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Petals of Blood by Ngugi wa Thiong'o

Petals of Blood (edition 2005)

by Ngugi wa Thiong'o

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5171219,606 (4.04)1 / 143
Title:Petals of Blood
Authors:Ngugi wa Thiong'o
Info:Penguin Classics (2005), Paperback, 432 pages
Collections:Your library
Tags:africa, fiction, Kenya

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Petals of Blood by Ngugi wa Thiong'o


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I found [Petals of Blood] a challenging read. There is for the majority of the novel a pervasive sense of hopelessness about the ubiquitous corruption. ( )
  kale.dyer | May 7, 2017 |
This is a classic of African post-colonial literature. Written as a sort of parable, but with realistic characters, the book traces some of the disappointments and failures of independance in Kenya, seen largely through the characters in a small central Kenyan town who long to participate in the "new" Kenya but find the way to prosperity blocked by greed and corruption. One complaint I have is Wa Thiongo's mythmaking concerning the role of MauMau in Kenyan independance. He portrays a cause and effect heroism that is oversimplified. The myth of Mau Mau "freeing Kenya" and the supposed resulting debt of all Kenyans to the Kikuyu as a result has cast its own ugly shadow over independent Kenya up to the present time. ( )
  kaitanya64 | Jan 3, 2017 |
Some novels can make you laugh; some can make you cry. Just occasionally they can make you angry.

There was little to laugh at in Petals of Blood by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o. This is a book designed to evoke quite a different set of reactions, a book it would be difficult to read and not feel frustrated, exasperated and even outraged.

This is a novel about disillusionment; about the loss of the ideal of independence and the destruction of hope; about betrayal and hypocrisy and about the triumph of corruption over humanity. So incendiary was this novel at the time of its publication in 1977 that its author was imprisoned without charges by a Kenyan government sensitive to criticism of its manner of ruling their newly-independent nation. His arrest provoked a worldwide protest and led to his adoption by Amnesty International as a Prisoner of Conscience.

Petals of Blood opens with the arrest and detention of four people from the village of Ilmorog. It's a village geographically remote from the centre of government and remote from the minds of those who form that government. Ilmorog

One night three African directors of a foreign-owned brewery in the village are murdered in an arson attack. Four suspects are quickly arrested and detained for questioning: Munira, the headmaster of the village's small school; Karega his assistant teacher, Abdullah, the crippled owner of the local store and Wanja the beautiful, spirited barmaid/shop assistant. The four are linked to each other through friendship, to the fortunes of Ilmorog and the fortunes of Kenya itself.

Ngugi uses these four characters to unfold a human drama, telling the story in flashback to twelve years before the fire when Munira had arrived in Ilmorog to set up the school. Through the individual stories of the quartet we discover their past disappointments and frustrations with post independent Kenya motivate them to push for change. When the rains fail, the crops wither and the villagers begin to die, they hatch a plan to lead the villagers on a long walk to Nairobi, to lobby their elected officials for help.

"...it was they outside there who ought to dance to the needs of the people. Now it seemed that authority, power, everything, was outside Ilmorog... out there....in the big city. They must go and confront that which had been the cause of their empty granaries, that which had sapped their energies, and caused their weakness. Long ago when their cattle and goats were taken by hostile nations, the warriors went out, followed them and would not return until they had recovered their stolen wealth. Now Ilmorog's own heart ad been stole. They would follow to recover it. It was a new kind of war... but war all the same."

The walk confronts them with an even harsher reality. Modern Kenya is dominated by corrupt businessmen and politicians who have quickly and conveniently forgotten the high ideals of the revolt they waged to expel the British. No-one in this new order, neither church or state, cares about the plight of the people of a remote village. Despised and patronised but with all appeals for help rejected, they return home dejected.

The exodus is an emotive set piece which symbolises the moral decline that Ngugi sees permeate the country. But in case we didn't quite understand his point, he uses the second half of the novel to reinforce the message. The efforts of the villagers to draw attention to their community have unfortunate consequences which render them vulnerable to commercial opportunism, political expediency and religious hypocrisy.

By the end, the four friends feel a sense of betrayal by those in power. Yet despite the personal losses they suffer, they never lose their faith that one day, Kenya will fulfil its true destiny. This time it will be a country run by the people themselves.

"Tomorrow it would be the workers and the peasants leading the struggle and seizing power to overturn the system of all its preying bloodthirsty gods and gnomic angels, bringing to an end the reign of the few over the many and the era of drinking blood and feasting on human flesh. Then, only then,would the kingdom of man and woman really begin, joying and loving in creative labour."

Political corruption, social injustice, the struggle for freedom are not not uncommon themes in African literature. But Petals of Blood is one of the most strongly narrated indictments of a regime that assumed power with a promise of ending the inequality of its colonial masters only to perpetuate the same oppressions and divisions. Little wonder those in power were too afraid to let this author continue unfettered in his critique.

