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A well-named novel
on October 6, 2004
With every work of Ngugi's that I read, the more impressed I am. I first came across his "Petals of Blood" by chance in a used bookstore years ago, and ever since I've kept an eye open for other books of his. I admit that I've only read his novels, though; reading plays (as opposed to seeing them performed) for the most part doesn't move me nearly as much.
In "The River Between", Ngugi once again arrives at a viewpoint of tolerance while denouncing corruption in society; he manages to do so without demonizing the people on either side of any particular issue. He recognizes the strengths and weaknesses, the convictions and the doubts with which most human beings are imbued. He doesn't automatically blame all of his country's or his continent's problems on the "White Man", but rather he recognizes that the corruption and venality that continue to plague his society are things which are rooted in the universal human condition, not imports from Europe or the USA. He manages here to deal with a highly charged issue, as provocative and controversial now as it was at the time he wrote this book, namely "female circumcision" or "female genital mutilation", depending on your point of view. Almost uniquely, it seems, among Kenyan intellectuals he questions the absolute necessity of the practice to the maintenance of traditional social structure and values; but he does so while neither fervently condemning nor acclaiming it. As I've come to expect from Ngugi, he finds a road between extreme and fanatical stands - or a "river between", if you prefer; the protagonist attempts to make up his own mind rather than unquestioningly accepting received teaching about the absolute rightness or wrongness of either traditional practices or revolutionary knowledge. He recognizes that not all traditional practices are necessarily "better" or more "pure" than new ways of thinking, but that neither can they be eliminated by fiat without disastrous consequences for society, that education and time are necessary for peoples' thinking to evolve and for other values to be allowed to take the place of some of those that have been cherished since time immemorial. I confess that I was a little leery when I began reading this book; I feared that Ngugi would follow the line of so many other African writers in fervent support of female circumcision or FMG. That was the staunch rock of faith upon which I foundered when reading other books such as Jomo Kenyatta's "Facing Mount Kenya" and Camara Laye's "The African Child". I was suitably heartened to find that Ngugi once again finds his own mind, something I've come to see as the hallmark of his writing. But his protagonist doesn't arrive at the journey's destination by easy paths - I'm reminded of a line by the great singer-songwriter Silvio Rodriguez, that "la angustia es el precio de ser uno mismo" ("anguish is the price of being oneself").