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the Complete Review
the complete review - epic

The Perfect Nine

Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o

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To purchase The Perfect Nine

Title: The Perfect Nine
Author: Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o
Genre: Epic
Written: 2018 (Eng. 2020)
Length: 227 pages
Original in: Gĩkũyũ
Availability: The Perfect Nine - US
Kenda Mũiyũru - US
The Perfect Nine - UK
The Perfect Nine - Canada
  • The epic of Gĩkũyũ and Mũmbi
  • Gĩkũyũ title: Kenda Mũiyũru
  • Translated by the author

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Our Assessment:

B+ : fast and packed epic, nicely done

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Economist . 31/10/2020 .
Financial Times A 2/10/2020 Nilanjana Roy
The Guardian . 10/10/2020 Fiona Sampson
London Rev. of Books . 20/5/2021 Madhu Krishnan
The Washington Post . 12/10/2020 Rumaan Alam
World Lit. Today A Fall/2020 Alex Crayon

  From the Reviews:
  • "Mr wa Thiong'o's writing is rich with Kikuyu folklore and observations about this mountain of tropical forests and icy peaks, and his verse has a galloping intensity that gives the narrative momentum. (...) Most writers lose their energy and inventiveness as they grow old. Not Mr wa Thiong'o. The Perfect Nine is one of the year's great discoveries." - The Economist

  • "By choosing to rewrite the story of the Perfect Nine in Homeric verse and then retranslating his original Gikuyu version into English, Ngugi gently challenges the dominance of one kind of myth over another. (...) Ngugi adds layers to this ancient story. One part is told by the teller, another by the suitors, who swing between desire and suspicion. (...) The Perfect Nine uses a deceptively simple language that lays bare deep truths." - Nilanjana Roy, Financial Times

  • "(I)t's a beautiful work of integration that not only refuses distinctions between “high art” and traditional storytelling, but supplies that all-too rare human necessity: the sense that life has meaning." - Fiona Sampson, The Guardian

  • "The Perfect Nine isn’t a didactic or polemical intervention in these debates, but Ngũgĩ indicates his position by weaving together references from diverse traditions. (...) The idea that structures of knowledge are multiple and simultaneous is repeated across the book (.....) By writing in the Gĩkũyũ epic verse form, Ngũgĩ is also joining a debate about African literature as a category. (...) Ngũgĩ translated his own text into English, and it retains some of the rhythms and assonance of the Gĩkũyũ original." - Madhu Krishnan, London Review of Books

  • "The Perfect Nine is a work of myth, rendered in verse; you can hear the voice of the person relaying the story (...) just as we hear Virgil laying out the story he's about to tell in the first verses of the Aeneid. I'm mindful of the irony in my using classical Greece as a way of understanding this book. This will be the Western reader's point of access, and I think it useful to reflect on the relationship between oral tradition and contemporary writing. (...) The Perfect Nine has the hallmarks of myth: exaggeration, adventure, magic, humor. It made me think of my first exposure to classical narratives" - Rumaan Alam, The Washington Post

  • "(A) triumph of the form, which resounds with the lyrical heartbeat of the Gĩkũyũ people in Kenya (.....) Ngũgĩ composes a wisdom-dense narrative with a rhythm befitting the swirling motion of mythos (.....) The Perfect Nine not only immortalizes the myth of the ten daughters of Gĩkũyũ and Mũmbi but also acts as a document that preserves Gĩkũyũ cultural traditions and breathes a vibrant gust of passion and verve into Gĩkũyũ history." - Alex Crayon, World Literature Today

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Perfect Nine is an origins story, a re-telling of the Kenyan foundational myth (the historic Kenya, not the contemporary state -- though they are largely coterminous), the 'Perfect Nine' of the title being: "Founders of their nine clans, / Progenitors of a nation". The original myth has god create Gĩkũyũ and lead him to the top of present-day Mount Kenya and show him the lands over which he would have dominion, and then lead him to Mũmbi; they had ten daughters, the eldest nine of which then founded the nine Kikuyu clans. As Ngũgĩ explains in a brief introductory note:

