Remembering the Nation
Allegory in the Literature of Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o
This thesis traces how national allegory is employed, developed, and altered in the early novels of Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o. Primarily guided by Fredric Jameson’s essay on national allegory and his assertion that the category is “profoundly discontinuous, a matter of breaks and heterogeneities, of the multiple polysemia of the dream rather than the homogenous representation of the symbol,” this study explores how A Grain of Wheat (1967) and Petals of Blood (1977) reconstruct the dislocated memory of the individual through the traumatic history of the collective, and how this reconnection of the private and public allows for a new imagining of the postcolonial nation.
The ambivalent motif of shared cultural memory and its many figurations throughout these novels are investigated extensively. In A Grain of Wheat, the motif of betrayal, experienced by nearly every character in the novel, signals an ironic, introspective turn on national unity and an examination of the unfulfilled promises of the Mau Mau’s decolonial struggle. Told through the characters’ individual flashbacks to one another, principally through the arch-traitor Mugo, the memory of betrayal is seen as simultaneously the hollowing of social bonds and the basis for collective regeneration, with the survivors of the Emergency recognizing and negotiating the pitfalls of national consciousness while dedicating themselves to redeeming those who sacrificed their lives for it. Benedict Anderson’s essay on memory and forgetting and Frantz Fanon’s critique of the national leader are vital components to this discussion of how the novel employs the motif of betrayal and memory in order to counter the mandate by Jomo Kenyatta to “forgive and forget” the Mau Mau’s struggle against Kenyan loyalists and colonial occupants.
Whereas A Grain of Wheat was primarily concerned with the immediate aftermath of independence on the national psyche, Petals of Blood directs our attention to the epic volume of history and the metamorphoses that the nation undergoes in its constant battle against imperialism and its desire for unity. The ambivalent motif of betrayal in A Grain of Wheat is mirrored by the motifs of ceremony, fire, and education in Petals of Blood, which are employed to construct a Janus-faced history of the nation exploited by the neocolonial government for its self-interest, and intervened upon by the workers and peasantry to cultivate a tradition of renewed resistance. Anderson’s essay on Walter Benjamin’s Angel of History is discussed in reference to how the postcolonial nation inherits the state from its predecessor, and Fanon and Ngũgĩ’s essays on national culture are considered for their dialectical frameworks of history and the cultivation of “combat literature.” In both these novels of his early career, Ngũgĩ sought to imagine how the nation could rejuvenate the energy and idealism of the Mau Mau uprising and empower the Kenyan workers and peasantry into a different, more equitable, socialist mode of the nation.
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