The Perfect Nine

Ngugi wa Thiong’o was, without doubt, the biggest name on the International Booker long list. Frequently mentioned as a Nobel Prize contender, he published his first novel in 1964. It was with Devil on the Cross in 1980 that Ngugi decided to no longer write in English but in his native language, Gikuyu:

“Language is … inseparable from ourselves as a community of human beings with a specific form and character, a specific history, a specific relationship to the world.”

The Perfect Nine is, in many ways, the summation of this belief as it retells the origin myth of the Gikuyu. As Ngugi explains in short introduction, in this story the Gikuyu descend from a man, Gikuyu, and a woman, Mumbi, who have “nine daughters, but they were actually ten, hence the Perfect Nine.” In the legend they are provided with ten handsome, young men when the time comes to marry. Ngugi’s version of the story originates in the question: “Where did the Ten Suitors come from?” From this point he develops a quest story which also encapsulates the values he sees as important, in particular equality and community.

The novel (once again when it comes to this year’s long list, we must use the term loosely) is written in a verse form suited to its epic nature. Here, for example, is Gikuyu and Mumbi’s arrival at the summit of Mount Kenya:

“…they found themselves at the top,

Where now they stood, awed by

The summit, as white and massive as the moon,

Its coldness pushing them back as if

Commanding them to stop.”

Repetition, as we would expect, is commonplace – the “moon-white top” of another mountain is mentioned on the same page – and the characters talk in a formal style throughout. The second chapter is entirely given over to praise of the “Giver Supreme”, and the narrator frequently makes themselves known:

“I implore thee for the power to faithfully tell this tale of Gikuyu and Mumbi…”

However, when the quest begins it is told from the point of view of the daughters, and one chapter is written in the voice of an ogre. The quest is to find the ‘cure-all’, a hair which grows on the middle of an invisible ogre’s tongue, in order to cure the lameness of the tenth daughter, Warigia. The quest is designed to reduce the number of suitors from the original ninety-nine. (Some have already left after Gikuyu’s insistence that none of his daughters can leave with their husband once married). We see Ngugi’s intention to instil the values he wishes to promote into the legend when one suitor initially suggests that they simply fight to marry the daughters until only nine are left, to which Gikuyu responds:

“To build calls for hard work,

From the one who looks for tomorrow.

To destroy is easy work,

For one who wants to return to yesterday,

Like a grown person wishing to remain a child.

War destroys lives,

Peace restores lives.

The warrior and the warrior bring home trophies of tears.

The peacemaker and peacemaker bring home trophies of laughter.”

Such words, one feels, should be carved on the walls of every parliament in the world. Ngugi also promotes more progressive values when it comes to equality of the sexes. For example, when there is a contest to shoot an arrow in the eye of a tree from further and further away, Warigia is the best shot. When the suitors go on their quest, the daughters go with them. Less unexpectedly, the epic also enshrines environmental values:

“The forest around is our source of whatever we eat and drink.

The rivers give us water. Clothes we make from the barks of trees and hides of animals.

All citizens of nature – plants, animals and birds – are our friends.”

In this way, rather than an exercise in looking back, The Perfect Nine is also a life-affirming hymn to the future.

Any worry that the work is too abstract for modern sensibilities is off-set by the inclusion of Wagiria, who not only provides an aim for the quest, but is the only daughter with a single suitor – first seen when he cannot decide which of the nine huts (each named for one daughter) to sleep in. He later removes Wagiria’s arrows from the tree to return to her, and is even granted a name, Kihara meaning ‘scarred’, when he is attacked by a lion on the quest. This individual story provides an anchor for any reader who finds the tale too widescreen.

It is difficult to judge The Perfect Nine in a prize list because its aims, in many ways, are different from a typical novel – though this is a prize list where typical novels are largely absent – and this, I suspect, explains its absence from the shortlist. What can be said with certainty, however, is that it tells a gripping story which at the same time encapsulates a hopeful view of humanity. It might also be said to most obviously represent the aims of the prize as it is difficult to imagine it would be quite the same if originally written in English, but, translated by the author, it provide a perfect example of the local as universal.

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5 Responses to “The Perfect Nine”

  1. Lisa Hill Says:

    I bought a copy of this because I’m interested to see a retelling of ancient myth that’s not from north of the Equator.
    But I think the inclusion of a book translated by its own author who previously wrote and published in English is not quite in the spirit of the MBI…

    • 1streading Says:

      I’m not sure about that – Ngugi has been quite clear about his reasons for choosing to write in his own language. I think it would be more difficult to accept a writer like Jhumpa Lahiri who has simply adopted another language, but I don’t think you could exclude anyone who was translated, even if by themselves. I’d definitely be interested to read an article about writers who have translated themselves though – it’s whole subgenre on its own!

  2. JacquiWine Says:

    That’s an interesting point you make about ‘typical’ novels being largely absent from this year’s list. Do you have a feel (or any theories) on why that’s the case? Is it a reflection of a general trend in literature in translation, or a greater willingness on the part of publishers and writers to invest in new and different ways of telling their stories? Or perhaps it’s just a coincidence that the list happened to fall out that way this year? I’d be interested in your thoughts.

    • 1streading Says:

      Generously – the judges just really like books which challenge the form.
      Less generously – new things get better publicity (look at the number of debuts here and on prize lists generally these days).
      (Probably somewhere in between).

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