My devastating Kenyan choice starts explosively with the protagonist being arrested for murder:
They came for him that Sunday. He had just returned from a night’s vigil on the mountain. He was resting on his bed, Bible open at the Book of Revelation, when two police constables, one tall, the other short, knocked at the door.
“’Are you Mr Munira?’ the short one asked. He had a star-shaped scar above the left brow.
’You teach at the New Ilmorog Primary School?’
’And where do you think you are now standing?’
’Ah, yes. We try to be very sure. Murder, after all, is not irio or ugali.’
’What are you talking about?’
’You are wanted at the New Ilmorog Police Station.’
’Murder, of course – murder in Ilmorog.’”
This is a much meatier and severer work than my Tanzanian book, Paradise. It is a searing endictment of a country newly liberated from colonialism, but now subject to injustices from its own leading classes. Someone obviously thought so – the author was imprisoned without trial because of it! It also has a much more bitter tone than Gurnah’s book.
Ngũgĩ is famous for having stopped writing in English. He highlighted the African writers’ dilemma of whether they should remain prisoners of their respective colonial languages, with the sugar of a vastly wider market and earnings, or should devote themselves entirely to developing their native languages, inevitably limiting themselves to a tiny market. If they do write in Kikuyu (Gĩkũyũ) (like Ngũgĩ; or whatever), and turn out a worthy work, they can probably be sure that it will be translated into English anyway, so it would seem to be better if the author himself writes the English version as well. But I have just read the bilingual In altre parole/In Other Words by Jhumpa Lahiri, about her experience in learning Italian, and I’m no longer so sure. She deliberately didn’t translate the work, which she wrote in (what seems to me magnificent) Italian into her stronger language of English for a complicated set of reasons based on wanting to be faithful to the language of composition.
Back to Kenya: A poignant moment comes when the schoolteacher Karega is teaching Kenya’s proud (pre)history while remembering its sufferings at the hand of nature and man:
“These thoughts mocked at Karega as he was carried along by the grandeur of the people’s past, the great cultures that spread from Malindi to Tripoli. He confided: The Earlies Man, father of all men on earth, is thought to have been born in Kenya… Lake Turkana… and he stood back and expected a gasp of disbelief or a few questions.
‘Yes, Muriuki,’ he pointed to a child whose hand seemed raised.
There was a great rustling of books, noise from the benches, children clambering from their desks. Muriuki had fallen down.’
The boy had fainted from hunger.
There is an interesting introduction by the author of my Ugandan choice, Moses Isegawa (to follow).
Petals of Blood is a key work to understanding the continuing impact of colonialism on the African psyche. It’s a bit of a plod (compared to Paradise, for instance), angry and depressing and occasionally confusing. But considering its importance and how much its author suffered for it, it deserves to be read.
NGŨGĨ wa Thiong’o (1938 – ), Petals of Blood, New York, Penguin, 2005 (first published 1977), ISBN 978-0-14-303917-4
“The boy first. His name was Yusuf, and he left his home suddenly during his twelfth year. He remembered it was the season of drought, when every day was the same as the last. Unexpected flowers bloomed and died. Strange insects scuttled from under rocks and writhed to their deaths in the burning light. The sun made distant trees tremble in the air and made the houses shudder and heave for breath. Clouds of dust puffed up at every tramping footfall and a hard-edged stillness lay over the daylight hours. Precise moments like that came back of the season.”
A tour d’horizon of colonialised Tanzania (Tanganyika + Zanzibar). The bulk of the book follows an expedition from the coast to the interior at the dawn of the colonial era. (The author himself is from Zanzibar). The young hero, Yusuf, encounters both the German colonialists and other tribes whom he poorly understands – he is pretty much just as much an outsider there as the Europeans. As an outsider it is good to be reminded that also to an African, other Africans can seem equally exotic. As a boy Yusuf is taken on the long journey inland by his uncle, and only eventually comes to realise that the latter is actually using him to pay off his debts. A minor quibble is that the Swahili words in the text were not glossed (my Swahili is fairly minimal!) It brings into relief the vast differences between the coastal and interior people, which splits Tanzania to this day. It is well worth reading, even if much more lightweight than my Kenyan title, Petals of Blood (coming soon!) and a little slow to get rolling.
GURNAH, Abdulrazak (1948 – ), Paradise, London: Bloomsbury, 2004 (or. publ. 1994), ISBN 9780747573999