Book Review

Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o is, by both artistic and political measures, one of the most important writers of the last fifty years. A novelist, playwright, and essayist, he is often cited as the first East African writer to be published in English, but the most revolutionary aspect of his vast body of work was his turn, in the 1970s, to writing in his native tongue of Gikũyũ, one of the languages of Kenya. The Kenyan regime was so terrified by the prospect of a writer of Ngũgĩ’s skill speaking directly to his countrymen in their own language that they jailed him for a year without due process, thrust him into exile, and harassed his family for years. (Famously, Ngũgĩ wrote his first Gikũyũ novel in prison, on toilet paper.)

Ngũgĩ has continued to write in Gikũyũ ever since, translating his own works into English afterward. For all his literary experimentation, accessibility remains his defining trait—he writes for common people, in the common people’s language, about the loftiest and most sophisticated themes. His 2006 novel, Wizard of the Crow, a lavish 700-page fantasy-satire of African politics, was supposedly read aloud, evening after evening, in bars across Gikũyũ-speaking Kenya, the way people might gather to watch a TV series. The English version of the novel is dizzyingly rich, an adventure-comedy with a carnivalesque political critique and a deep spiritual undertow. You could probably spend a lifetime plumbing its depths, yet somehow it’s an easy read.

Ngũgĩ’s newest work, a novel-in-verse titled The Perfect Nine, is small enough to fit in your pocket but has its sights set even higher than his previous work. The Perfect Nine is a retelling and expansion of the creation myth of the Gikũyũ people, passed down orally over generations, and from it Ngũgĩ has fashioned a sublime, joyful epic poem that can be read—by anyone, Gikũyũ or otherwise—almost like a gospel, describing the nature of God, the world, and how we should live in it.

It tells the story of the progenitors Gikũyũ and Mũmbi, a man and woman loosely comparable to Adam and Eve, and their nine beautiful, accomplished daughters, who themselves become the matriarchs of the nine clans of the Gikũyũ. (Actually, there is a tenth daughter, who is the key to the entire saga.) When word of their beauty gets out, hundreds of men come from across the African continent to try to win the daughters’ hands, thus providing a mythical basis for the migrations of African people and their inherent brother- and sisterhood. Together, the daughters and their suitors face a variety of trials in order to determine the appropriate marriage match.

Ngũgĩ’s books certainly have a political message, too nuanced to summarize here, but in both Wizard of the Crow and The Perfect Nine that message is intertwined with the palpable influence of indigenous African spirituality and a synthesis of wisdom from other religious traditions. A memorable passage from Wizard reads:

All life is one and it flows like a river or the waters of the sea. Plants, humans, animals down to the creatures that crawl, all draw their share from the one indivisible river of life, just as they all draw breath from the air.

This notion of Oneness as the fundamental reality of the universe—a bedrock concept in Hinduism, Buddhism, and numerous other traditions—is stated even more succinctly in The Perfect Nine:

God is Life.
God is One.
Life is One.

In another context these might sound like platitudes, but situated in this epic poem they take on the quality of profound truths stated with utter simplicity, which is one of Ngũgĩ’s great gifts. They’re also truths with massive political ramifications, were they to actually be practiced. The second chapter of The Perfect Nine articulates in full a spiritual philosophy of stunning devotional beauty and idealism—a philosophy that rejects the values on which colonial powers and authoritarian regimes are built.

In fine epic tradition, this chapter is the storyteller’s supplication to God for help with his task. (Even the most secular writer has likely indulged in this prayer from time to time.) But there’s a twist. Instead of asking for anything, the storyteller pays homage to the “Giver Supreme” in the spirit of giving:

Sharing is the commandment of the Giver Supreme.
Helping one another is the commandment of the Giver Supreme.
Supporting one another is the commandment in all creation.

Unselfishness, cooperation, reverence for nature—these are the pillars of this epic. Don’t get me wrong, there’s plenty of monster fighting and skull crushing. But the search here is not for plunder and glory; it’s for unity, equality, and beauty in all its aspects. God, the source of those things, is referred to by the pronouns He, She, and It interchangeably, as befits a deity that is not separate from, but the essence of, Its creation. This would have been heresy, one imagines, to the patriarchal European Christians who were Ngũgĩ’s first religious teachers. Having reclaimed God from the colonizers, Ngũgĩ proceeds to reclaim everything else.

The nine perfect daughters are, well, perfect—skilled farmers, artisans, dancers, singers, warriors. Each also embodies an overlapping set of virtues: kindness, loyalty, generosity, humility, justice, and so on. This, of course, is all in addition to their physical beauty, “the beauty that / Later spread into all things we call beautiful.” In other words, the daughters represent the highest ideals of humankind. Their outward beauty is the manifestation of their inner nature. Most of the men who come courting are not quite up to snuff and are destroyed either by their own doubts, by the land itself (crocodiles, quicksand), or by a series of monstrous ogres, perhaps representing the human vices and failings that the Perfect Nine are opposed to.

One of these ogres disguises itself in white chalk and lures men to their doom with a superficial allure, bringing to mind the skin-whitening creams marketed to dark-skinned people all over the world along with the unsubtle message that whiteness equals beauty. (It also recalls a subplot in Wizard of the Crow in which a greedy businessman becomes cursed by his overpowering desire to be white.) “Our men had forgotten all they had endured / in search of black beauty,” writes Ngũgĩ. But then, such is the poet’s prerogative, the wind of truth kicks up, blowing away the chalk’s illusion and, in this case, revealing the hollow decay beneath.

Each episode in The Perfect Nine has a happy ending. The unrighteous and unworthy are left behind, and good triumphs over evil. It’s not a book to be read for suspense, and a few of the ogre confrontations feel repetitive and perfunctory. But you can sense Ngũgĩ, in his gentle way, trying to shake his people (and all people) out of the stupor of corrupt materialism and into the fair, cooperative society he sees as their birthright.

That a writer who has been imprisoned, exiled, and viciously physically attacked over his art, who has seen so much of the nastiness of this world, should produce, in the evening of his life, a work of such unabashed optimism, such belief in humanity, such fundamental goodness, might be startling to those of us who are far more cynical with far less justification. What can we do but obey the commandment of the Giver Supreme? Read it, and find someone to read it aloud to.

About the Reviewer

Benjamin T. Miller is a writer whose fiction and essays have appeared in ZYZZYVA, Santa Monica Review, Epiphany, Hobart, and others. He earned his MFA from UC Irvine, and lives in Durham, North Carolina.