11 December 2011

Notes on Petals of Blood by Ngugi wa Thiong'o

In the introduction to the Penguin Classics edition of Petals of Blood, Moses Isegawa calls the novel "the definitive African book of the twentieth century". I would only disagree because I do not think there is any one definitive African book, nor should there be -- one of the problems African literatures face when sampled here and there is the tendency for one or two books to be seen as giving some sort of definitive portrait of a continent of over 50 countries, a billion people, and thousands of languages. Petals of Blood is capacious and brilliant, but it's not definitive.

A lot has been written about Petals of Blood since its publication, and it continues to incite interest both in its portrait of Kenya in the early years of independence and its (and its author's) politics. This was especially true at the time of its release, because it was difficult then to see beyond the novel's critique of Kenya's ruling class to its subtler aspects, and the fact that Ngugi was soon imprisoned without trial added to the political reading of the book. It is, of course, an overtly political novel, a novel that very clearly wants readers to see the government of Kenya as betraying the ideals of the liberation struggle in favor of capitalistic greed. But one does not need to be a Marxist to find great value in Petals of Blood, any more than one needs to be a visionary Christian to find value in Dostoyevsky's novels or a vegetarian to appreciate Tolstoy's.

One of the purposes Petals of Blood serves is to recuperate in writing an unwritten past. We might identify the central narrative of the book as the story of the murder of three prominent men, but amidst that story are many others, and the movement is hardly linear. Were we to create a graphic representation of the novel's many pieces, it would surely require a spiral or two, because the overall sense the various strands of plot and event give is one of moving deeper and deeper through the history of the village of Ilmorog, which is also, at least partially, the history of Kenya. The structure is so carefully constructed, though, that this history does not feel tangential -- indeed, it becomes impossible to see the solution of the murder mystery (the primary concern of the basic narrative) as separate from the history of Ilmorog and of Kenya generally: specifically, the history of its systems of power. This is perhaps one of the reasons why I constantly think of Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy when I think of this novel. The murders in Petals of Blood serve similar narrative purpose(s) to the murders in Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov, or the battles in War and Peace. While certainly this purpose/structure/effect can be interpreted as a result of Ngugi's Marxism (perhaps with reference to Lukács), it's not something we find only in Marxist narrative. It could come from any worldview that is not fanatically individualist.

One of the fundamental questions of the novel is: What are meaningful commonalities? In other words: What unites people? Characters suffer because they misperceive, for instance, allegiances of race and nationality. Ultimately, the main characters all discover that meaningful commonalities are ones of power: who has it and who doesn't. The failures of liberation came, it seems in the text, from a misplaced faith in a unified African, Kenyan, or black consciousness. Such consciousness might be meaningful and valuable elsewhere, but in the context of the novel it is shallow and misleading, a disappointment with fatal consequences.

Entire essays could easily be written about any one of the four main characters, Munira, Abdulla, Wanja, and Karega. The latter two have attracted particular interest from critics, mostly because they fit ideological analysis most comfortably: Karega is a revolutionary, and Wanja's Horatio Algeresque ascension from having nothing to being the wealthy madame of Ilmorog's brothel is rich with possibilities for feminist analysis. Munira and Abdulla are equally interesting, though. Abdulla at first seems like the only successful capitalist in Ilmorog -- he owns some property and runs the only shop in the village. We later learn that he was a dedicated follower of the Kenya Land and Freedom Army, yet for various reasons after the Emergency years he became, as he says, "busy looking for money". His life represents in pathetic miniature the more exalted lives of the leaders who betrayed the liberation struggle in search of power and wealth. But we come to feel for and understand Abdulla in a more profound way than we do the minor characters in the novel, and by the end he finds forgiveness, redemption, and purpose.

Munira is fascinating because he chooses to deal with the complications and calamities of life by becoming a less complex person. He surrenders himself to a narrowly religious ideology -- one that, in some ways, parallels Karega's generally doctrinaire Marxism and thus argues against seeing the whole novel as a Marxist tract. Too many critics have been willing to see Karega as a mouthpiece for Ngugi. Certainly, plenty of Karega's statements are ones that Ngugi was and probably is still in sympathy with, but the character is not a simple role model. Whether Ngugi intended him to be so or not, Karega comes off as often too idealistic for the circumstances, and his faith in popular revolution seems only slightly more justified by the text than Munira's faith in anti-political religiosity.

We see a lot of the events through Munira's perception, especially from the beginning of the book, when it seems like he will be our primary viewpoint character. His position is one that would be sympathetic for many readers: a man who believes in a contemporary ideology of progress and education, who is first frustrated by his time trying to establish a school in what he considers the remote and backward village of Ilmorog, but who then decides that Ilmorog is a more honest place than the environment of bureaucracy inhabited by his bosses. He is, for at least a time, a friend and companion to the other three main characters, and so serves as our bridge into their stories. If we as the reader are positioned to be in sympathy with any one character, it is Munira -- and yet he is the character who by the end becomes the least sympathetic, the most pathetic.

The characters who change the most through the book, and who also harbor the greatest secrets, are Abdulla and Wanja. Both represent ideological analyses in that their stories serve as critiques of the power of capitalism to commodify and destroy everything, but we are encouraged, I think, to admire and sympathize with them because their reactions to their world are pragmatic. Flawed, certainly, and destructive at times, but it doesn't seem to me that we are led to sneer at Wanja's prostitution in the way we sneer at, for instance, Munira's conversion to blandly apolitical Christianity. Repeatedly, Petals of Blood states that Kenyan capitalism valorizes prostitutional relationships -- and so Wanja becomes the ultimate capitalist by becoming a prostitute. She isn't blind to what she is doing, though. Hers is a fate bounded not only by economics, but by gender expectations. In a world where everything is commodified, poor women can only commodify their bodies. She has no other path toward success and, more importantly, power. Her desire for revenge against the men who have wronged her leads her to exploit the only power available to her, and to help other women do the same. She sees the ethos of Kenya as one of bare social darwinism: "eat or be eaten". She achieves power and she achieves revenge, but that power and revenge do not exist in a world of their own, and the other systems of her world cause her to lose everything in the very moment she achieves all she desired.

Munira and Karega end the novel in prison, with Munira destined for execution. But all the characters end with a certain amount of hope and even happiness. Munira has finally found a purpose in life: he will die and go to God, feeling himself utterly righteous in his martyrdom. Karega has renewed hope for the enlightenment of the masses and the progress of revolution. Abdulla has great faith in his adopted son, Joseph, and a renewed sense of the possibilities for Kenya's future. Wanja has seemingly achieved the pregnancy she so desired, and identifies the child with both the old liberationist faith and "the possibilities of a new kind of power" -- one born of a one-legged father full of pain, suffering, and laughter.

Petals of Blood is a tremendous mix of narrative modes. It switches from third person to first person, from realism to fantasy, from prose to poetry. It melds the imperatives of the bourgeois realistic novel with those of satire, fable, and oral narrative. Throughout, we have the sense of people telling their stories, offering their points of view, and interpreting each other. This was a powerful development in Ngugi's art, and one he would continue to develop, particularly with Devil on the Cross and Wizard of the Crow. It was the last novel he would write originally in English; after Petals, it became obvious to him that he must write in Gikuyu first. He continued to develop as a writer, and his later novels are masterpieces, but had he stopped writing with Petals of Blood, his place in literary history would still be assured.

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