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

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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.

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POEM: The Philosopher [Day 16 NaPoMo: Narrative]

Said a man, standing on a crate,
“Thought and comfort are species that cannot mate.”

This philosopher continued:
“An idea unchallenged can’t claim merit. Sacred stories are paper tigers.

“Anything sanctified may lead to murder. For one person’s sacred object will bump into that of another, and it’s only by brute force that such conflicts are resolved. ”

The mayor was captivated by the philosopher’s words, and thought:
The youth are lumps, existing free…
-of challenge
-of thought
-of dignity
-of power

So the mayor invited the philosopher to his town.

The townsfolk were not pleased.

The philosopher’s first act was the erection of a sign that read,

Your god is the wrong God!

One resident said, “How can you make such a statement?”

“I’m not here to offer instruction about how language works, but — rather — about how  a thoughtfully lived life can be achieved.”

The first man kicked the philosopher in his left shin, and stormed off.

The second shouted, “But what gives you the right?”

“The right to what? To write a statement? To expose it to public scrutiny?”

“To make claims about which god is the true God.”

“I make no such claims.”

“But your sign says so.”

“Do you claim the sign is wrong, or that I have no right to make the comment — regardless whether it is true or false?”

“Well, mostly, the first one. The sign is not right,”

“Perhaps the sign IS untrue, and if proven so, I would certainly have to remove it. So tell me, is your counter-claim that your god is truly God?”

“It most certainly is,”

“Then tell me, how can I know that your claim is the correct one?”

“It is written in the scriptures.”

“So anything that is written in a religion’s scripture is true?”

“No. Not just any religion’s scriptures, just ours.” said, the man, thinking he’d anticipated the philosopher’s argument about how mutually exclusive statements can be true.

“And why just yours?”

“Because ours were written by the hand of God,”

“And how could a person such as myself be convinced of the truth of such a statement?”

“Because it is written…”

“So the scriptures of other religions don’t say they are the truth from God?”

“They may say it, but it’s not true.”

“So do you have more of an argument than that you believe something written centuries before your birth must be true and statements contrary to it must be false? If not, I must maintain that the statement on the sign has as much validity as your counterclaim. Both statements may or may not be true and with unassignable probabilities.”

And so the second man punched the philosopher in his right eye, and walked off in a huff.

A third man, a missionary, said, “That man was wrong,”

“I agree,” said the philosopher holding his palm over his eye, “violence is not a winning argument,”

“No,” said the third man, “not about punching you. He was wrong that what matters is the scriptures. I know my god is the God because I feel it’s true.”

“I had vertigo once. It felt like the room was spinning and like I would fall over, but neither was true. So, I can’t say that I put much faith in what I feel as arbiter of truth, but I definitely don’t have any feeling about the existence of your god — one way or the other. Are you saying he might be god to you — who feel this presence — and not to me, and to all those others, who don’t have such a feeling?”

“I’m not saying that…”

“Oh, good, because I was going to ask why you make so much effort to convert people to a subjective god?”

The third man kicked the philosopher in the right shin, shook his head, and walked off.

A fourth man approached and said, “Your sign is wrong because I have no god. I don’t believe in such hokum.”

The philosopher took out a marker and made some editorial changes. He wedged a large “V” in between the word “Your” and the word “god” and wrote “lack of” above it. He then crossed out the words “the” and “God.” The edited sign read:

Your lack of god is wrong!

“Surely, you aren’t going to attempt a proof for the existence of god after what you told your previous conversant?”

“I am not. You watched the previous discussions and should realize that I claim no more than that my statement holds as much validity as yours. Unless, that is, you are more successful at proving the non-existence of a god than the previous individuals did at proving its existence.”

“I cite Occam’s razor,” the fourth man said smugly, adding, “are you familiar with it?”

The philosopher said, “Indeed I am. But I wonder, why is it not called ‘Occam’s Law?’ Is it always the case that the simplest explanation is invariably true? Could we not find in the natural world instances in which the explanation for an observed phenomena was more complicated than an explanation we could theoretically imagine?”

“Not invariably, but a good rule…”

“So you base an absolute conclusion on a ‘good rule of thumb?’ Isn’t there potential for…”

The fourth man socked the philosopher in his left eye.

The philosopher, blinded with two swollen eyes and with a knob under each knee, sat by his sign, awaiting more takers.

The mayor came by and said, “I’m afraid this hasn’t worked out as I’d hoped. I’ve gotten so many complaints. Perhaps, it would be best if you move along.”

So, the philosopher grabbed his meager possessions, and limped one painful step at a time out of town.

***

Two weeks later, a colonizing army invaded.

The officers told the residents that they must convert.

The townsfolk all said that they would never convert.

The generalissimo said, “Convert or die. Those are your options.”

“That’s unfair,” said one man.

“What gives you the right?” said a woman.

The generalissimo then said, “OK. OK. If any of you can give me a sound reason why your religion cannot be supplanted by our own, I will reconsider…”

BOOK REVIEW: Kulager by Ilias Jansugurov [Trans. Belinda Cooke]


Kulager by Ilias Jansugurov
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

 

This narrative poem was written by Ilias Jansugurov about the life of another poet, a man named Akan who lived from 1843 to 1913. More accurately, it’s about Akan’s horse, the eponymously named “Kulager.” The story revolves around a horse race that is takes place in Kazakhstan. An important, if unloved, man passed away, and as part of the wake there is a massive get together of people from far and wide, and it features a horse race.

Kulager is a crowd favorite, and in the cut-throat Kazakh steppe, that love seals the animal’s fate. The opening chapters acquaint us with setting, with Akan, and with Kulager, and then proceed into the story of the Akan’s arrival, the pre-race braggadocio that confronts him, and the race, itself. There is another favored horse who isn’t so beloved as Kulager but who has an owner willing to do anything to secure a victory. The tragedy that ensues is one in a long line that have confronted Akan.

