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The Perfect Nine: Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o’s Gĩkũyũ modern epic.

I have been reading Ngũgĩ’s work for quite some time now. Besides the fact that he is one of the most popular writers to come out of Africa, I find his style of writing refreshing and relevant. My favourite books from his wide range of work are ‘Petals of Blood,’ ‘Matigari‘ and ‘Decolonizing the Mind‘ (a book that I often and aptly cross-referenced during my Advanced Level, Literature in English studies). ‘The Perfect Nine,’ is a book that has been on my TBR (to be read) list for three months. As soon as it was published last year in October, I wanted to read it because it feels like a privilege that even after so many years we are fed new stories. Different from his all other works, it is a relatively short book but do not be mistaken it is filled with the same Ngũgĩ punch!


Author’s Profile

Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o is a Kenyan writer who has published poems, short stories, children’s stories, plays, memoirs and essays. His third book , A Grain of Wheat(1967), was a turning point in the formal and ideological direction of his works. Multi-narrative lines and multi-viewpoints unfolding at different times and spaces replaced the linear temporal unfolding of the plot from a single viewpoint. The Perfect Nine is his eighth novel and is listed as his thirty fourth literary work.


My Thoughts

The Perfect Nine is an epic poem about Gĩkũyũ, Mũmbi, their daughters and the ninety nine suitors. Gĩkũyũ and Mũmbi are traditionally believed to be the first man and woman. The daughters are referred to in this book as the Perfect Nine (Wanjirũ, Wambũi, Njeri, Wanjikũ, Mwithaga, Wairimũ, Waithĩra, Wangarĩ, Wangũi and Warigia). They are the matriarchs of the House of Mũmbi, founders of their nine clans, progenitors of a nation. Written in free verse, the tale is divided into twenty four chapters (including the prologue and the epilogue). Ngũgĩ first wrote this epic fiction in Gĩkũyũ bearing the title ‘Kenda Muiyuru‘ in 2018 and then two years later this English translation work was published. I thought the poem would be heavy and daunting (because of what they say about epic poems) but this was a light and quick read. There are some valuable lessons in the poem about persistence, love, communion, facing the hurdles and vices of life, sisterhood and unity. I would like to believe that the ogres mentioned along the journey to the top of Mount Kenya are the vices that we face as people during our journeys in life or towards achieving certain goals. These vices include greed/corruption, jealousy, injustice, doubt and selfishness. Ngũgĩ manages to show how these obstacles can be overcome and even after overcoming them, how life is unpredictable and may not always work out as planned( Warigia’s story).

I know that this book has been celebrated as a feminist work and I just found it puzzling at first how despite the perfect nine’s good character traits mentioned in chapter 3, each description ended with how their beauty made men fall to their feet. It was also an interesting twitch that all the suitors came from different parts following whichever river they came across in search of this beauty; the White Nile, the Blue Nile, Niger, Senegal, the Congo, Bangui, Kasai, Orange, Limpopo and Zambesi. Perhaps, the attraction to beauty is the sole reason why they all had to go on a long journey where their characters were to be tested and had more meaning than beauty or words. For it is these good character traits that aid in fighting the ogres. There are some gender stereotypes that are scattered throughout the poem and that left a sour taste in my mouth. I always expect those questionable manners/things to be probed but literature also acts as a mirror, showing us/reminding us of those things that we ought to change as society.

I cannot help but view Gĩkũyũ and Mũmbi’s decision to test the nine and the ninety nine suitors through this journey (which they are said to have also taken when they were young) as a purposeful plan that was meant to bring out their daughters’ and the prospective suitors’ true colours. Adversity does amazing things even to those who claim that their love can stand anything. Their daughters were to choose, but the parents had to equip them. Experience also gives birth to wisdom. It is predictable that at the end of the journey only nine couples will return because of the reinforcement of the number nine in the poem.

Here are some quotes from the book:

1. ‘My daughters will not choose blindly. Time and deeds alone make people know one another.’ page 68

2. ‘The journey of life is not a shortcut to knowledge; it is a long learning process. One cannot hurry, it and one does not travel on it alone.’ page 89

3. ‘What can I tell that you don’t already know? Human-to human cruelty is worse than that of beast to human.’ page 99

4. ‘We didn’t get far without Mwengeca flinging other challenges, but that for every challenge we found an answer. As you always taught us, to every closure, there’s a disclosure.’ page 139

5. ‘Life has and has not a beginning. Life has and has not an end. The beginning is the end and the end is the beginning.’ page 189

The allegory, mythology, folklore and magical realism made it an enjoyable read. It is always interesting to see how different writers play with the various tools at their disposal. I say this because in two months I have been exposed to mythology and folklore from Uganda, Nigeria and Kenya. Which is something I deeply appreciate and I am becoming drawn to books that feature this style of writing. Sometimes it is through books that we see how similar we are even where there are differences that seek to set us worlds apart.


Book Details

Title: The Perfect Nine: The Epic of Gĩkũyũ and Mũmbi

Author: Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o

Genre: Epic Fiction

Pages: 240

Publisher: Harvill Secker (2020)

Where to buy:

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