorehouse burn, the tongues of flame from the four corners forming petals of blood, making a twilight of the dark sky.
Thus the promising state, even when unfulfilled—now or in the past—and the means by which social or moral cleansing is or is thought to be carried out in order to build new hopes, are suggested in the flower, linking seed-time with harvest-time, and as recurrent as the seasons.
As with flower, harvest—together with its associated ideas such as harvest-time (a culmination of both seed-time and flowering), fruit and crop—is variously pressed into symbolic service. The love relationship between Karega and Wanja is, for example, on one occasion described in direct reference to the ‘‘new crops": "Their love seemed to grow with the new crops of the year.’’ Besides, the anticipation of the happy rewards of a promising relationship can see the harvest in the flower. So, Munira, after arranging a tryst with Wanja, thinks: "Beautiful petals: beautiful flowers: tomorrow would indeed by the beginning of a harvest''; and when the rewards are anticipated in the form of the flesh, they produce a "trembling" in the body:
Her pleading voice had startled Munira out of his thoughts. He too wanted to stay the night. He would stay the night. A joyous trembling courses through his body. Aah, my harvest
—a description which, in a suggestion of the equality of all creatures great and small, is applied to cattle attempting to mate: ‘‘Sometimes the male would run after a young female, giving it no rest or time to eat, expecting another kind of harvest'' — another kind because the narrator has just shifted his gaze from women harvesting peas and beans. Yet another kind of harvest is the discovery of the significance of intertwined memories, such as dawns on Karega after drinking Theng'eta and making love to Wanja: ‘‘So many experiences, so many discoveries in a night and a half. Harvest-time for seeds planted in time past.’’ A moment, any moment in the history of the individual or the community, may thus be seen as a harvest, the flower or the seed, but it may also be seen in terms of any one of the three states relative to the other two; the reference may be to the seed, for example, in the sense that the seed looks forward to the flower which bears expectations of or hopes or potential for harvest which will itself look forward to the beginning of another season when the harvest provides the seed, etc.
Such are the cycles and the seasons that Ngugi traces in the history of the Kenyan people, bound apparently to a course in which successive waves of hope must crash on the shingles of disappointment. Of course, some achievements have been made even if these are generally more apparent than real and even when attainment has been far less fulfilling than anticipation. These achievements, for what they are worth, are the result of the people's struggles, the result of what Ngugi refers to as "the spirit of the land''; this spirit is the one guarantee of a better future for the people.
In brief then, Petals of Blood demonstrates not a cleavage but an integration of form and content in many ways. The telling of the story is convoluted because the properties of the story are; the complexity of human relationships and the tortuousness of the path of Kenyan history impose on Ngugi the manner of their telling. If that path, as Ngugi sees it, is far from resembling the trajectory of an archer's arrow (in a windless tunnel), it is not that of a mill either, it would seem to be a winding stair, meaning for the climber repetitive, circular motions at ever-increasing levels linking the point of departure to that of arrival. Hence, even though Kenya's today may appear in essence the same as its yesterday, unhappy, unsatisfactory and prompting struggle among the people, yet both today and yesterday provide, through the spirit of struggle evinced, the basis for the expectations of a changed, happier tomorrow. To underline the ever-present links between past, present and future and to emphasize the necessarily repetitive motions of progression through them, Ngugi interweaves present and past, now and then, here and there, finding in the cycles of nature, the seasons and human activities related to them a reservoir of metaphors and symbols.
Source: Ayo Mamudu, ‘‘Tracing a Winding Stair: Ngugi's Narrative Methods in Petals of Blood,’’ in World Literature Written in English, Vol. 28, No. 1, Spring, 1988, pp. 16-24.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4202
‘‘The story of this heroic resistance: who will sing it? Their struggles to defend their land, their wealth: who'll tell of it?’’ asks the narrator in Ngugi's Petals of Blood. Ngugi himself, as poet-historian, has taken up the challenge to tell the people's history. In his novels he presents the lives of ordinary Kenyan men and women, seen in the context of the vital continuity of past, present, and future, as the real basis of Kenyan history. He seeks consciously to correct ‘‘a history ... distorted by the cultural needs of imperialism,’’ which fosters the image of a weak people ‘‘who had not struggled with nature and with other men to change their natural environment and create a positive social environment,’’ and ‘‘who had not resisted foreign domination.’’ For Ngugi, struggle is the dynamic of history and society, and is central to his reappraisal of the African past. In Petals of Blood Karega, in his search for self-identity through black history, comes to the conclusion:
The true lesson of history was this: that the so-called victims, the poor, the downtrodden, the masses, had always struggled with spears and arrows, with their hands and songs of courage and hope, to end their oppression and exploitation: that they would continue to struggle until a human kingdom came.