It’s worth mentioning the tragedy of the author’s own life. Jansugurov was killed in 1938 in Stalin’s purges. He was considered too outspoken, and his criticisms were not so well veiled to keep him from drawing the ire of the state.

The book includes monochrome artwork and a glossary that comes in handy for those who aren’t acquainted with the Kazakh language. There are two forwards and a translator’s post-script, but it’s not the case (as is sometimes the case for poetry and thin volumes, more generally) that the ancillary matter exists to pad the book out to a publishable length. The ancillary matter is of reasonable length, contains useful information, and the bulk of the page count consists of the poem.

I found this book interesting and readable and would recommend it for those interested in life on the steppe. I picked “Kulager” up because I try to read indigenous literature from each country I visit, and this was the only Kazakh literature I could find translated to English. That said, it seems to be the first work to be put out by Kazakhstan’s National Bureau of Translations, and so – hopefully – there will be more to follow.

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BOOK REVIEW: Prussian Nights by Alexander Solzhenitsyn

Prussian Nights: A PoemPrussian Nights: A Poem by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon page

 

This long-form narrative poem tells a tale of inhumanity in the Soviet advance toward Germany during the Second World War. The narrator is a run-of-the-mill soldier who witnesses rape and murder by his comrades. Solzhenitsyn was a young officer in the military during the war, and it’s probable that the story of the poem draws from his real-world experience during the war. It’s said that he composed and memorized the poem while he was in the Gulag.

While the poem’s story focuses on violence and inhumanity perpetrated by some soldiers, it isn’t particularly graphic in its description. Rather, the author sets up scenes and leaves it to the reader’s imagination to fill in the blanks. It’s also true that in some cases the narrator is witnessing the aftermath of violence and not the act itself. It’s not a pretty story, but readers needn’t be concerned it will be gratuitously graphic.

While the translator chose to stick to rhyming verse, the poem is quite readable. The story is told in a straightforward fashion. Many will find this appealing because the readability is high. However, others may find the lack of metaphor and poetic approaches to language to make for unappealing poetry. There’s not a lot of symbolism and the meanings seem quite literal. That said, the imagery is often vivid and evocative, and the metered verse reads smoothly and lyrically.

The book has a feature that I like, which is the original [Russian] is on the left-hand page with the English translation, produced by Robert Conquest, on the right. The translation didn’t come in greatly useful for me. I had two years of Russian back in college, but that was a long time ago and I read Cyrillic with the unconfident stammer of a first grader. Still, it’s interesting to get a taste of the original.

I’d recommend this book, regardless of whether one is a poetry reader. The story can be read as just that, a story, and it offers insight into the ugly inhumanity too often set free in the act of warring.

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BOOK REVIEW: When I Walk Through that Door, I Am by Jimmy Santiago Baca

When I Walk Through That Door, I Am: An Immigrant Mother's QuestWhen I Walk Through That Door, I Am: An Immigrant Mother’s Quest by Jimmy Santiago Baca
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Amazon page

This is a narrative poem telling the story of an El Salvadoran woman who is separated from her child after illegally immigrating to the United States. It’s quite a timely topic, but as a work of literature and a “call to arms” it could have done much better.

This poetic novella is gripping to read, but is over-the-top in spots, and that does it a disservice in two ways. First of all, it takes the reader out of the story as they may become lost in the disbelief. Secondly, it takes a work that could have been a persuasive call for change, and turns it into an angry rant. To give a prime example, at one point early in the piece, the lead character has been (gang-)raped four or five times over the course of two pages, by varied factions including US law enforcement officers. Even if one were to accept the author’s presumed premise that American federal law enforcement agents are morally equivalent to the gangs of the drug cartels (a premise not likely to be accepted by the meaty-middle of society), one is left to ignore the fact that female prisoners, once in custody, aren’t left unsupervised with male guards. I know the reader may say, but this is a technical detail in a fictitious narrative poem. However, given the way the piece is presented (discussed more below), it reads like it’s telling us a story that is meant to move us through the proposition that this is the world in which we live. But once one reads one falsity, one is left wondering whether any part of the story is reflective of reality.

The idea that this woman is exploited by every male she comes into contact with, whether they are gang members or Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents, has poetic merit. It’s pointing out that without legal status, she is in a perpetually vulnerable state. Yet, it seems lazy and sensationalist to make all such exploitation rape. When one morally equates gangs with agents of a democratic government, one isn’t just saying that the individuals are equivalent, you are casting aspersions against the entire system of rule of law. (Because, of course, protections should be in place, and — failing them — the means to lodge complaints. And I think most would argue that both are the case.) The bigger problem, one found throughout the political spectrum in the US, is that individuals vilify each other, pretending they are being persuasive, when in reality they are just more deeply etching an “us-them” divide. By this I mean to say, one can’t tell people how vile, despicable, and evil they are, and then expect them to see your perspective.

The narrative poem is delivered in a combination of free verse and poetic prose all of which verges largely on just plain prose. That is to say, the emphasis is on telling a story and not so much on the usual core components of poetry, i.e. sound, imagery, and metaphor. (Unless some of these fictitious elements, e.g. the astounding number of rapes, are meant to be metaphorical. Then my concern would be that one risks diminishing a horrible thing, if one throws around that word as metaphor.)

This is a quick read, and, as I mentioned, it’s presented in a gripping fashion – if hyperbolically so. I suspect that it will be mostly read by a demographic determined along political lines, which is a shame. It could have been so much more.

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