Monday, April 23, 2007

Book Review: Matigari

by Ngugi Wa Thiong'o

Book review by Danny Yee

The struggle for independence over, a resistance fighter comes out of the bush, buries his AK47, and girds himself with a belt of peace. But he finds life in the newly independent state is far from his dreams, with business continuing very much as it did before. Using the name Matigari ma Nijiruungi, "the patriots who survived the bullets", he joins up with a worker, a prostitute, and an orphan. When he confronts the sons of those he had fought, demanding the house he built, he is locked up. He and the others in his cell tell one another their stories before miraculously escaping.

As rumors about him spread, Matigari goes in search of truth and justice. He asks in shopping centers, law courts, eating places, and farmlands. He asks old women and students and teachers and priests. And finally at a public meeting he asks the Minister for Truth and Justice and his parrots, only to be locked up in a mental hospital.

Here Matigari takes off his belt of peace and tramples it, remembering that "Justice for the oppressed comes from a sharpened spear". Escaping, he is tracked down with dogs but disappears, becoming a myth and leaving his weapons and his words to those among the next generation who will take up the struggle.

Matigari was written in Gikuyu and modeled on a traditional Kikuyu tale, but it could be set almost anywhere in Africa. It mixes oral tradition, Marxism and Christianity, concrete detail and symbolism, and humor, poetry and politics, in a simple but powerful story.

Sara's comments:

I'm sorry I didn't have time to write this review myself. It is a most powerful book, a must read, for anyone interested in social change. It really brings up the dilemma/debate of whether or not force and violence are necessary to revolution. I can see why this book was banned in Kenya. It directly encourages people to take up arms (and perhaps, rightly so?) The book makes a strong claim for armed resistance, stating that "the differences between the robber and the robbed can only be settled in struggle."

Matigari continually questions why the builder must sleep in the open air, why the tiller starves and the tailor goes without clothes. Though attempting his search for Truth and Justice through peaceful means, he ultimately abandons
his belt of peace, determining that "the enemy can never be driven out by words alone, no matter how sound the argument. Nor can the enemy be driven out by force alone. But words of truth and justice, fully backed by armed power, will certainly drive the enemy out."

It's no surprise that the author has lived most of his life in exile.

From the preface to the English edition:

The novel was published in the Gikuyu-language original in Kenya in October 1986. By January 1987, intelligence reports had it that peasants in Central Kenya were whispering and talking about a man called Matigari who was roaming the whole country making demands about truth and justice. There were orders for his immediate arrest, but the police discovered that Matigari was only a fictional character in a book of the same name. In February 1987, the police raided all bookshops and seized every copy of the novel.

See here for author's website.

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