The Verdict

A truly remarkable novel. Difficult at times to read unless you are familiar with the country's history. But it's passionate depiction of the corrupting influence of power blended with some wonderfully portrayed characters, make this a compelling book. ( )
  Mercury57 | Jan 5, 2014 |
This is not a light read.

But it's good. It is a political novel, and you can tell, but the writing is beautiful and most of the characters rich. ( )
1 vote ageoflibrarius | Jun 27, 2013 |
Not often do I have to read a book twice in order to attempt to formulate an idea of what I want to talk about. Usually, as I read I think of the topics or themes in the novel that most interest me, and by the time I get around to writing this blog, I have a fairly coherent outline of what I want to explore. But I found a new kind of obstacle in Africa, specifically Kenya, and its literature. It’s nothing more than the fact that Kenya baffled me, both in Ngugi wa Thiong’o's Petals of Blood and in my actual brief and highly touristic sojourn there in July.

Now, for a woman my age, I’m fairly well-traveled. I’ve lived in Mexico and Paris, spent some time in places like Guatemala, Costa Rica, and Ireland, and made a considerable dent in exploring my own country. But everywhere I’ve traveled has been indoctrinated in Western culture for decades if not centuries, so although there are differences in language and cuisine and landscape, etc., I’ve never found myself confronted with the stark contrasts of a non-Westernized culture. Things that I’d always heard of and considered myself familiar with, at least theoretically, like post-colonialism, the unequal distribution of wealth, the blatant corruption of political officials, the continuing Western exploitation of African resources, or the inequality of gender roles in society, hit me with all the force of a paradigm shift because here was a place where these things were glaringly apparent. Slums with millions of people living in tin and cardboard houses backed up against mansions with tennis courts and pools. Men bought wives with goats and those wives spent the rest of their lives raising as many children as they could produce. In the less urbanized, smaller villages, female circumcision is still practiced. Well-fed watalii, or tourists, traversed the country, keeping to the game reserves unless absolutely necessary, letting their eyes slide over the squalor and poverty that surrounded them, instead gushing over the lions and elephants and zebras, which are, to give credit where credit is due, truly breathtaking. I was one of those watalii, but I’m infinitely glad that I decided to read Petals of Blood before I went (and then again after), because it gave me an insight into a place that I was not previously prepared to understand, and of which I have only barely scratched the surface.

Don’t worry. I’m not going to write a 10-page entry going into detail on each of the problems I encountered in Kenya, so please, keep reading. I’m just going to talk some about a couple of the themes that most interested me and that are essential components to understanding the conflict in Petals of Blood. It’s also one that is always closest to my heart: the state of women in Kenya. I don’t consider myself a feminist generally. Of course I believe that women should be treated the same as men, that preconceived notions of gender roles hurt rather than help society, and that women’s issues are something that somehow are still under attack after however many centuries humans have walked this earth, contrary to what I see as all common sense and all our faculties for reason. I consider myself a humanist. We are all equal. There should be no sides. Oops, I ranted.

Wanja, who is, in my opinion, the heart of the story, struggles with her womanhood throughout, fighting against the juxtaposition between what she wants to do with her life and what reality more or less forces her to do. A bar wench turned shop assistant turned madame, Wanja often remarks on the perceived inescapability of her domination by men in connection with the transient power of her body over them. When speaking of her relationship with Karega, the young revolutionary, as compared to her past relations with other men she says: “With him it has been different…. For the first time, I feel wanted…a human being…no longer humiliated… degraded… foot-trodden” (251). For this reason, Wanja clings to her relationship with Karega, and when it fails, she makes her final descent into whoredom. “Eat or you are eaten. If you have a cunt…if you are born with this hole, instead of it being a source of pride, you are doomed to either marrying someone or else being a whore. You eat or you are eaten…. what’s the difference whether you are sweating it out on a plantation, in a factory or lying on your back, anyway?” (293). As you can probably see, Wanja is one of the more intriguing characters in the novel for her ability to see the world as it is, in all its hard truths and cruelty. She is even able to use her knowledge to her advantage, though at the cost of her body.

The idea of prostitution, however, extends far beyond Wanja and the feminine condition. It is, in fact, a key component to contemporary Kenya and indeed, modern civilization, as described here:

“We are all prostitutes, for in a world of grab and take, in a world built on a structure of inequality and injustice, in a world where some can eat while others can only toil, some can send their children to schools and others cannot, in a world where a prince, a monarch, a businessman can sit on billions while people starve or hit their heads against church walls for divine deliverance from hunger, yes, in a world where a man who has never set foot on this land can sit in a New York or London office and determine what I shall eat, read, think, do, only because he sits on a heap of billions taken from the world’s poor, in such a world, we are all prostituted” (240).

