A Grain of Wheat is set in Kenya during the Mau Mau rebellion, with the drama culminating just as Kenya gains independence from Britain in 1963. The story is centred around Mugo, a man consumed by secrets and who desires only to be left alone. Orbiting around Mugo is a cast of characters, each of whom tells the story of their own struggle for political freedom, personal freedom and love.
A Grain of Wheat falls squarely into “literary” fiction, so don’t expect alien dust-bunnies that hide under beds and come out at night to perform medical experiments on your cat or magical spoons that make cabbage taste like gold. (Would that be a good thing?)
What you can expect is a tale that shows both the physical and moral sacrifices that people make for a cause they believe in. Big themes litter this novel and wa Thiong’o makes no attempt to disguise them: power corrupts, ‘when the revolution becomes the State, it becomes my enemy again’, the responsibility of the individual to engage with the community, etc.
But the theme I found most interesting was the relationship between myth and reality. Throughout A Grain of Wheat, the myth of Mugo as some kind of holy man grows. People constantly misinterpret his actions and, as a result, ascribe heroic levels of dedication, will-power and wisdom to him when, really, he’d rather they all just go away. Each of the other characters builds up their own set of myths–about the British or their spouses, for instance–and each has to deal with the trauma caused when the myth does not match reality.
What I find particularly curious, though, is the one set of myths that wa Thiong’o leaves unresolved. All of the novel’s stories revolve around Kenya’s struggle for independence and several of the characters become local heroes for their roles as freedom-fighters. But as the story is set in the real world, several non-fictional characters–Jomo Kenyatta, most prominantly–also become mythologized, along with the concept of “Uhuru” (freedom) itself.
Though wa Thiong’o was himself a strong supporter of Kenyan independence, at several points in the book, his characters voice questions such as “will there be more jobs? will there be more land?” He also does not shy away from the problem of corruption within Kenya’s ruling elite. And yet, with the novel ending just one day after independence, wa Thiong’o leaves hanging in the air the disjunct between the mythical promise of freedom and the real problems faced by a newly independent country. We are left with only his characters–most scarred, some defeated, some beginning to find a hard path forward–to provide some clue as to both the cost and the reward of revolution.