In his first volume of The Gulag Archipelago, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn writes, “If only it were so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”1
I don’t know whether the Kenyan writer Ngugi Wa Thiong’o ever ran across this quotation. But, if he did, I’m sure he would have found it to resonate with his own experience of life and the themes of his literary endeavors. His novel A Grain of Wheat explores the cost of British Colonialism and his nation’s struggle toward freedom – the human cost and the moral cost that runs like a ragged tear through the country’s heart.
The story is set in 1963, the week before independence, and traces events in the lives of several interrelated characters from the fictional village of Thabai. But the past flows like a red hot vein of molten lava under the narrative, frequently erupting in flashbacks, memories, and confessions as the villagers and colonial administrators seek to come to terms with the history which has brought them to this point.
Mugo lives alone, and the villagers see him as a kind of holy man and cultural champion. Early in the novel, the elders come to him and ask him to speak at the celebratory rally, which will take place on the eve of Uhuru. They even hint that they desire him to run for office and wish him to be their leader in the new era. He rejects their proposals, but this only enhances his reputation. “The man who had suffered so much had further revealed his greatness in modesty. By refusing to lead, Mugo had become a legendary hero.”2
Yet things are not always as they seem. As we explore the world through Mugo’s eyes, we learn that the British administrators savagely tortured him during the years of martial law. Rather than stoically accepting his suffering as his neighbors assume, we realize that he is filled with self-doubt and loathing. His solitary existence revolves around brooding fantasies and dark secrets. He resents the elders’ expectations, which throw into sharp relief his own inadequacies and moral failures.
The ebullient and passionate Gikonyo provides a sharp contrast to Mugo. The story of his love for his wife, the beautiful Mumbi, provides one of the novel’s little carefree delights. But it is not so simple. Gikonyo also found himself detained by the authorities during The State of Emergency. Torn between his desire to return to his wife and his patriotism, he quickly chooses the former, thinking that if he confesses and cooperates, he will be released promptly. But tragically, his compromise results in an additional six years of incarceration, and he returns to find that Mumbi has born a child to another man. Bitterly he resumes his life, providing for his family, but refusing ever to speak with them again.
His youthful rival Karanja made quite a different choice. Seeing the full force of British power during the Emergency, he takes on the role of a collaborator, becoming a Home Guard officer in his village, hefting his petty authority over his fellow citizens like a club. Now, as the empire he served begins to crumble and withdraw, Karanja realizes too late how he has alienated himself from his people and incurred their hatred.
Karanja’s tale is inextricably linked with that of John Thompson, the failed colonial administrator. Thompson came to Kenya fired with enthusiasm for the British mission to “civilize” the Gikuyu people. Instead, he proves how uncivilized the empire truly is by his savage treatment of prisoners at his detention camp. After his “zeal” results in a string of deaths, he is transferred to a botanical testing station and spends the novel falling deeper into regret and despair.
The novelist gracefully weaves these strands together, creating a complex and compelling tapestry of Kenya’s struggle for independence. In one sense, it is a story of the triumph of a people over the forces of racism and oppression. Even today, the extent of British colonial cruelty in Kenya is not widely known. Historian Caroline Elkins writes, “During the Mau Mau war, British forces wielded their authority with a savagery that betrayed a perverse colonial logic: only by detaining nearly the entire Kikuyu population of 1.5 million people and physically and psychologically atomizing its men, women, and children could colonial authority be restored. There was in late colonial Kenya a murderous campaign to eliminate the Kikuyu people, a campaign that left tens of thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands, dead.”3
But A Grain of Wheat is no simple tale of good and evil. As we pore over its pages, assumptions are overturned, horrors are recalled, secrets revealed, and crimes confessed. It teaches us that to fight injustice, we must often become unjust ourselves and that the price of liberty is sometimes moral ambiguity, harrowing choices, and the enduring pain of the past.
The Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe wrote, “One of the greatest things literature does is allow us to imagine; to identify with situations and people who live in completely different circumstances, in countries all over the world.”4 A Grain of Wheat fulfills this role admirably. Like a haunting adagio for strings, its characters and themes stay with us long after we have closed its covers and set it back on our shelves. And this is perhaps the best definition of a work of art.
- Solzhenitsyn, Aleksandr I. The Gulag Archipelago, Vol. 1, Thomas P. Whitney Trans. Harper Perennial Modern Classics, p. 168
- Thiong’o, Ngugi Wa, A Grain of Wheat, Penguin Books, p.171
- Elkins, Caroline, Imperial Reckoning: The Untold Story of Britain’s Gulag in Kenya, Henry Holt and Company, pp. 11-12
- Achebe, Chinua, A Message from Chinua Achebe, Introduction to the Penguin African Writers Series, A Grain of Wheat, p.i
A Grain of Wheat by Ngugi Wa Thiong’o: A Review: Copyright Jonathan Golding 2022: All Rights Reserved.
Artwork: A stamp depicting Kenyan tea harvesters. Public Domain.