BOOK REVIEW: The Perfect Nine by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o

The Perfect Nine: The Epic of Gikuyu and MumbiThe Perfect Nine: The Epic of Gikuyu and Mumbi by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon.in page

Out: October 6, 2020

 

As Homer did for the Greeks, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o does for the Gĩkũyũ people, using epic poetry to convey morals by way of gripping stories that are rich in both action and symbolism. The story revolves around a slew of suitors who travel from near and far with interest in the gorgeous and talented daughters of Gĩkũyũ and Mũmbi – the daughters being the titular “perfect nine.” [Lest one take the allusion to Homer too far, the problem faced in this story is not how to be rid of the suitors, but how to find the best of them and have the daughters each have a husband she desires. Also, in the case of this myth, the answer to the question of how to deal with the suitors is not to murder them all — on the contrary, discouraging the use of violence as a problem-solving tool is among the major morals taught throughout this work.]

I’ve long been meaning to read works by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o. I have a policy of reading literature from each country I visit, and when one looks into literature from Kenya his name stands above all others. He’s not merely one of the major figures in Kenyan literature, but of African and global literature as well. However, before I got around to reading one of his novels, I was lucky to have the opportunity to read his latest work, which is due out in the fall of 2020.

The story takes the Nine and their prospective suitors on a journey of adventure that will test their mettle as they carry out a mission, traveling through perilous territory that Gĩkũyũ and Mũmbi once traversed, themselves. As in Greek and Norse Mythology, the enemies are often supernatural, as is necessary given how capable the Nine are shown to be. Most of the suitors – certainly the ones that live through the early adventures — are no slouches themselves.

The morals that are conveyed through the story are non-violence (whenever possible), opposition to misogyny and patriarchal norms, a variety of virtuous attitudes and actions, and a kind of tribal attitude. By tribal attitude, I don’t mean tribalistic in the sense that that they suggest attacking or even denigrating those of other tribes, but Gĩkũyũ and Mũmbi insist that all the suitors and daughters live nearby — with none allowed to return to the homeland of the suitors. However, as this plays out in the latter part of the story in a way that I’ll leave to the reader to discover, there is an opportunity for learning that modifies the strong tribal norm. [It also leads to the teaching of another important virtue which is to avoid the “you’re dead to me” attitude that one often sees in stories when two parties are at loggerheads.]

I was fascinated by this work. Because — in the manner of mythology — it has some preliminaries to get through at the start, it felt a little slow out of the gates. [Though it was much quicker to delve into the adventure than were the early chapters of “The Odyssey” in which Telemachus goes out looking for his father.] So, don’t worry, the story gets into a taught journey of heroes in no time.

I highly recommend this book for readers of fiction and mythology.

View all my reviews

BOOK REVIEW: Odyssey by Homer [A. Pope translation]

The OdysseyThe Odyssey by Homer

Translated by: Alexander Pope

Amazon page

 

This epic poem tells the tale of the action-packed return of the King of Ithaca, Odysseus (Ulysses in Latin,) from the Trojan War, as well as, of his resumption of the throne. The return home is harrowing because, early in the journey (though not in the story,) Odysseus blinds a cyclops that turns out to be the son of the sea god Poseidon (a.k.a. Neptune.) Because he incurs the wrath of Poseidon, the journey which – even in the rickety sailing / rowing ships of the day – would have taken a few weeks, took ten years, most of which he was the guest / hostage of the nymph Calypso. Retaking the throne was challenging because he was enshrouded in a disguise by Athena (a.k.a. Pallas) so he couldn’t just walk right up and say “remember this face, I’m the boss.” The disguise is donned so he can make sure his wife, Penelope, is being faithful (despite the fact that he’s been schtooping nymphs, witches, and probably a few human women that don’t bear mentioning) and since throngs of suitors have descended on Penelope’s castle who would rather see Odysseus dead (in hopes of acquiring his kingdom) it’s safer all around to check things out in disguise.

The poem doesn’t take a linear approach. It begins twenty years after the war at Troy. Everyone who survived is back, except Odysseus and his men, and so a plague of suitors vies for Penelope’s hand in marriage so that one of them can acquire Ithaca’s wealth. Penelope, the picture of matrimonial virtue, is not having it, but Greek hospitality says you’ve got to feed and look after visitors (because they might just be gods in disguise.) The first few books not only set up the problem of the suitors but also follow Odysseus’s son, Telemachus, as he travels around trying to find out from those who returned from Troy whether they know anything about Odysseus’s whereabouts.

