Sunday, February 17, 2008

Ngugi wa Thiong'o

Some years ago I read Petals of Blood (1977), the most famous of the Kenyan Ngugi wa Thiong'o's novels. It is a very good book (I've been looking over it again this morning), using an emphasis on character, techniques from the mystery genre, and allusions to African folktales to create a book that is entertaining while sustaining a didactic, Marxist-inflected critique of the dictatorship of Jomo Kenyatta. Ngugi, generally recognized as the first black East African to write a breakout English-language novel (Weep Not, Child, 1964), is now equally important as a major novelist who writes in Gikuyu and translates the manuscripts into English. He was famously imprisoned in Kenya after Petals of Blood was published in 1977, and left his country in the 1980s; he now is a professor of literature at UC/Irvine.

The years (it has been 20 years since his last novel) and prosperous exile have changed some things, not others, as his recent novel Wizard of the Crow brilliantly shows. It is a huge novel (maybe a bit long at 768 pages), and its entertainment value still resides mostly in an easy development of interrelated characters and cinematic scenarios involving here the comically sycophantic men around The Ruler and the phantasmagoric progress of a couple of ordinary people who are fake-but-real, real-but-fake wizards. The didacticism is still there now extending to contemporary problems like AIDS and environmental pollution.

Ngugi is basically an urban writer and his minimalist evocations of the countryside are striking, in Petals of Blood it has a grayness and in Wizard of the Crow it is a great emptiness past the last backyard. Unlike Petals of Blood, however, Wizard of the Crow is humorous, farcical, and much more invested in the unique African style of "magical realism" (which in its African variant owes more to tradition than the less conservative Latin American style, which expresses a kind of multiple personality).

Another difference is the maturation of Ngugi's philosophical outlook. Ngugi's work in the 70s was significant for its criticism of the new, kleptocratic, post-colonial class of black African politicians in addition to the expected criticism of "the West" (Petals of Blood was partially written at Yalta, where Ngugi was a guest of a Soviet writer's conference). Now this perspective has lost some of the doctrinaire edge: both Africans and rapacious foreigners come under lampooning criticism, but it is greed itself, ignorance itself, that are the writer's targets. This worldliness is prophetic at this moment when familiar political problems (the president's refusal to acknowledge that he has not clearly won reelection) are neglected by the world press in favor of a "tribal war" interpretation of Kenya's problems.

The African wordplay is interesting and I would have enjoyed more of it; the technique of translating from Gikuyu creates an interesting texture suggestive of layers of meaning. A very entertaining, very interesting book.

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