     The Perfect Nine is an interpretation of the myth from the starting question: where did the Ten Suitors come from ? I imagined them as the last left standing after other failed tests of character and resolve.
       So, after introducing Gĩkũyũ and Mũmbi -- the Adam and Eve of this creation-story -- and the Perfect Nine, he has, as they mature into women, word spread across the entire continent about the great beauty of the nine, so that all over:
Young men lost sleep in dreams of the beautiful ones, and
Each would secretly leave in pursuit of the image of his dreams
       Eventually ninety-nine suitors reached Mount Kenya -- "As if they had prior agreement where to finally meet". These then are whittled down to the mates for the Perfect Nine -- part contest, and then part odyssey, which shows just who has the mettle to be a suitable mate.
       The Perfect Nine are, somewhat confusingly, actually ten: Gĩkũyũ and Mũmbi have ten daughters, and it is only with the last-born, Warigia, that they all make up the Perfect Nine. Warigia is not quite like her older sisters:
Her legs are the only organs that remained those of a child.
The rest of her body is a grown woman, and she does things her own way.
       She, too, however, proves to be exceptional -- soon showing off her remarkable archery skills, for example. And while the ninety-nine suitors have gathered to win over the other nine sisters, Warigia immediately knows (though doesn't tell -- "Her eyes shone brightly on one person, whom she did not identify") that she's found her man; the path to their union then is also a long one, but she too finds a worthy husband -- and while she remains, in a way, the odd man out (she does not become a clan-matriarch as her nine sisters then are), she's the most prominent individual among the Perfect Nine in the story, and the most interesting one.
       Conflicts arise early on, as the daughters battle each other over the ninety-nine suitors, but their mother brings them to their senses: "A good heart is led by a somber head", they realize, and so they go about trying to figure out a peaceful way to determine which suitors they are to be matched with.
       Gĩkũyũ does not make demands of the suitors -- or his daughters, as to whom they select -- save one:
But there is only one thing they cannot choose.
My daughters will not go away and leave us here alone.
       The families and communities are to be established here -- a demand that is too much for several of the suitors, who insist on bringing their brides home; when they learn they can't, eight of them leave, leaving only ninety-one suitors. These engage in a bit of competition to test their skills, but this doesn't narrow down the field. The real test comes with the mission they are sent on, to the Mountain of the Moon. As Mũmbi explains, "the journey leads you to our beginnings" -- a necessary trip for the daughters to follow in their parent's footsteps, and for the suitors to prove they are worthy and understand the tradition they will become part of. To spice things up, Gĩkũyũ also charges them with a specific task: there is, in these distant lands, the king of the human-eating ogres who: "alone possesses some hair that's a cure-all" -- the cure that can restore full power to Warigia's legs; he wants them to bring that home with them. Getting at that hair should prove quite a challenge, however, as it's ... in the very middle of the (human-eating ...) ogre's tongue.
       The Perfect Nine -- sans Warigia -- and the remaining suitors set off on their quest and test, and for quite a stretch the epic becomes a saga of their adventure. The epic here switches narrative voice, the more immediate we of the Perfect Nine now recounting events.
       The journey is arduous and dangerous, weeding out suitors left and right; by the time they reach the top of the mountain, the whole expedition is down to twenty-nine (and that includes the nine brides-to-be). On the way back, they begin to encounter ogres -- beginning with the one they were seeking. This is nicely creepily done, as the king of ogres is not just a fearsome being but also one who: "cannot be seen with human eyes" -- and whose tongue: "is also my eye and mouth". The battle for survival -- and the hair -- is short but dramatic.
       It's not clear sailing after that either: there are a lot of ogres out there, but the (diminishing number of) survivors cleverly outwit them, one by one. It's still a challenge, and dangerous; the: "Ogre That Shat Without Stopping" is obviously something one doesn't want to have to deal with -- though even he is less of a problem than: "the Bloodthirsty Ogre, for it demanded blood from us".
       It's a good, fast adventure story:
We encountered so many wonders that
Even now, as I recount these stories,
I feel I am talking about dreams, or
Nightmares that make one sweat on waking.
       Nineteen souls make it back -- just the right number: one man for each of the Perfect Nine, including Warigia, who has her own surprise for her returning sisters (and the man she had set her sights on from the start). The remainder of the epic then tells of the marriages and forming of the clans -- as well as the choices Warigia makes, as she again goes a slightly different and separate path. The epic concludes with Gĩkũyũ and Mũmbi: "going back to the mountain from which we came". They have established the foundations for the future, their off-spring now with families of their own, a society ready to come and rise together, and the old couple can now shuffle off into the sunset, their duty done and handed over to the next generations.
       Ngũgĩ presents and builds on the original myth well. The Perfect Nine is compact and fast, but the arc of the story is far-reaching and, with its different stations and the surrounding events, impressively varied. While Ngũgĩ's language remains simple and straightforward throughout -- the poetry is basic and very direct -- it is far from monotone, as he adapts it to the different parts of the story as he progresses through the tale. The structure and buildup also contribute to the epic feel, as Ngũgĩ shifts between narrative, description, and grander claims, as in:
The past and the past of the past and
The future of the future are a continuum:
The Circle of Life

