Posted by: Lisa Hill | May 13, 2018

Petals of Blood, by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o #BookReview

The much-admired Kenyan author Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o (b.1938) has been on my radar for quite a while because this novel Petals of Blood was listed in 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die and contributor Andrew Blades from Oxford describes it as

… a fiery and impassioned epic that is an outstanding modern example of politically committed fiction.  (1001 Books to Read Before You Die, ABC Books, 2006, p.666)

So Petals of Blood was on my wishlist/TBR long before I knew that Ngũgĩ has been touted as a possible winner of the Nobel Prize.   But when I read The River Between a few weeks ago, I was a bit startled to find that there were aspects of that novel which irked my feminist sensibilities (see my review).  I was dubious about Ngũgĩ presenting the right to undertake FGM (female genital mutilation) as an assertion of traditional Kenyan identity over colonialist Christian determination to stamp it out.  I thought that the barbaric practice of FGM was an odd symbol for Ngũgĩ to choose – somewhat analogous to championing Aztec human sacrifice as a legitimate symbol of traditional rites that Spanish colonisers had no right to change.  Well, as it turns out, I have reservations about Petals of Blood too…

To summarise a book of 400+ pages briefly, the plot, such as it is, revolves around four characters, Munira, Abdulla, Kagera and Wanja.  At the beginning of the book, the first three are arrested in connection with the murder of three powerful businessmen, and Wanja is in hospital fighting for her life.  The recollections and reflections of Munira the evangelical schoolteacher form the basis of the narrative: he tells the story of Abdulla – a one-legged former freedom fighter turned merchant now reduced to beggary; Kagera the promising student turned activist-revolutionary; and Wanja, a woman victimised because of her sexuality who then exploits it herself to become a prostitute and a hard-hearted brothel madam.

1001 Books has this to say:

In differing ways [these four characters] embody the difficulties of resisting the decadence, corruption and self-aggrandisement at the core of the new political regimes.  Munira acts out of a sense of religion and sexual jealousy and this blunts his political efficacy.  Abdulla is an ex-revolutionary fighter maimed in the  1950s rebellion and able in the end to transform only his own circumstances.  Wanja, a prostitute, fails to overcome the creed of “eat or be eaten” that is the moral law in the new Kenya.  Finally, Karega, a revolutionary figure, is the character seemingly favoured by Ngũgĩ as the only possible salvation for the hopes of the Kenyan people.  (1001 Books to Read Before You Die, ABC Books, 2006, p.666)

The acknowledgements at the front of the book include the Soviet Writers Union who lent Ngũgĩ the use of a house at Yalta to finish writing the MS, so perhaps I should not have been surprised to see elements promoting communist ideology as Kenya’s salvation.  Still, I was taken aback to see Cambodia listed among people’s revolutions where workers and peasants have liberated their countries – but it was a salutary reminder that this book was first published in 1977. Ngũgĩ could not have known then about Pol Pot’s murderous regime when he listed China, Cuba, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Angola, Guinea, Mozambique as places that Munira’s young acolyte Joseph admires.  Still, the critique of capitalism is hardly nuanced: introduced by the colonialists who subverted self-sustaining societies which are represented as a kind of paradise, capitalism in the post-independence period is presented as equally rapacious, destroying everything in its wake as the new Black owners of the means of production drag communities like Ilmorog into poverty and exploitation.

However, it was not the political ideology that bothered me so much.  In the 21st century communism is a failed economic system and the endless post-colonial African wars for and against it can be seen to have been disastrous for development in much of the continent – which lags significantly behind its southeast Asian counterparts where the standard of living is rising.  But the ideology of a book written in the 1970s can’t be judged by 21st century history.  No, once again my objection is to the book’s misogyny – which surfaced at its most explicit in Part 4 of Chapter 7 where Abdulla tells about his time with the great hero, the freedom-fighter Nding’uri:

And now we recalled the night he and I had done it to the same girl in my grandmother’s hut, where goats and sheep were kept, way back in the past.  I did it to her, standing her against the wall and she holding up her skirt.  The goats and sheep were bleating, some stampeding.  She was crying, not true crying, it was a mixture of sighing and whimpering and sucking in juices of inward pains and it was good.  When it was Nding’uri’s turn, she protested a little, no ma Ngaikai inyui muri aganu-i*, and then begged for a little rest.  But Nding’uri would not hear of it and went straight at her.  He found it difficult to enter her in that standing position and she tried to help him, not there, below, that’s too far down, there, and suddenly both fell to the ground, littered with dung and urine, but Nding’uri would not hold back.  We recalled her words and laughed.  She stood up, when it was all over, and angrily said: See, now you have ruined my skirt and my calico, and ran out of the hut.  We wondered if she, now a happily married mother of two, even remembered that night.  (p.264, * I haven’t been able to find out what this means).