The African woman has particularly been the victim of a passive image since she suffers both colonial and male domination. Yet in Ngugi's novels women are shown to have a fundamental role in the struggle against oppression and exploitation, and often courage and hope are ultimately found in their hands. As Judith Cochrane has put it, Ngugi's women are ‘‘guardians of the tribe.’’ They are presented as the central strength of the Gikuyu people, custodians of traditional culture, and symbols of authentic Gikuyu identity.
While almost all of Ngugi's female characters are consistently endowed with traditional virtues and values, his female images are not reactionary or static. He shows that women and their lives are changing, and heroines such as Nyambura, Mumbi and Wanja are seen in the forefront of social change. At the same time it is through female images that Ngugi shows historical continuity most effectively, and reveals how qualities drawn from the traditional world find their expression in the contemporary world.
The post-independence society depicted in Petals of Blood, and in some of the sharp and poignant stories in Secret Lives, appears to be ruthless, immoral, and ruled by money. Discussing contemporary Kenyan capitalism in "Homecoming," Ngugi says:
It is the height of irony that we, who have suffered most from exploitation, are now supporting a system that not only continues that basic exploitation, but exacerbates destructive rivalries between brothers and sisters, a system that thrives on the survival instincts of dwellers in a Darwinian jungle. The writer cannot be exempted from the task of exposing the distorted values governing such a jungle precisely because this distorts healthy human relationships.
Ngugi exposes the distorted values governing human relationships in Petals of Blood most vividly through his portrayal of Wanja, the barmaid-whore, a female figure more complex than the women in any of his previous works. In her role as a prostitute Wanja succinctly reveals the exploitative materialism that dominates people's lives. Her humanity is reduced to a market commodity, and her personal relationships to financial transactions. The prostitute does have a kind of independence and freedom, but Ngugi shows these to be as negative and illusory as the so-called independence of a neo-colonial state. Wanja appears to reflect society's conflicts and contradictions, strengths and weaknesses. Her career illustrates the very real dilemmas facing many Kenyan women in a rapidly changing society, but it can also be seen as a metaphor for the fate of Kenya, even of the African continent as a whole. The venerated image of Mother Africa is now found as a whore, abused and exploited by the men of the new black elite.
Ngugi's criticism is aimed not so much at individuals, as at the political and economic system in which, to quote Karega, ‘‘one could only be saintly and moral and upright by prostituting others.’’ Certainly men such as Kimeria, Chui and Mzigo are corrupt opportunists who deserve little sympathy, but it would be a mistake to see Wanja simply as an innocent victim. Her potential is wasted and she is exploited, but she also exploits others, most obviously in running her own whorehouse. Her "eat or be eaten'' philosophy is an expression of the destructive rivalry of capitalism, and is no more moral than the self-serving greed of the Kimerias. It is in this loss of innocence and idealism that Wanja differs from the heroines of Ngugi's earlier novels.
Female characters in Ngugi's first three novels have tended to be idealized. A Grain of Wheat presents a wider range of characters than the innocent young women and noble enduring mothers of The River Between and Weep Not Child, but the prevailing female image remains virtuous. We are never led to doubt that the heroines are motivated by anything other than idealism, and a desire for truth and justice. They remain innocent of any evil or destruction unwittingly resulting from their actions. Even Mumbi, the most fully realised woman in the earlier novels, despite her unfaithfulness to Gikonyo, retains a certain incorruptible purity. Perhaps it is this kind of female virtuousness that provokes Adrian Roscoe's criticism that the women characters do not receive "tough handling.’’
