Naguib Mahfouz, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, Nadine Gordimer and J.M. Coetzee

“When all else fails, philosophize.”

 ― J.M. Coetzee, Disgrace

Some of the African nations were ruled by British directly or indirectly. Their rule brought misery to the natives, as British were busy exploiting them.

Pattern of exploitation was similar to what they did in India. Grab the best land, turn natives into unpaid/low paid labour and always practice apartheid to spread the myth of superiority of white race.

Here we will talk about three nations- Egypt, Kenya and South Africa. The literature of these countries is influenced by policies of British.

Egypt was part of Ottoman Empire, after defeat of Turkey in First World War, the British occupied Egypt. This occupation was resisted by Egyptians leading to revolution of 1919, to get rid of British and make Egypt independent.


British tried to crush the rebellion, resulting in death of hundreds of Egyptians.

“An Englishman – in other words, the kind of man he imagined to embody all the perfections of the human race.”

-Naguib Mahfouz, Palace Walk

Naguib Mahfouz

Naguib Mahfouz was an Egyptian writer, who lived in Cairo. He was influenced by events of 1919, and wrote novels on the subject, popularly called as “Cairo Trilogy”.

“You could say … that the one thing which most shook the security of my childhood was the 1919 revolution”

-Naguib Mahfouz

cairo trilogy

The Cairo Trilogy is a three-part family saga, centred on al-Sayyid Ahmad Abd al-Jawad and his family — his wife Amina and their children and subsequently his grandchildren. He has three sons- Fahmy, Yasin and Kamal and two daughters Aisha and Khadija. The trilogy also covers story of Khadija’s sons Abd al-Muni’m and Ahmad. The novels roughly cover period between two World Wars.

Mahfouz presents the story in distinct chunks, rather than one continuous whole: “Palace Walk” covers the period from 1917 to 1919, “Palace of Desire” jumps ahead and covers the period from 1924 to 1927, and “Sugar Street” covers the period 1935 to 1944.

“Ignorance is your crime, ignorance … ignorance … ignorance. My father’s the manifestation of ignorant harshness and you of ignorant tenderness. As long as I live, I’ll remain the victim of the two opposites.”

-Kamal in Palace Walk

 Mahfouz was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1988.

While Mahfouz was influenced by revolution of 1919, Kenyan writer Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o was influenced by Mau Mau rebellion of Kenya.

Ngugi wa Thiong

Ngugi is Kenyan writer belonging to Kikuyu community. In 1950’s the British started grabbing land belonging to Kikuyu community. It resulted in protest by Kikuyu, which resulted in Mau Mau rebellion again British occupation of Kenya. The British tried to crush the rebellion by killing and detaining thousands of Kenyans.

mau mau rebellion

His first novel “Weep Not, Child” is about young boy Njoroge and white landowner Mr. Howlands. Some family members of Njoroge’s family are involved in Mau Mau rebellion; this is used as an excuse by Howlands to beat Njoroge and his father Ngotho. Howlands gets support from another rich African Jacobo. Now comes the Hindi filmi twist- Njoroge is in love with Jacobo’s daughter Mwihaki. Unfortunately novel does not have happy ending. Njoroge who is good is studies gets thrown out of school, Mwihaki leaves him, Ngotho dies and finally Njoroge ends up feeling hopeless after failed suicide attempt.

weep not child

His other novel “Grain of Wheat” also has Mau Mau rebellion in background. Indians will find it easy to identify with the characters in novel.

grain of wheat

Story starts with hero called Gikonyo who is a carpenter, he is married to Mumbi. Mumbi’s brother Kihika is revolutionary, who kills a hated British officer. But Kihika gets caught and is hanged. People suspect guy called Karanja must have betrayed Kihika. To complicated story Mumbi has affair with Karanja. Finally it is found that a guy called Mugo, whom people consider as hero is actually a villain and he betrayed Kihika. There is also an angrez villain called John Thomson.

“Our fathers fought bravely. But do you know the biggest weapon unleashed by the enemy against them? It was not the Maxim gun. It was division among them. Why? Because a people united in faith are stronger than the bomb”

 ― Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, A Grain of Wheat

wizard of crow

Ngugi is also critical of dictatorship in various nations of Africa. He wrote a novel called “Wizard of the Crow”, a satire on dictatorship. The story is set in the imaginary Free Republic of Aburĩria, autocratically governed by one man, known only as the Ruler.

“The condition of women in a nation is the real measure of its progress.”

Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, Wizard of the Crow

British (and Europeans) tried to continue their rule in Africa by practicing apartheid. The system got perfected in South Africa.

Apartheid has impact on South African writers Nadine Gordimer and J.M. Coetzee.

nadine gordimer

Nadine Gordimer wrote novel called “July’s People” much before apartheid system ended in South Africa.

July's people

Novel is about a black servant called July, who works for a white couple Bamford and Maureen Smales. The Smales have three children Gina, Royce and Victor.

There is a civil war between Blacks and Whites. For safety the Smales family move to July’s native place and are forced to live in a hut. The situation is reversed; the Smales family is now totally dependent on July for their survival. July is no longer a polite black servant, he has become assertive. While children are able to adjust to new life in village, Maureen finds it difficult to adjust. She realizes that she is not as liberal as she thought she was. She wants her previous life back, so start running towards a helicopter which she feels will liberate her.

You like to have some cup of tea?-July bent at the doorway and began that day for them as his kind has always done for their kind.”

 ― Nadine Gordimer, July’s People


While “July’s people” is pre apartheid, John Maxwell Coetzee’s “Disgrace” is post-apartheid. While Mureen of “July’s people” could not adjust herself in post-apartheid world, Lucy of “Disgrace” is willing to adjust herself in post-apartheid world.


Disgrace is about a professor David Lurie who is undergoing what is called in psychology as “mid-life crisis”. He has affair with his student called Melanie, at the same time he also visits a prostitute called Soraya. His affair with student results in David getting sacked from his job. Disgraced and outcaste, he starts living with his daughter Lucy, who is settled in village.

There he is involved with three characters- His daughter Lucy who is interested in rural life, Petrus a black, who was earlier a farm laborer and now in post-apartheid era is a land owner, Bev Shaw a woman who runs dog shelter and has lesbian relationship with Lucy, later has affair with David. David starts helping Bev in running dog shelter i.e. helping her in getting rid of dogs that are put to death by Bev.

“I cannot be a child forever. You cannot be a father forever. I know you mean well, but you are not the guide I need, not at this time.”

 ― J.M. Coetzee, Disgrace

One day three blacks attack David and Lucy. Lucy is raped and their house is ransacked. Lucy refuses to lodge complain against rapists. Soon it is found that attackers were related to Petrus, and Lucy is pregnant. David asks Lucy to get rid of child and move out of village. But Lucy has decided to stay in village and plan to keep child and eventually marry Petrus. While David is not mentally ready for post-apartheid scenario, Lucy has prepared to adjust herself in new conditions.

Nadine Gordimer got Noble Prize in 1991, while John Coetzee won Noble Prize in 2003.




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