jueves, 10 de junio de 2010

Petals of Blood

Petals of Blood (Penguin, 2005)
by Ngugi wa Thiong'o
Kenya, 1977

Ngugi wa Thiong'o is a Kenyan novelist, playwright, and current UC Irvine professor (English and Comp Lit) who, unlike crybaby adult YA fans in the book review blogosphere, has truly suffered for his art.  Imprisoned for a year after publishing the politically-charged Petals of Blood, a novel about disillusionment and social upheaval in post-independence Kenya, in 1977 and then the victim of violence on his first return home in 2004, he's been forced to lived much of his adult life in exile for fear of attacks upon his life in his native country.  Other key works of his include the novels The River Between (1965), Devil on the Cross (1982), and Wizard of the Crow (2006) and the postcolonial studies primers Decolonising the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature (1986) and Moving the Centre: The Struggle for Cultural Freedom (1993).  I mention all this biographical info here at length because, more than with any other novel I've read of late, Petals of Blood seems to have a uniquely intense relationship with its author's homeland.  Ostensibly a police procedural having to do with the death of three African directors of a foreign-owned brewery in Ilmorog, a remote backwater far from Nairobi, Thiongo's text takes the stories of the four main suspects and flowers into a thorny, sprawling narrative that's part history, part prison memoir, and part marxist jeremiad in tone.  Along the way, the reader is treated to a view of the post-Mau Mau rebellion Kenyan cultural and political landscape that's often angry and almost always confrontational in terms of the relationship of Africa to the West (to be sure, it's also critical of the black power structure in Kenya and in particular of the failures of the post-independence government towards its own people).  While I felt that Thiong'o occasionally tried to cover too much ground for his narrative's own good, I never felt that he was preachy and I enjoyed the choral effect brought about by his use of multiple narrators.  The novel's examination of feminism within its specific storytelling context was another strong suit--but a depressing one at that ("If you have a cunt--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 become a whore.  You eat or are eaten," complains the main female character at one point [347-348]).  A solid and at times bracing story that doubles as an indictment of the legacies of colonialism told from the point of view of the oppressed rather than the oppressors for a change.  (http://www.penguinclassics.com/)

Ngugi wa Thiong'o

"Indeed, he thought now, things could never really be the same even in viewing that past of his people, the past he had tried to grapple with in Siriana, and at Ilmorog school.  Which past was one talking about?  Of Ndemi and the creators from Malindi to Songhai; from the cape of storms, to the Mediterranean Sea?  The past of a broken civilization, retarded growth, black people scattered over the globe to feed the ever-demanding god of profit that the lawyer talked about?  The past of houses burnt and destroyed and diseases pumped into a continent?  Or was it the past of L'Ouverture, Turner, Chaka, Abdulla, Koitalel, Ole Masai, Kimathi, Mathenge and others?  Was it of chiefs who sold the others, of the ones who carried Livingstone and Stanley on their backs, deluded into believing that a service to a white man was really a service to God?  The past of Kinyanjui, Mumia, Lenana, Chui, Jerrod, Nderi wa Riera?  Africa, after all, did not have one but several pasts which were in perpetual struggle.  Images pressed on images." 
(Petals of Blood, 255) 

8 comentarios:

  1. This sounds just wonderful. I love the place name Ilmorog - sounds almost Irish, doesn't it? But this sentence sold me: "Thiongo's text takes the stories of the four main suspects and flowers into a thorny, sprawling narrative that's part history, part prison memoir, and part marxist jeremiad in tone."

    (It wasn't the first sentence that sold me, although it did give me my gales of laughter dose for the day! But actually you could improve it a bit by changing the epithet to cryBABBY adult YA fans!)

  2. Well, I'm not sure all adult YA fans are crybabies but there sure are a lot of them. Rather odd.

    Anyway, have you heard of a mid-century Russian author named Victor Serge? This post about Ngugi wa Thiong'o and the intense relationship between his experiences and his works reminded me of Serge and his novel Unforgiving Years. His biography is almost crazier than Thiong'o's. Petals of Blood sounds like a similarly intense political read. I'll have to pick it up some time.

  3. Have not read it but know of it and the author's history. A friend that really enjoyed it told me that the real impact of the novel is realized in small but devastating moments. A fairly straightforward story line but then one heavy blow after another sneaks in until you realize that what would be simple detective fiction in one setting is turned into a mass of political and social revelations here. Like the examination of feminism you offer here. Just another book I want to get to.

    And Richard, you are simply relentless when it comes to your blogging nemeses! And yet your refusal to be swallowed by the gentle practices of some always makes me laugh.

  4. I wonder just what it is about detective fiction that makes it so amenable to political/satirical/jokey/existential permutations? I can't think of another genre that's been pushed and re-formed so many different ways, so successfully.

    This sounds fascinating - though I've maybe reached the limits of my capacity for Marxist jeremiads right at the moment, reading both Zinn & Solzhenitsyn simultaneously. Still, one for the eventual reads pile, for sure.

  5. *Jill: "Crybabby" would be an improvement, agreed! And Ilmorog does sound Irish now that you mention it. I was impressed by how Thiongo's tale evolved over the course of the novel, so I'm glad that one line caught your attention enough to flatter me so. :)

    *E.L. Fay: I only know Serge by name, so I went over to your blog and skimmed the Unforgiving Years review you have up. Sounds pretty great--thanks for the tip! By the way, I get that not all adult YA fans are crybabies (or crybabbies even). However, I think it's hilarious that these rabid children's book-reading adults are so sensitive about their juvenilia reading choices that they can't take an occasional joke about it. Maybe the Babar or Paddington Bear series would be more age-appropriate for such weird emotional fragility?

    *Frances: To my way of thinking, your friend was right on the money! Ironically, Thiong'o was so successful in telling his story warts and all that I'm not sure I could stand a steady diet of such fare. Look forward to reading something else by him once I get some breathing room, though. P.S. "Relentless" is a better moniker than Oprah, thanks, and I love that "blogging nemeses" thing. Makes me feel like a superhero whose special power is...uh, abrasiveness?!?

    *Emily: The police procedural angle seems more a pretext here than anything else in all truthfulness, but I agree the detective fiction form has proven to be wonderfully and almost infinitely malleable (I think it was Ricardo Piglia, one of my favorite Argentinean novelists and literary critics, who opined that the detective genre was one of the 20th century's greatest contributions to fiction, but whoever it was who said it was right). Petals of Blood is pretty heavy going psychologically, though, so you'd be right to want to read it when the time is right and all that. Not a very pretty picture it paints!

  6. Did you get other complaints besides Crazy Email Guy?

  7. One of the things I respect and admire about you the most, Richard, is how unflinchingly honest you are. Oh, how I wish I could say what I really feel sometimes, instead of all these thoughts about people having their feelings hurt encumbering me. I suppose if one has a venue in which to freely express himself/herself it would be one's blog! You inspire me.

  8. *E.L. Fay: I sort of respect "Crazy Email Guy" (as you put it) for taking the time to share his convictions with me even though I thought his response to my sarcasm was way excessive. Although he referred to multiple other people having been hurt by my Tender Morsels post, none of them cared enough enough to speak up for themselves. So much for "dialogue," eh?

    *Bellezza: Thanks for the very kind words--however, I have to warn you that "unflinching honesty" sometimes comes at a price when dealing with those cult-like Margo Lanagan fans! All kidding aside, I get a sense of what I imagine is "the real you" from your blog; so a more freely expressive you might be interesting as well, but I never get the sensation that you're pulling your punches or anything like that. That said, best of luck writing in whichever way makes you happiest!