Academic journal article ARIEL

Allegory and the Retrieval of History: Ngugi Wa Thiong'o's the River between and Matigari

Academic journal article ARIEL

Allegory and the Retrieval of History: Ngugi Wa Thiong'o's the River between and Matigari

Article excerpt

There is a need for analysis of postcolonial writing which, instead of assuming dissent as a given, locates its forms and conditions of possibility within contexts that both determine and set limits on its expression. If dissent is defined by the effects of the power against which it reacts, it follows that different contexts will call for varied expressions of dissent. In terms of literary production the effects of dissent are often seen as shifts in form and genre. Through acts of dissemination and interpellation, the state, as well as the relative hegemonic strength of colonial and postcolonial discourse, have significant ramifications on the formation of the context of dissent. I would argue, then, that an analysis of dissent which takes these factors into consideration should "study what was able to emerge within, and against, what seems at first glance to be a dominant field of social perception" (Polan qtd. in Lipseitz 31).

It should come as no surprise that class plays a major part in the conditions out of which literature is produced, but the tenets set out in the above statements work against dismissals of texts which do not express dissent in terms of class. Class formations, in postcolonial times, are often too overdetermined to provide coherent forms of dissent. This can be fleshed out by a discussion of Ngugi Wa Thiong'o's novels The River Between and Matigari. The latter, published in 1987, features the same concerns as the former, published in 1965, two years after Kenya became independent The two texts, however, are stylistically very different. I will argue that decades of class betrayal, and the breaking of Gikuyu codes of seeing have made it necessary for Ngugi situate his novel, Matigari, beyond the categories of (social) realism. Central to my argument here is the notion that in both novels allegory stands in as a positive act of compensation where other forms of dissent are unavailable for various historical reasons.

Ngugi's early ambivalence towards Mau-Mau (1) is compounded by the ambiguities of writing a realist novel with a single, central protagonist. These problematics are compensated for by the allegorical descriptions of land and natural elements. In the later novel Matigari, Ngugi is much more certain of his relationship with Mau-Mau, but the context of his writing has changed to involve a repressive regime whose rhetorical codes involve those of realism, and whose official discourses have denied Mau-Mau. Here allegory acts as a transgressive form that retrieves history and works against the codes of these official discourses.

Both novels feature a messianic character who is initially rejected by the community and is then later seen trying to foster unity amongst 'the people.' Both begin with descriptions of the natural surroundings of a village or city before the main narrative is situated within them, and both texts end outside the village or city. The similarities continue: early on, the main character breaks up a fight between two people, one of whom is obviously stronger than the other. Finally, the end of each novel can only symbolically point toward the future after the main, messianic character has been forced off the scene.

The River Between, the earlier of the two novels I discuss, narrates the story of Waiyaki, a man who believes he is destined to save his society after his father, Chege, a respected elder, tells him of a prophecy that a son will come from the hills "to save the people" (20). This sense of destiny is extremely personalized, a detail that sparks contradictions within the novel, and lays emphasis on the fact that dissent cannot be fully articulated. Instead, it must be embedded within allegorical forms. Waiyaki habitually desires to appeal to the people through notions of comradeship and brotherhood, but he continually deals with matters of decision by relying on his own, personal strength, a move that alienates the community. …

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