Monday, 1 August 2016

Petals of Blood by Ngugi Wa Thiong'o

Petals of Blood is a novel by Kenyan author Ngugi Wa Thiong'o, author of The Wizard of the Crow. It was released in 1977 and was the last novel he wrote in English. I've earlier reviewed his later novel, Wizard of the Crow.

It begins with the murder of two businessmen and an educator in the fictional Kenyan city of Ilmorog. Four suspects are arrested for the murders. They are the local school principal Munira, the labour union activist Karega, the barmaid Wanja, and the shopkeeper and former Mau Mau rebel Abdulla.

The book tells of the friendship of these four characters and of their relationship to the murdered men. It is also the tale of Ilmorog's development in only a decade from pastoral village to modern city.

The story is a kind of microcosm of Kenya as an nation, especially post-independence. And it is not a pretty one. For Wa Thiong'o, the dream of a free, equal and independent Kenya is betrayed by it's leaders, such as president Jomo Kenyatta and his successors. Instead Kenyans got an unequal society in which the majority work in poverty while a small capitalist minority get rich by exploiting the working class. This elite does this by selling the products of the labour of the working class into the international capitalist system, just as the colonizers did before. Thus the system of exploitation established during English colonialism continues unbroken, just with native Kenyan leadership.

This leadership is thoroughly corrupt. When the citizens of Ilmorog suffer from famine, the main characters lead an exodus of most of the population to Nairobi to ask for help from their parliamentary representative. They walk the whole way, only to met a corrupt politician who gives them empty promises in return.

The government is not only corrupt, but is also authoritarian. People in opposition are either arrested or murdered. Of course, the Kenyan government proved Ngugi Wa Thiong'o right when they arrested him for his criticism of the regime shortly after this novel was published.

The book shows that the regime was right to fear him. This is powerful writing. The storytelling and prose are excellent in themselves, and show a novelist at the peak of his art. Yet they also tell the story of Kenya, as Wa Thiong'o sees it. Fiction, as a mirror to ugly reality. If the wrath of the author against injustice was canalized into satirical fantasy in the Wizard of the Crow, here that anger is served to the reader raw. The evils of life in modern Kenya are portrayed with utter realism, without any compromises.

Yet, as bleak as the novel is, it ends on an inspiring note of hope, not only for a better Kenya, but for a better world. This hope of course remains unfulfilled; Kenya and the world haven't really changed much since this book was written. Yet this only means that Petals of Blood remain as timely as when it was written, a true classic of world literature.

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