It is in part this idea that is symbolized by the images of a flower with petals of blood, of flowering, and of blooming , that are used consistently throughout the book, and give the book its title. Our first encounter with it is innocent enough. Munira, the teacher, takes his pupils into the fields around Ilmorog, a forgotten rural village which contains most of the action in this novel, and one of his students discovers a flower with petals of blood. “No, you are wrong,” said Munira, “this color is not even red…. This is a worm-eaten flower…It cannot bear fruit…A flower can also become this color if it’s prevented from reaching the light” (22). This description in many ways describes Wanja and her fruitless desire to have a child, but as wa Thiong’o further develops his story and strives to encapsulate contemporary Kenya, the reader also sees the similarities between the struggling post-Independence nation and the infertile worm-eaten flower.

On a smaller scale, the “civilization” and “modernization” of Ilmorog can also be seen as a parallel to larger Kenya. “But how can I, a mortal, help my heart’s fluttering, I who was a privileged witness of the growth of Ilmorog from its beginnings in rain and drought to the present flowering in petals of blood?” (45). Contrary to what one might assume, Ilmorog, the drought- and famine-plagued dusty village from whence all the young people flee to the city, is vastly superior to New Ilmorog, in which there is plumbing, industrialization, an economy, and roads. As with Wanja, development and growth in this story is akin to moral decay, as is, once again, personified by the petals of blood. What had the potential for beauty is rotten at the core. But this is the point that wa Thiong’o is making, in my opinion. There is no model, at least as of today, of civil/modernization that does not include its accessories: corruption among officials and positions of authority, exploitation of the poor and working classes, and an ever-widening poverty gap.

Yeah, yeah, yeah, you might say. Tell me something new. Well, think of it like this (and it’s this connection that really drove this book into my consciousness): what is so different between Kenya and the U.S.? Kenya is in the process of modernization and we in many ways are modernization, but is not the majority of our wealth held by a few? Do not some of the people who supposedly have the responsibility for and the authority over us blatantly flout said responsibility? Do we not, as a people, continually attempt to bury our heads in the sand, to say “I am not responsible for other people’s actions and lives”, to blindly follow where we, as part of a democracy, should be leading? So here I am, back from Kenya to the present, and in the days before the election, this book has unexpectedly reminded me to keep my eyes open and forget about the differences between me and everyone else. The differences matter little, if at all. It’s in thinking of the similarities between us that we remember what is really important, and are thus able to envision, and work towards, a better future.

For more book reviews (err... book musings?), including a trip to Kenya itself, visit my blog For Love and Allegory at http://www.forloveandallegory.wordpress.com/ ( )
1 vote stixnstones004 | Jun 21, 2013 |
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They came for him that Sunday.
Ng’enda thi ndiagaga mutegi: that which is created by men can also be changed by men
"The trouble with slogans or any saying without a real foundation is that it can be used for anything. Phrases like Democracy, the Free World, for instance, are used to mean their opposite. It depends, of course, on who is saying where, when and to whom." -Karega
He now put the question to himself: what did the children really think of him? Then he dismissed it with another: what did it matter one way or the other? He had taught for so many years now—teaching ready-made stuff must be in his blood—and one did all right as long as one was careful not to be dragged into…into…an area of darkness…Yes…darkness unknown, unknowable…like the flowers with petals of blood and questions about God, law…things like that. He could not teach now: he dismissed the class a few minutes before time and went back to the house.
“…all ways for the poor go one way. One-way traffic: to more poverty and misery. Poverty is sin. But imagine. It is the poor who are held responsible for the sin that is poverty and so they are punished for it by being sent to hell.” –Abdulla
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0143039172, Paperback)

The puzzling murder of three African directors of a foreign-owned brewery sets the scene for this fervent, hard-hitting novel about disillusionment in independent Kenya. A deceptively simple tale, Petals of Blood is on the surface a suspenseful investigation of a spectacular triple murder in upcountry Kenya. Yet as the intertwined stories of the four suspects unfold, a devastating picture emerges of a modern third-world nation whose frustrated people feel their leaders have failed them time after time. First published in 1977, this novel was so explosive that its author was imprisoned without charges by the Kenyan government. His incarceration was so shocking that newspapers around the world called attention to the case, and protests were raised by human-rights groups, scholars, and writers, including James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, Donald Barthelme, Harold Pinter, and Margaret Drabble.

First time in Penguin Classics

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:16:31 -0400)

(see all 3 descriptions)

"The puzzling murder of three African directors of a foreign-owned brewery sets the scene for this novel about disillusionment in independent Kenya. It is--on the surface--a suspenseful investigation of a triple murder. But as the intertwined stories of the four suspects unfold, a devastating picture emerges of a modern third-world nation whose frustrated people feel their leaders have failed them time after time"--P. [4] of cover.… (more)

(summary from another edition)

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