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on 4 August 2010
Returning to a masterpiece to re-examine its brilliance is always a risky business. There is always the threat of disappointment, a gradual realisation that an earlier decade's evaluation might now reveal merely one's own naiveté, the contemporary - and no doubt illusory sophistication of falsely-assumed wisdom. Perhaps it might all be just appear a little mundane from new detachment.
So it was with some trepidation that I again began A Grain Of Wheat by Ngugi wa Thiong'o. I first read it in the 1970s when I lived in Kenya. In those days, the author still answered to `James' and the novel was on the Literature in English syllabus for the East African Certificate of Education. Our students came from a poor area, weren't the most academic and studied in their third language. I wonder daily at their commitment, hard work and achievement. A Grain Of Wheat is not an easy book. Over-simplification of a complex world was not amongst its author's intentions.
I read it again a couple of times a decade later. Then I found layers that as a relative youngster I had missed. This was no longer just a work of historical fiction offering illustration and interpretation of Kenya's struggle for independence. It was now also a committed political novel, never a polemic, however, since it was via the actions of its characters that the images and relationships were defined. And this time, nearly twenty more years on, I find the book's stature has grown again. Not only has it passed the test of time, its themes have, if anything, become even more pertinent. And this time, confirming the book's now unquestioned status as a masterpiece I find yet another strand of meaning laced into its construction. It is not merely a masterpiece. Indeed, it ought to required reading for British students, just in case there might be anyone left with any doubts about the reality of colonialism.
A Grain Of Wheat is a novel. It is set in Kikuyuni, ridges rising north from the Nairobi area towards Mount Kenya, Kirinyaga, Girinyaga. The setting is real. Its story is placed firmly within a particular place and time. We are in the last years of Kenya's struggle for independence, the goal of Uhuru. But Ngugi describes and illustrates this history via the lives and experiences of characters who inhabit a small town, Thabai. History tells us blankly the sum of their efforts, the eventual victory against the British, the lowering of the Union Jack in December 1963 and its replacement by Kenya's black red and green. But via fiction, Ngugi gives us far more than this. We feel history develop via the experience, the detail, the suffering, the commitment, the inadequacies and the treachery of people who lived through the time.
Thabai has a small town's usual share of freedom fighters, collaborators, colonial officers, whites of both sexes, beautiful girls, ambitious men. There are Christians, traditionalists, traitors, old codgers and plenty of others who claim to be human. Acts perpetrated by the colonial administrators and their lackeys are sometimes nothing less than raw sadism. They seem to be motivated by a keen, though unjustifiable sense of superiority, an apparent mission to Anglicise an unwilling world. Ngugi could have concentrated on these acts, vilified their perpetrators and thus created simple bad-boys to serve his plot. But A Grain Of Wheat is much more subtle than that. In many ways, these people are victims as well. Their only advantage is that, for a while, they have power on their side. And it is the struggle of motivated people that must wrest this advantage from them.
A Grain Of Wheat presents characters who suffer for what they do, struggle to achieve what they want to become. They want to remain faithful to their convictions, but in a time of strife motives are often provided by the most pressing influence, and often that does not have right on its side.
What comes across this time from reading A Grain Of Wheat is the book's intense Christian allegory. Joseph and Mary here are Gikonyo and Mumbi, perhaps an original coupling of legend. He is even a carpenter and Mumbi's child actually belongs to someone else, Karanja. He is a man tainted with the sins of a previous age and surely he has passed these on to his child, who is born with their originality. And as far as Gikonyo is concerned, Mumbi's child is a virgin birth.
The child, of course, is the new Kenya, born with all the injustices and sins of the past, but charged with its own independence, its potential to develop into its unknown future. The fact that it will be offered in sacrifice on the cross of capitalism is a reality lived in Ngugi's later work.
A Grain Of Wheat not only bears re-reading. It is a powerful enough vision to sustain re-interpretation, though of course only at the level of detail. The book's message was always clear, though always subtly drawn. It is a great, great achievement.