Looking crony capitalism in the eye

Reading this novel by one of the greatest living African writers is to realise nothing much has changed in the four decades since its publication.
Last Updated 30 July 2022, 20:15 IST

There was a report recently in The Guardian about the staggering profits that oil companies have been making in the last 50 years, amounting to around USD 3 billion a day. That these companies make huge profits has not exactly been a well-hidden secret. Towards the end of Ngugi Wa Thiong’o’s sprawling 1977 novel Petals of Blood, one of the main characters, Abdulla, is walking towards a fateful meeting, “an encounter with his chosen destiny”, when he overhears the news from a neighbour’s hovel: “This was followed by an item on a meeting of the Oil and Petroleum Exporting Countries to increase prices of crude oil. Yet another small item on the increased profits made by oil companies. This world!”

This world indeed. Reading Petals of Blood is to realise nothing much has changed in the four decades since its publication. Almost every other page triggers a sense of déjà vu. On the one hand, you admire Ngugi’s ability to capture such perennial themes and concerns that even all these years later they remain startlingly relevant; on the other though, like Abdulla, you shake your head and say ‘this world’!

Ngugiīwas born in Limuru, Kenya, in 1938 and has established a reputation of being one of the greatest living African writers and thinkers. Petals of Blood, which is an excoriating look at the crony capitalism and oligarchies that took the place of colonial administrations in newly independent countries like Kenya, was considered to be so incendiary that Ngugiīwas taken into custody upon its publication. That same year a play he’d co-written, which examined the injustices of Kenyan society and was an unsparing critique of the prevailing conditions in the country, was also performed. Both these works led to his detention for a year without trial. Eventually, he went into exile and continued to write and teach at universities across the world. Petals of Blood begins with the police questioning four individuals: Munira, Karega, Wanga and Abdulla. They are accused of murdering three directors of a foreign-owned brewery. All four belong to Ilmorog, a village that has over a decade, transformed into an urban settlement. What was once the villagers’ wealth and possessions — land, animals, pasture, even a drink they brewed — has now become the property of banks and corporate interests.

There’s nothing subtle in Petals of Blood — some critics have called it less a novel and more a political screed. There’s no rule that political fiction shouldn’t wear its heart on its sleeve and Petals of Blood, which is filled with intricate threading of different stories and first-person narratives, is not a simplistic anti-capitalism manifesto. It is, at its heart, a very human novel about the failures of man to rise above and think of the whole instead of the individual.

The expropriation of indigenous knowledge and wealth, the exploitation under modern financial systems and economic policies, the tragedy of a nation that had just overthrown its imperialist masters and fallen into the trap of another more pernicious colonialism, the preying on the weakest and most vulnerable in society — all these and more are the overarching themes that Ngugiīmasterfully conveys through the fates of the four main characters. While the enduring ramifications of corruption and capitalism in post-colonial societies are his subject, Ngugiīdoesn’t sacrifice his prodigious storytelling skills and talent for the sole objective of advancing a political thesis. Petals of Blood may have been written in the last century but its power to grip and shake the reader out of complacency will not likely fade anytime soon.

The author is a writer and communications professional. When she’s not reading, writing, or watching cat videos, she can be found on Instagram @saudha_k where she posts about reading, writing, and cats.

That One Book is a fortnightly column that does exactly what it says — takes up one great classic and tells you why it is (still) great. Come, raid the bookshelves with us.

(Published 30 July 2022, 19:34 IST)

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