In Petals of Blood Wanja is not placed on such a pedestal. She is less perfect an more human than her predecessors. She has a generous warm personality, but can at times be selfish, callous and vindictive. Nevertheless Wanja's strengths are her dominant characteristics, and in these she resembles Ngugi's previous heroines. She does possess the admirable qualities Ngugi associates with the true Gikuyu woman. As Eustace Palmer points out:
She belongs to that remarkable breed of Ngugi women—Mwihaki, Nyambura, Muthoni, Mumbi, Wambuku—all of them brave, resilient, resourceful and determined.
Palmer's further assertions that none of these women are ‘‘really feminine,’’ and that ‘‘it is more the masculine aspects of Wanja's character that are stressed,’’ appear to lack justification, unless the women's remarkable qualities and lack of passivity are regarded as essentially masculine traits. Women such as Muthoni, Nyambura, Mumbi and Wanja are involved in creating new feminine roles and changing attitudes to womanhood. The "new" Mumbi who demands respect and equality in her relationship with Gikonyo at the end of A Grain of Wheat, is very much a kindred spirit to Wanja, whose life is a constant struggle for respect and independence as a woman. As Wanja puts it:
If you have a excuse my language, but it seems the curse of Adam' s Eve on those who are born with it—if you are born with this hole, instead of it being a source of pride, you are doomed to either marrying someone or else being a whore.
Mumbi's is the protest of the subordinate wife, Wanja's that of the whore. Both feel they are entitled to expect something more from life. If we can see the hopeful and ardent Mumbi as an image of the new nation in 1963, then Wanja can be seen as the rather tarnished version of that image in the late sixties and seventies.
Although Mumbi and Wanja can both be described as new types of women, they do not represent a denial of their traditional heritage, but its modern expression. The close and harmonious relationship each of these young women enjoys with an older woman who is the epitome of tradition, expresses their identification with a feminine heritage. The nature of these relationships between women derives from traditional notions of community, and appears as saving and exemplary in the contemporary context of developing capitalism. In A Grain of Wheat the quality of feminine cooperation, solidarity and understanding between Mumbi and Wangari shows mother-in-law and daughter-in-law not as contrasting figures, but as complementary images of two ages of Gikuyu womanhood. In Petals of Blood the close relationship between Wanja and her grandmother Nyakinyua has a similar function.
Critics have commented on Nyakinyua as the embodiment of traditional values. As traditional woman par excellence, Nyakinyua's portrayal strongly refutes the stereotype of the traditional woman as the silent passive burden-bearer. This is a woman who makes her protest by [sh---ing] a mountain
in Munira's schoolyard, who excels in the poetry of ‘‘erotic abuse’’ in circumcision songs, who leads the women in attacking KCO officials, who convinces the elders they should support the march to Nairobi, and who takes an enthusiastic part in it. Even her death can be seen as a final protest against the loss of her land. Wanja has inherited Nyakinyua's courageous and defiant spirit, but whereas Nyakinyua appears a woman of the past, acting throughout the novel as the voice of the people's history, Wanja is very much a woman of the present. She intrigues the people of Ilmorog when she arrives by car with her modern possessions, among them the first pressure lamp to be seen in the village. Wanja initiates action and brings changes. She revives Abdulla's shop, sends Joseph to school, and sparks off Ilmorog's economic growth by selling Theng'eta. She is praised in popular songs for turning ‘‘a bedbug of a village into a town.’’ Not only does Wanja change the things around her, she is also constantly changing herself. Part of her complexity is that she is both the "city woman'' that the villagers initially take her to be, and the rural daughter of the soil. As Abdulla jokingly puts it, she is a ‘‘barmaid farmer.’’
It is through working in the fields that Wanja and Nyakinyua come together most closely, and Wanja's enthusiasm and involvement in this practical labor show her affinity with the earth, the basis of the people's tradition and identity. A short period with the soil entirely changes Wanja's bearing and appearance. Karega observes on the march to the city:
Over the past few weeks he had witnessed the gradual withering away of her earlier calculated smoothness, the practised light in her eyes, and the birth of a broken-nailed lean beauty.
