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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o

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To purchase Matigari

Title: Matigari
Author: Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o
Genre: Novel
Written: 1986 (Eng. 1989)
Length: 148 pages
Original in: Gikuyu
Availability: Matigari - US
Matigari - UK
Matigari - Canada
Matigari - Deutschland
  • Translated by Wangũi wa Goro

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Our Assessment:

B : somewhat simplistic, but fairly effective

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
TLS . 16/6/1989 Richard Gibson

  From the Reviews:
  • "It is a superb work of agitprop, brief, sharp and clearly intended to shorten the days in power of the "KKK", the Ruling Party of a "country with no name". (...) Perhaps more than literary discussion, Matigari merits political examination, and its author should be questioned about the seriousness of his apparently enduring belief that Marxist-Leninist remedies might be more successful in Africa than they seem to have been in the Soviet Union, China, Poland and other places. He does not answer that question in Matigari, which is a political morality in the style of Brecht and Lu Hsun." - Richard Gibson, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The protagonist of Matigari is the eponymous Matigari ma Nijirũũngi -- meaning: "The patriots who survived the bullets", i.e. the liberation fighters who survived the war against the colonialists. The locale is unnamed, but clearly meant to be recently independent Kenya, with Matigari having battled the oppressors Settler Williams and John Boy (the latter a local sell-out). At the beginning of the novel Matigari returns home, burying his AK-47 and sword, and setting out to look for his family and home; a 'father of the nation'-figure -- they are all his children --, he is disappointed by what has become of his homeland, and how the masses have not yet been freed from the yoke of oppression (which now just comes in slightly different form). (Perhaps the ultimate fictional Everyman, gripping the popular imagination -- and illustrating the clueless delusions of the ruling class --, Ngũgĩ reports in 'A Note on the American Edition' that not only was the book banned in Kenya shortly after publication, but an arrest warrant was issued for the character of Matigari.)
       The ruling party is the conveniently called the KKK (Kĩama Kĩrĩa Kĩrathana -- Gikuyu for 'the ruling party', a footnote explains), and its emblem is a parrot -- and there's a lot of parroting (i.e. of that the party-line) going on, down to the local newspaper: the Daily Parrot. Dissent is impermissible and unacceptable, and the rulers always know best -- not for the country as a whole, or the masses, but rather for themselves. Matigari offers a different narrative, endlessly railing against those who reap-where-they-never-sowed -- first the white colonialists who live off the local labor and land without passing any of it on to those who do the actual work, and now the regime with its new breed of capitalist-imperialists that have merely replaced (some of) the old non-sowers.
       Matigari comes back to claim his home -- both literally and metaphorically, as he tries to claim Settler Williams' house, built, in part, by his labor, but in which Settler Williams' son now lives, but also tries to obtain a more fundamental justice for all the working class. When he is initially rebuffed, he goes in search of 'truth and justice'. Meanwhile, stories about him begin to spread, as his adventures are retold and recast. He is in many respects Christ-like, from his lessons in the form of "parables and proverbs" to his sharing food and drink with a group of would-be disciples. The air of mystery he affects, and some of the near-miraculous (or so at least they sound in their re-telling as they pass among the masses) happenings also help, as Matigari embraces his role to the fullest.
       Throughout the novel there are short radio news bulletins from official sources, revealing more of the government's nasty ways (and contorted explanations), and eventually it comes to a confrontation between Matigari (and a few others) and the Minister for Truth and Justice, a study in contrasts that is also revealing (not that much about the regime's repressive and delusional ways wasn't clear all along).
       All the while, Matigari continues his quest, single-mindedly and relatively indifferent to what happens around him (and the danger he puts himself in). Even as the myth around him grows he goes around largely unnoticed; he's put in both jail and then a mental institution but escapes from both and continues to go about his business. Christ-like, he eventually has to clear up that he's not the second coming, but there certainly is a lot of the 'Son of Man' to how he handles everything. And he remains a mystery-figure throughout, so that even at the end the question lingers:

Who or what really is Matigari ma Nijirũũngi ? Is he a person, or is it a spirit ?
       Obviously, Ngũgĩ means his book and protagonist to be inspirational. One reason for Matigari's elusiveness is that he is not meant to be a hero-figure people should wait for, but rather his spirit and attitude are what they themselves should embrace in taking up the anti-imperialist fight.
       The politics in Matigari is a bit simplistic, but then so were the politics of those in power in Kenya (and many other nations) at the time Ngũgĩ wrote his novel; amusing though his descriptions of the KKK regime are, there's not too much that is really caricature here: ridiculous self-delusion of this sort was not uncommon among the powers that were (and some that still be).
       There is not too much subtlety to Matigari, but it's an effective and well-paced quest and justice story. There's a lot thrown in here, but it works quite well for what it is meant to be. Ngũgĩ's more recent and far more carefully conceived and wrought critique, Wizard of the Crow, is the far more impressive novel, but there's something to be said for the frank and straightforward criticism of Matigari -- and here, too, Ngũgĩ's sense of humor helps keep the work from bogging down too much in all its rhetoric.

- M.A.Orthofer, 17 December 2010

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Reviews: Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o: Other books by Ngugi wa Thiong'o under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Kenyan author (James) Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o was born in 1938.

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