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Matigari (1987)
Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o
Heinemann African Writers Series, 175pp
Translated by Wangũi wa Gori

With the Nobel Prize for Literature being awarded on 7 October 2010, I searched online for a list of possible winners, and soon learnt that a significant number of bets had been placed on the Kenyan writer Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o. The last two winners – Herta Muller in 2009 and JMG Le Clezio in 2008 – were unknown to me before their win, and I decided I wanted to at least be familiar with any possible winner before their announcement. With Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o becoming front runner at the British bookies, I glanced to my bookshelf and saw one of his books waiting to be read: fate, or just coincidence? If we ignore the white South African’s who have been awarded the Nobel Prize for literature, the last true engagement with that continent by Nobel judges was in the 1980s, when Naguib Mahfouz (1988) and Wole Soyinka (1986) won. It is about time the prize went there again.

Matigari was published in 1987, though in his introduction, Ngũgĩ tells us it was written in a flat in Islington in 1983. That is saw the daylight is more kind of miracle: Ngũgĩ was once held without reason for a year in a Kenyan prison in the late 1970s after a performance of one of his plays with local peasants. He wrote a novel in prison, on toilet paper, which he smuggled out of the prison. Matigari, written during his residence in London, is very much engaged with Africa of the time: it is a world of corruption, where the rich live in luxury whilst the poor live in burned out cars, and scavenge for food in rubbish dumps (to which they must pay to gain access). Into this melee strides Matigari ma Njirũũngi, a man who once worked for Settler Williams and John Boy, building their home for them, believing that one day he would inhabit too. When he is rejected, he kills them both, after a hunt over the African landscape. He heads home, looking for his wife and children, and finds a country devastated by imperialist greed and ruled tyrannically by His Excellency Ole Excellence. Police beat and rape women, children go hungry, and the national radio proclaims only propaganda. Matagari stops a police beating, and seems invincible, and soon the poor are celebrating him as a hero – he is the Second Coming, he is old, he is young, he is man, he is woman. Matigari is a hero for these times.

Out of a simple premise: a man, walking the country looking for home, becomes a symbol for resistance, Ngũgĩ weaves a compelling, politically engaged tale – not afraid to use humour or satire to make his point, Matigari sings with Ngũgĩ’s delicious prose (wonderfully translated into English by Wangũi wa Gori. On the basis of this one novel, Ngũgĩ is the kind of writer beloved by the Nobel Prize committee, and I can easily see why his candidature has been raised: if he does not win the Nobel this year, he deserves to one year. The cover of the Heinemann edition of the novel calls him: “One of the giants of African Literature.” It is true. He has the power and engagement of a fellow African winner: Chinua Achebe. Matigari is a damning indictment of a political culture that is still prevalent in Africa, and his novel remains as important now as it would have when it appeared in 1987. It is the type of novel that should be read and learned from.

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