After the return to Ilmorog, Wanja is strongly involved with the women's farming cooperative, the Ndemi-Nyakinyua group. At times such as this, when Wanja is giving of herself to the community and not selling her body to men, she appears most beautiful and most fulfilled. Both Munira and Abdulla wonder at her "utter transformation.''
The climax of this period of transformation is Wanja's love affair with Karega. This has an idyllic, pastoral quality and is shared with delight, with the exception of Munira, by the whole of Ilmorog:
But we were soon intrigued, fascinated, moved by the entwinement and flowering of youthful love and life and we whispered: see the wonder-gift of God. Crops will sprout luxuriant and green. We shall eat our fill and drink Theng'eta at harvest-time.
The involvement of Karega and Wanja dominates the village, and in turn reflects a new mood of communal confidence and optimism. Yet the promise of these halcyon days is not fulfilled. The untimely departure of Karega and the death of Abdulla's donkey mark the beginning of the end for the community of the old Ilmorog, and the dissolution of Wanja's identity as daughter of the soil.
Ironically, Wanja's further transformation to wigged and painted whorehouse madam finally turns upon her redemption of Nyakinyua's land.
Following Nyakinyua's death, Wanja sells her share of the new business with Abdulla in order to get the land back. This gesture is meant to serve Nyakinyua's memory and somehow honor the family tradition of resistance for which Wanja's grandfather had died, but Wanja builds on her land a whorehouse to service the needs of the new black masters such as Chui, Mzigo and Kimeria, the betrayers of the people. Outside ‘‘Sunshine Lodge’’ the grass is cut to bear the words ‘‘Love is Poison,’’ as if Wanja must carve in the earth itself the poison that is eating her heart. This is a perverse display of her estrangement from the soil, which earlier had brought her happiness when she had sowed and harvested with Nyakinyua, and loved Karega.
Only after Karega's return to Ilmorog does Wanja come to understand the meaning of Nyakinyua's dying words:
he will return, only I fear that you may not be there to receive him ...
Wanja, the daughter of the soil, is not "there." She has betrayed Nyakinyua's spirit and her grandfather's heroism. Rejecting her true Gikuyu heritage, Wanja is following instead in the steps of her cowardly, greedy father. In opening her whorehouse she seeks revenge against men and a society that has failed her. Yet her prostitution of herself and others is not a challenge to corrupt capitalism, but an accommodation to its values. She becomes cynically committed to financial profit and self-interest, ‘‘Wanja first’’ as she calls it. Abdulla feels at this stage that Wanja has ‘‘lost that firm grasp, that harmony with the invisible law.'' She no longer contributes to the well-being of the community, but grows wealthy at its expense. In Karega's terms Wanja has ‘‘chosen sides.’’ She has joined the world of the Kimerias and Chuis, those who rob the people.
Govind Narain Sharma contends that
Karega's chief failure, hardened as he is by unhappy experiences and his doctrinaire rigidity, lies in his inability to understand Wanja and to return her love.
Karega does possess a certain moral righteousness of the young and innocent, but his critical attitude towards Wanja is perhaps a virtue rather than a failure. It is only through the confrontation with Karega in her old hut that Wanja honestly confronts herself, and comes to terms with what she is doing and what she has become. She is then able to take responsibility for the choices and actions she has made throughout her life, to see that "at least she could have chosen to fight differently,'' and that her revenge and her financial success have been no victory at all.
Wanja, like Gikonyo in A Grain of Wheat, becomes wealthy at the cost of losing whatever real value there was in her life. Munira describes the new wealthy Wanja as "that bird periodically born out of ashes and dust," but it is not until the burning of the whorehouse that the image of Wanja as phoenix, continually associated as she is with fire and new beginnings, reaches its cathartic culmination. After this fire Wanja appears as if born again, purified and bearing new life within her. Munira had intended to save others from Wanja, but she is the one who is saved. All three men, who in some way seek personal salvation in Wanja, are finally instrumental in her redemption. Karega brings her to an intellectual understanding of her invidious position, Munira satisfies her spiritual craving for purification by fire, while Abdulla physically drags her body from the burning house.
Munira watching the whorehouse fire from Ilmorog Hill sees
the tongues of flame from the four corners forming petals of blood, making a twilight of the dark sky.