Abdulla goes on to say that he thought his hero should have married the girl (who was a friend’s sister) but Nding’uri dismisses this because she had promised to wait for him until after the struggle, and [in a breathtaking case of double standards] in any case he wanted somebody for whom he would really be fighting. The narrative goes on to describe how Nding’uri is betrayed and captured and shortly afterwards hanged for his part in the rebellion, and Abdulla is overcome by grief for the loss of his hero and his own failure to avenge him.

I was appalled by this scene.  I asked Celestine, a blogging friend from Ghana what she thought about it, and her reply is instructive. She had studied Petals of Blood at school and is in no doubt that the incident described is rape, and she said that rape/defilement is punishable and there are quite a number of intervention agencies that deal with this offense, like the DOVVSU, Domestic Violence and Victim Support Unit of the Police Service. The task is not easy like I said cos of the penchant to settle out of court, but the authorities are doing their best to bring such culprits to book.  (See the comments at the bottom of my review of The Woman Next Door). In my reply to Celestine I said that I was asking myself why the author chose to include this incident in this way, and (since I hadn’t finished the book at that stage) I wondered if he would pass judgement on this incident as he so frequently does on other matters. Well, he doesn’t revisit it, and (trying to find any kind of justification for it) I could not find any hint that the girl is meant to be some kind of symbol of Kenya as victim or of collateral damage in the fight for independence.

I finished this book last week and having been thinking about it ever since, but I remain disgusted by this gratuitous depiction of sexual violence against women.  If there are women on the Nobel Prize jury, I’d be very surprised if they turned a blind eye to this kind of misogyny…

PS: I nearly forgot… although I was hopelessly late in finishing it, I read this book for 1977 Club hosted by Stuck in a Book and Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings.

PS 20/5/18: For a different slant altogether on this author: visit The Reader, (Booksellers New Zealand’s blog) where you can see a summary of his session at the Auckland Literary Festival.

Author: Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o
Title: Petals of Blood
Introduction by Moses Isegawa
Publisher: Penguin, 2003, first published 1977
ISBN: 9780143039174
Source: Personal library, purchased from The Book Depository (before it was taken over by Amazon)


Responses

  1. fascinating but also a thought provoking review Lisa
    since i am African but with zero knowledge of African literature, your amazing review have convinced me to read some of African literature classics.
    although i believe colonialism has brought many disasters to my continent but i also hate the idea that Africa was peaceful and happy continent before the white men landed on it shores,many problems that we still have from extreme poverty to tribal violence existed then and still continue still now.
    but also i noticed that sometimes many non western nation embrace a bad customs just because they want they believe it as part of their culture.
    sorry for my long comment Lisa but also i want to recommend this book to you which deals with bad customs we Somalis had as we kidnapped and sold many Africans into Slavery but thanks to British Royal navy this custom was eventually stopped
    Squadron: Ending the Africa Slave Trade by John Broich

    • There’s no need to apologise for a long comment, because what you have to say is very interesting:)
      I think what you say is exactly right: colonialism was wrong, and has had many long-term ill-effects but as you say tribal violence and all the problems of subsistence farming existed beforehand too, and there was brutality against women as well. I would dearly love to see the countries of Africa sort themselves out. Some of them, such as Botswana have, so it has to be possible for things to improve.
      Anyway, I’ve looked up that book at Goodreads and it has many positive reviews. Now to find a copy! Thanks for the recommendation.

  2. Well…. I’m sorry you had a bad 1977 experience (so did I) and on the evidence of the two books you’ve read, I shan’t be reading this author I’m afraid.

    • LOL I’m a bad influence! (He’s Nobel-prize winner nominee!!)

  3. Thanks for this Lisa. Must say from what you very said I find if hard to accept this as something Nobel-prize worthy. Even before 1977. Some cultural attutudes we can “rationalise” on the basis of time and place (like women being controlled by fathers/brothers/husbands with no agency to direct their own lives) but rape (assault of a very particular kind), to my mind, has never been excusable even in this time/place context. Are we supposed to understand something by the girl’s reaction? Perhaps that she is so oppressed in that time and place that she doesn’t recognise the violation? But it doesn’t sound like the author encourages the reader to see it this way even? I’m grasping for some reason for the Nobel potential.