God is Life.
God is One.
Life is one.
       The nine older sisters of the Perfect Nine are named and individually introduced early on -- already presented in their future role (as in: Wanjirũ, Matriarch of the Anjirũ; Clan) -- but for much of the epic there is not much differentiation between them; they are basically presented as the Perfect Nine rather than individuals. So also the suitors, who remain largely nameless, practically anonymous figures who fit a role but show little individuality. Near the end, there is a canto presenting 'The First Marriage', between Wanjirũ and Njirũ; typically, however, it is only Gĩkũyũ and Mũmbi who speak here. Meanwhile, shortly after the suitors first arrived and Mũmbi admonishes her daughters they answer her in unison: their voice is practically only a single voice; so also in the account of the long journey, they recount it as we. Occasionally individuals do speak -- for example "Smooth-tongued Wanjirũ" when they confront the first ogre, but typically, too: "Wanjirũ's group shouted back in unison". Unsurprisingly, it is Warigia who expresses herself most often, speaking as an individual; she is part of the Perfect Nine, but also apart from it (making her, as noted, the most interesting of the characters).
       Ngũgĩ keeps the focus on the strong female figures, with the suitors largely only in supporting roles; only the one destined for Warigia stands out as an individual. (He is also one of the few identified by name, albeit a nickname he is given by the others while on the journey.) The ritual by which the suitors obtain favor is a welcome change from the typical medieval European tale, where knights bid for the hand of a princess by fighting it out or proving more skillful at a particular task than all the others. While there are a few stabs at competition early on, both the suitors and the Perfect Nine accept that it is not conflict but rather collaboration that should be decisive, hence they all venture out together on the expedition. The suitors are tested on the way, but by outside forces rather than each other; as importantly, the Perfect Nine -- their future mates -- are tested along with them (and prove as important to the ultimate success and survival of the (remaining) group): The Perfect Nine is very much an epic that values community above all.
       If the poetry falls a bit short of epic grandeur, it still makes for a quite rousing story. For much of The Perfect Nine the epic is a truly exciting adventure tale, while its framing -- the origins-story -- is also well rendered. Ngũgĩ surely intentionally avoids presenting the Perfect Nine too much as individuals, and that works quite well here; it helps that the tenth daughter, Warigia, is a compelling and differentiated character -- as does the fact that Gĩkũyũ and Mũmbi are strongly drawn and presented figures, and both frequently are given voice. All in all, this is a fine little work, and an enjoyable read.

- M.A.Orthofer, 21 October 2020

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The Perfect Nine: Reviews: Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o: Other books by Ngugi wa Thiong'o under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Kenyan author (James) Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o was born in 1938.

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© 2020-2021 the complete review

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