Wanja's identification with fire is part of the complex pattern of imagery that associates her with the title phrase "petals of blood.'' Wanja makes her first appearance in the novel immediately after the first explicit reference to "petals of blood'' when a red flower is discovered during a nature lesson, and Munira is left to wonder about questions provoked by the "flower with petals of blood'' and the visit of the "stranger girl.’’ One flower found by the school children does not have full color, and because it is worm-eaten has no stigma or pistils. Munira explains that this flower "cannot bear fruit,'' and that "a flower can also become this color if it's prevented from reaching the light.’’ The condition of the flower indirectly reveals the condition of Wanja, who in her life of wasted talent is like a flower kept from the light, and has come to Ilmorog to try and regain her procreative powers. At another level both Wanja and the flower reveal the condition of a corrupt, unhealthy society. Only later in the novel is the ‘‘flower with petals of blood’’ shown to by Theng'eta, which again is strongly associated with Wanja.
Significantly it is her idea that Theng'eta is brewed for circumcision day, a ritual time for shedding blood and fertility rites. This first brewing, made possible by Wanja's energy and Nyakinyua's skill and knowledge, produces the visionary "holy water’’ of legend. The degeneration of Theng'eta into a cheap, commercial, Kill-me-Quick liquor that numbs the senses, parallels Wanja's own decline into whoredom.
Munira's attraction to Wanja is complex and contradictory, but from the beginning it is colored by a sense of sin. He sees his relationship with Wanja taking him on a journey to "the sindom of pleasure.’’ The ambiguity and curious wickedness of her charm, as she appears to Munira, is expressed in terms of a perverse virginity and allusions to "petals of blood'':
Munira felt her even more remote: as if he had never touched her: her taunt had the same alluring power as the beckoning coquetry of a virgin: he could touch her only by deflowering her by force and so himself flowering in blood. A virgin and a prostitute. Why couldn't she carry an advertising label on her back: Drive a VW: Ride a Virgin Whore. Or VIP: Very Interesting Prostitute.
Munira's thwarted sexual desire for Wanja later seems to be converted into a religious zeal, in which she remains a dominant image. This fusion of spiritual and sexual passion is seen in the nature of Munira's "conversion," for his new spirituality is aroused by the preaching of Lillian, a woman he had formerly used as a sexual substitute for Wanja. It is also seen in the strange mixture of religious and sexual motives that lead him to set fire to Wanja's house. The fire itself is a re-enactment of Munira's earlier ritual burning of the model of the house of Amina, the prostitute with whom he lost his virginity. Apart from being attempts to purge evil from the world, both fires are attempts to exorcise his sexual guilt, and overcome his feelings of failure and inadequacy. Munira's vengeance incidentally brings a grim kind of poetic justice to Wanja, for Kimeria, the man who had flowered in her virgin blood, meets a bloody death at her hands shortly before the fire destroys all evidence of this murder. On the same evening Abdulla had been possessed with the idea that he must kill Kimeria in order to regain his manhood, but it is Wanja who kills him, and regains her womanhood.
Although Karega protests that individual assassinations are pointless and will not change the system, the way in which the death of Kimeria is presented suggests that justice has been done. Wanja's act of violence in this instance is an act of personal liberation, a kind of cleansing and revitalizing Fanonist violence. Wanja's earlier murder of her new-born child is, by contrast, an abuse of both her power to destroy, and to create. This action goes against a basic tenet of Gikuyu womanhood stated in A Grain of Wheat —‘‘a child from your own womb is never thrown away.'' Wanja comes to feel that in choosing to murder her own child that she "had murdered her own life.'' Her barrenness is not simply physical, but expressive of a far deeper spiritual and emotional lack of fulfillment. At the height of her affair with Karega, Wanja feels she is "about to flower,'' but is deprived of her opportunity. It is only after the fire that this finally comes about. Having positively renounced her exploitative role, Wanja approaches the world with a new consciousness. Her pregnancy and her reunion with her mother, while a little contrived and melodramatic, are meaningful expressions of her new flowering. Wanja is no longer the "outsider" the meaning of her name implies. She experiences a homecoming and reaffirms her identity with her Ilmorog origins. Now heeding the voice of Nyakinyua, Wanja is restored as her mother's daughter and daughter of the soil, and regains her life-giving potential. Like the image of the pregnant woman Gikonyo plans to carve in A Grain of Wheat, Wanja's pregnancy is a symbol of hope and regeneration, a promise for the future. Mumbi and Wanja, as fertile female images, represent Mother Earth, Mother Africa, and the survival of the people, both in body and soul. As the exemplary female fighter and mother, the Woman, in The Trial of Dedan Kimathi, says of Kimathi's spirit:
Kimathi was never alone ... will never be alone. No bullet can kill him for as long as women continue to bear children.
