Analysis of Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s Matigari

Published in the African Writers Series by Heinemann, Matigari is a deeply felt call to workers, peasants, and students to rise up against what the Kenyan-born author Ngugi wa Thiong’o (1938– ) refers to as “imperialism.” In keeping with the themes and attitudes of his first two decades of writing, the book was published in his native language, Gikuyu. Its pairing of Western Marxist thought with an allegorical story based on a Gikuyu folktale makes Matigari a quintessential postcolonial novel.

This is the story of Matigari, a Christ-like figure who first renounces violence after slaying his colonial masters, and who, in the pursuit of truth and justice for the people, later rearms himself against a corrupt native polity. After the publication of the novel, the figure of Matigari took on the quality of legend among peasants in Kenya. The police sought to arrest this man, but upon discovering that he was a character in a book, they seized all copies of the novel instead. In “A note on the English edition,” Ngugi laments that “with the publication of this English edition, [Matigari, the figure and the book] have joined their author in exile.”

Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o

Any discussion of Matigari must necessarily consider the novel’s form as well as plot. The story is prefaced by the five-verse song “To the Reader/Listener.” This address, which points out that the story is to be heard and read, alerts the reader that the shape of the novel is influenced by the traditions of oral storytelling. For instance, the story is divided into three parts, each of which is similarly structured. All the sections begin with a determination on Matigari’s part to lay down arms in the first, to seek truth and justice in the second, and to rearm in the third. They then feature a public display of Matigari’s benevolence, strength, and desire for a fair and just home. Finally, they conclude with a conflict between him and the police, but each time a question is left fl oating among the public: “Who was Matigari?” This type of repetition, restatement of themes, and recurring formal structure encourages ease of remembrance and retelling and is crucial to what Ngugi terms African “orature.”

Beyond emphasizing the oral qualities of this story, the prefatory song points out that the story is imaginary, that it has no fixed time or place, and that it does not operate within a conventional time frame. In effect, the song sets up the novel as entirely allegorical, as being representative of any country recently decolonized and then recolonized by corrupt leaders and Western capitalist greed. The allegorical and parodic nature of the story is made evident in the playful names of the characters. Matigari’s two companions also perform some allegorical work. Guthera is a Mary Magdalene figure, a prostitute whom he saves from being attacked by police dogs in an episode reminiscent of Christ’s intervention at the stoning of the adulterous woman. Muriuki is a poor young boy who at the end of the story digs up Matigari’s weapons and takes on the call to revolution. Finally, the black Mercedes Benz bears significant allegorical weight throughout the story. It is an obvious symbol of Western capitalist presence, but it is also employed in ways that are subversive to capitalism’s authority. After all, Muriuki calls a broken-down Mercedes home. The car provides the place for a tryst between the wife of the minister for truth and justice and her driver. The black Mercedes serves as a getaway vehicle for the three companions. And finally, the car is an incendiary device that sets Settler Williams’s house on fire.

Readers of this novel will also encounter the overwhelming presence of rumors, hearsay, reports, and gossip. Radio broadcasts, or the Voice of Truth, are heard many times over the course of the story. These italicized interruptions in the narrative report on local, national, and international events, and are complicit with the hegemonic interests of the corrupt leader, His Excellency Ole Excellence. Though the Voice of Truth issues what are supposed to be definitive statements, there are nonetheless countless incidences of gossip and speculation between citizens about Matigari, and these undermine the authority of the Voice of Truth. While the Voice of Truth on the radio emphasizes his status as a dangerous criminal, and the popular rumors about him suggest that he is the Second Coming of Christ, both exaggerate his status and emphasize the potential power of oral discourse.

By the end of the story, Matigari comes to the conclusion that “one had to have the right words; but these words had to be strengthened by the force of arms.” The story is a revolutionary call to action for workers, peasants, students, and patriots who seek to oppose the dishonest and unjust forces of capitalist greed. In Matigari, these insidious forces find shape in the institutions of government, religion, and industry. Crucially, the power of words, language, and speech are primary to the task of resistance, a fact emphasized both formally and thematically throughout the novel. It is language, voiced words, that mobilizes a local population toward the goal of seizing power out of the hands of the few, while its role as universal allegory encourages a larger audience to align their own struggle with that of the most vulnerable members of their global community.

Postcolonial Novels and Novelists

Analysis of Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s Novels

Jussawalla, Feroza, and Reed Way Dasenbrock, eds. Interviews with Writers of the Post-Colonial World. Jackson and London: University of Mississippi Press, 1992.
Makoni, Sinfree. Black Linguistics: Language, Society and Politics in Africa and the Americas. London and New York: Routledge, 2003.
Ngugi wa Thiong. Matigari. Translated by Waugui wa Goro. Oxford: Heinemann, 1989.
———. Moving the Centre: The Struggle for Cultural Freedom. London: J. Currey, 1993.
———. Writers in Politics: A Re-engagement with the Issues of Literature and Society. Oxford: Heinemann, 1997.
Sander, Reinhard, and Bernth Lindfors. Ngugi wa Thiong Speaks: Interviews with the Kenyan Writer. Trenton, N.J.: Africa World Press, 2006.

Categories: Literature, Novel Analysis

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