    • I’ve replayed this sordid scene over and over in my mind and for me, whatever happens before and after it, that moment where she says no and begs ‘for a rest’ is a critical moment. What happens after that looks like trying to get it over and done with, but what is ruined for her is not her clothing. I’ve tried to see it as a metaphor, because the character of Wanja the prostitute who is blamed for everything by Munira, is another of the blame-the-woman characters so common in cultural history – but Wanja is said by finer minds than mine to be a metaphor for Kenya. I cannot see how this anonymous girl is a metaphor for anything.
      Interestingly, in the course of trying to gather my thoughts about this book, I searched for ‘a feminist interpretation of Petals of Blood’ and found what looks like a student thesis written in what looks like English as a second language, (see http://shodhganga.inflibnet.ac.in/bitstream/10603/119782/10/10_chapter4.pdf if keen) and it argues that Ngugi represents strong women and their potential and how the patriarchy oppresses them. I haven’t read the entire thesis, but in the section about Petals of Blood this scene is not mentioned. And although I haven’t read all the hundreds of 5-star reviews at Goodreads, the ones I’ve read don’t tackle it either. Why not? It’s the most problematic scene in the whole book and it’s confronting. If it’s there to show the evil of what was common practice (as Celestine says it was in Ghana) why does it conclude with the girl being ‘happily married’ when really what she has lost is her marriageability in a conservative society?

      • Yes, that scene “where she says no and begs ‘for a rest’ is a critical moment” as you described it seemed to confirm that this is an assault. I guess I’d have to read it for myself to see if I feel the same way. If she’s happily married, then she hasn’t lost her marriageability has she? But anyhow, if she is a metaphor for Kenya, what is it saying? That the country has been oppressed but has come out well (cf “happily married”?)

        • I guess it’s in how you interpret it. I see the ‘happily married’ comment as a case of ‘see, you can treat girls like this and it’s ok, no harm done.’ But of course that was not true then and maybe isn’t now in societies where a girl’s virginity is still crucial to marriageability. And as you say, if she’s a metaphor for Kenya, what he would be saying is, it’s ok to ‘rape/degrade’ Kenya because it will all come out ok in the end. And that would undercut his own agenda. It makes no sense, no matter how I read it.

          • Or, would he be saying Kenya HAS been raped/exploited but is NOW moving on and will no longer be treated like that. This is how I’d have to read it if in normal circumstances she would not have been able to be happily married but in fact she is? That point to me suggests change? But, I haven’t read it of course and don’t know what else happens in the end for me to decide if positive change is what he is saying or if his ending is darker.

            • I don’t understand why this problematic scene isn’t under discussion somewhere!

  4. How interesting! Now I wish that I’d read the novel! I have recently read (well, one last summer and one last month) the two volumes in his autobiography, which I quite enjoyed. They cover his youngest years and his years at school (before college/uni) and there is reference to his relationship with his mother – primarily positive – but there isn’t much of a female presence in the volumes, which would give me any hint as to possible interpretations of this incident. I did hear him speak once in Toronto, several years ago, but the focus on his engagement was on his approach to language/writing/translation, although perhaps a different set of questions would be on offer in a contemporary speaking session. Thank you for posting such extensive quotes, so that we can peek into the reading experience at least, and marvel, along with you, as to why there has been so little discussion (illumination? critique?) of this part of the story.

    • Some of my blogging friends think very highly of him, so I keep wondering if I’m reading this the wrong way. I’m open to some other interpretation of this particular incident that puts it in some other context that I’ve missed, but I haven’t found anything yet…

  5. What an interesting review. I appreciate your well-considered observations about the thrust of the author’s thoughts about government systems and the cultural attitude toward women.

    I wonder why authors like that are popular? I can enjoy well-written stories but life’s too short to read works that make my blood pressure rise.

    • Hello Sharon, I’m still scratching my head over it… so much of this book is really great, lots to think about in terms of the way Kenyan history has been portrayed and an interesting culture to discover, but…I just can’t get this sordid image out of my head now…

  6. I am way, way behind in reading your reviews but your comment on Facebook convinced me to read this one first. I admire your commentary. Rape should not be tolerated in literature except to condemn it. I don’t know what we can do about peoples who claim an anti women bias as part of their traditional culture. Talk them out of I suppose.

    • LOL Where would we start? The Middle East? the USA? Our own backyard?

    • Anti-woman is one thing, but assault and violence, as you say Bill, is quite another. I think we always have to start from a point of cultural mores – and sure talk about the issues – but violence (rape, stoning, cutting off body parts) is something else isn’t it.

      If rape is used as a metaphor, it would be a powerful one, but it has to be obviously a metaphor for it to be acceptable I think, and this doesn’t sound like it is.

  7. I read this a few years ago and thought it was a powerful novel on the basis of its indictment of the establishment for their disregard of the plight of the rural population in Kenya. I think I was so focused on that I didn’t pay enough attention to some of the other aspects of the book. But now I feel I should re-read it in the context of your (very valid) reactions.

  8. […] am indebted to Somali Bookaholic who recommended this book to me in conversation about my review of Petals of Blood.  It’s a very interesting book about four British naval captains who in the mid 18th century […]

  9. […] Petals of Blood, by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o #BookReview Kenya […]


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