It is fitting that the father of Wanja's child should be Abdulla, the unsung Mau Mau hero who fought with Kimathi, a man whom Karega comes to regard as "the best self of the community, symbol of Kenya's truest courage.'' In terms of the changes in Wanja, it is significant that Abdulla sees his relationship with her in images of an elemental union with the earth:
Only that for him now, a woman was truly the other world: with its own contours, valleys, rivers, streams, ridges, sharp turns, steep and slow climbs and descents, and above all, movement of secret springs of life ... A woman was a world, the world.
The exact nature of the future relationship between Abdulla and Wanja is left undefined. Conventional marriage is not offered as a facile solution to Wanja's predicament as a whore. Her liberation is not to be achieved through her union with a man, but through her fulfillment as an independent woman. In reply to her mother asking whose child she is bearing, Wanja does not give a straightforward answer, but draws a picture in which the image of Abdulla is merged with other images of the people's struggle:
For one hour or so she remained completely absorbed in her sketching. And suddenly she felt lifted out of her own self, she felt waves of emotion she had never before experienced. The figure began to take shape on the board. It was a combination of the sculpture she once saw at the lawyer's place in Nairobi and images of Kimathi in his moments of triumph and laughter and sorrow and terror—but without one limb. When it was over, she felt a tremendous calm, a kind of inner assurance of the possibilities of a new kind of power.
Through her drawing Wanja feels for the first time the exhilaration of her creative power, expressed both in her artistry and her pregnancy. Her confidence no longer comes from the cynical manipulation of the power of her body over men, but from a new sense of worth and self-respect. The sculpture Wanja mentions had puzzled the marchers from Ilmorog because it was a figure that possessed both male and female features, "as if it was a man and a woman in one.’’ Nyakinyua eventually settles the argument about it:
‘‘A man cannot have a child without a woman. A woman cannot bear a child without a man. And was it not a man and a woman who fought to redeem this country?''
The allusions inherent in Wanja's reference to the sculpture suggest that she has come to understand that men and women must stop exploiting each other, and instead work together to destroy capitalism's ‘‘Darwinian jungle’’ and realize Karega's socialist ‘‘human kingdom": "The kingdom of man and woman, joying and loving in creative labor.’’
The hopeful image of a new life resulting from the union of Abdulla and Wanja is complemented by the beginnings of a new united workers' movement in Ilmorog. Karega learns of this development from Akinyi, a factory girl who has been sent by the workers to visit him in jail. The girl's optimism rescues Karega from the depression and despair caused by the news of his mother's death, and revives his hopes for the future. His vision is restored in a series of female images in the closing words of the book:
‘‘You'll come back,’’ she said again in a quiet affirmation of faith in eventual triumph.
He looked hard at her, then past her to Mukami of Manguo Marshes and again back to Nyakinyua, his mother, and even beyond to Akinyi to the future! And he smiled through his sorrow.
‘‘Tomorrow tomorrow he murmered to himself.
‘‘Tomorrow and he knew he was no longer alone.
This ‘‘affirmation of faith’’ echoes the tone of tempered optimism found in the ‘‘Acknowledgments’’ at the very beginning of the novel, where Ngugi gives thanks to:
One in the struggle
With our people
For total liberation
However long and arduous the struggle
Victory is certain.
The female images employed in Petals of Blood suggest that in this struggle for total liberation women have a vital role to play.
Source: Jennifer Evans, ‘‘Mother Africa and the Heroic Whole: Female Images in Petals of Blood,’’ in Annual Selected Papers of the ALA, Series Ed. Stephen H. Arnold, Three Continents Press, 1983, pp. 57-66.