The poem then skips to where Odysseus was at the time of Telemachus’s travels, which was stuck on Calypso’s island. The gods intervene to force Calypso to let the King go, but Poseidon is still upset and swamps Odysseus’s ship. Odysseus washes up onshore and makes fast friends with the local king and queen. It is through friendly discussion that we hear about all the trials and tribulations of Odysseus’s journey up to that point. He tells the couple about how he blinded a cyclops with clever word play and a flaming stick, how Poseidon first tempest-tossed him, how he ended up on the island of the nymph / witch – Circe, how Circe turned his men into swine, how he survived the Sirens by plugging the ears of his men and tying himself to the mast, how he survived the horrifying monsters Scylla and Charybdis, how he visited the underworld and met with some comrades from the Trojan War, how he got stuck on Calypso’s island, and then how he ended up on the island on which he tells the story. The king and queen are big fans, and send Odysseus off with best wishes and some parting gifts.

Odysseus makes it back to Ithaca, is summarily dropped off on the shore with said gifts – while he’s sleeping. That’s when he gets his disguise from Athena. He reveals himself to Telemachus, but otherwise keeps it all on the down-low, even keeping his return from Penelope. Telemachus also has to be careful because many of the suitors would love to assassinate him because he’s the only male opposition to their plans (if you haven’t noticed, Ancient Greece was misogynistic.)

Odysseus checks out the town in his beggar disguise and is enraged that the suitor’s have overstayed their welcome, are eating all the island’s livestock – not to mention trying daily to get in his wife’s knickers. It all comes to a climax when a festival banquet takes place, and Penelope (who is always looking for creative and / or polite ways to put off her suitors) says that she’s willing to marry any among them who has the strength and skill to string Odysseus’s bow and shoot an arrow through a dozen axe heads (battle-axes with a hollowed out blade so the weight is reduced.) They all fail. Some have arms too puny to string the bow; others lack the accuracy to shoot through the rings. That’s when disguised Odysseus says he’d like a try. The suitors object that he’s a beggar and couldn’t possibly run a kingdom. Telemachus, who knows what is up and who is – with his mother – hosting the event, agrees to let the disguised King take his shot. He succeeds, and then goes on a killing spree of the suitors.

After the bloodbath, he has to take great efforts to convince Penelope that he is actually her husband, the King. The god-given disguise is only part of what makes Penelope doubt. Odysseus has convinced everyone else by then. However, Penelope has had men trying to get in the sack with her for a decade, and to her mind it wouldn’t be above some skeezy god to play this gambit to try to bed her. She thinks the killing spree smells of god-like activity. [Even by Hollywood standards one guy killing 108 suitors (plus who knows how many of their groupies and hangers-on) strains credulity.] But eventually she is convinced.

Then Odysseus has to go see his father, Laertes, who is not long for this world. It’s during this visit that a second wave of attackers comes, and the “feeble old man” Laertes puts a javelin through the chest of the first of them. Then there’s a divine intervention that keeps the bloodbath from rolling on.

The most commonly stated moral of the story is: don’t run afoul of the gods. [Put more broadly / secularly, this could be restated as: behave morally.] Of course, Odysseus is not particularly moral, and he ultimately does alright despite being a liar, a trickster, a cheater, and a hypocrite (not to mention the murderousness.) So, there might be an additional clause, i.e. “behave virtuously, but – if you can’t – be on good terms with a few choice gods.” In truth, “use deception skillfully” may be more of the true moral of the story. Being tricky is a major part of what gets Odysseus through when all about him are dying. Modern critics sometimes take as a moral: “If women be nutty, then men are stark, raving lunatics.” This is consistent with what we see in the story (and, perhaps, in life,) but it would probably be attributing more progressiveness to the blind poet, Homer, than was the case.

I read the Alexander Pope translation, which is surprisingly readable given that it’s from the early eighteenth century (1720’s.) There were a few turns of phrase that I couldn’t find anywhere in dictionaries or search engine, but nothing that caused a major misunderstanding. It is a metered and rhymed translation, so it’s fun to read. Still if one isn’t comfortable with reading archaic English (for example if one doesn’t like reading Shakespeare,) one might not find it as enjoyable and easy to follow. That said, the edition I read had a short prose synopsis at the start of each book (i.e. chapter,) and reading that increases comprehension of the verse [if you don’t mind spoilers, which – if you’ve read this far, you presumably don’t.]

I’d highly recommend reading the Odyssey, and I was pleased with the Pope translation.

View all my reviews