Wizard of the Crow, Ngũgĩ Wa Thiong’o

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Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o (1938- ) is a Kenyan who was imprisoned for a year in 1977 for staging a play seen as subversive, and has since lived in the West, first in Britain then in the US, as an author and academic (Wiki). Wizard of the Crow (2006), his seventh novel, was written in Kikuyu, which he grew up speaking, and translated into English by the author, though the characters in the novel apparently speak Swahili, the official language of most East African countries. When they switch to English the author generally says so, but also puts the phrase in italics. Occasionally (not very often) the author leaves some language untranslated.

Wizard of the Crow is a long way outside my normal reading, and is also enormous, 760pp, divided into six books and lots of short chapters, so let me make it clear at the outset that I enjoyed it, not unreservedly, but a lot, to the extent that some nights I found it unputdownable.

Set in the fictional African dictatorship of the Free Republic of Aburĩria, a former British colony, the novel is an allegory for how we all think the worst African countries are run, but contains within it some interesting though limited character development around Kamĩtĩ and Nyawĩra, the young man and woman who together are the Wizard of the Crow. The style is one might say a mixture of absurdism, African spiritualism and magic realism, but without the poetry of the best Nigerians.

The author speaks, declaims to us really, from on high, an omniscient observer and commentator, though some passages are carried by another narrator, AG, the policeman who initiates the myth of the Wizard of the Crow which Kamĩtĩ and Nyawĩra feel bound to carry on, as a sort of hiding in plain sight.

The President of Aburĩria is Ruler and his principal, rival lieutenants are Machokali and Sikiokuu, who respectively have had their eyes and ears grotesquely enhanced the better to see and hear Ruler’s enemies. And a lot, too much maybe, of the book is their sycophancy to Ruler and their scheming to get the better of each other. And yet late in the book Machokali is disappeared and Sikokuu demoted so that they play no part in the ending.

Out in the real world, Kamĩtĩ has been fruitlessly seeking work in the capital, Eldares, for three years after returning from India with degrees in Business, when he applies at the offices of Tajirika’s construction company. Tajirika goes through the motions of giving him an interview, but only in order to humiliate him by getting him to prove his proficiency in English by reading the sign saying ‘No Vacancies’. Nyawĩra, Tajirika’s secretary speaks kindly to Kamĩtĩ. He goes off, is caught up in a demo, he and another protestor are pursued by the policeman AG, who loses them on the plain outside town where, he believes, they turn into a single spirit. The second protestor turns out to be Nyawĩra who takes Kamĩtĩ home. They know the policeman is close, so Kamĩtĩ puts up a sign saying Wizard of the Crow to frighten him off.

“I knew they were not thieves; they were devils, djinns of the prairie, sent by the Wizard of the Crow to trick me to death. Woe unto me! I am now bewitched.

And so the legend is born with AG spreading it through all the bars. Belief in the legend delivers its own efficacy, and soon the Wizard is being blamed or given credit for every miraculous occurrence.

Machokali comes up with a great building project to enhance the prestige of Ruler and Aburĩria, which will need to be financed by the Global Bank. Tajirika, Machokali’s protege, is made chairman of the building committee. Within hours a line of businessmen wishing to pay him bribes has formed up outside Tajirika’s office. Nyawĩra needs help to deal with them all but when she takes down the No Vacancies sign another queue of would-be employees forms. By morning both queues are apparently endless.

Queuing mania spreads throughout the country. The underground resistance of which Nyawĩra is secretly a part repurposes the queues into protest marches converging on the capital. Sikiokuu’s protegy, Kaniũrũ, leader of the youth wing and Nyawĩra’s ex husband is made Chairman of the committee to investigate queuing.

Ruler and Machokali go to New York to seek an audience with the directors of Global Bank. Ruler gets ill and inflates like a balloon. Tajirika gets ill with white-ache, overcome by the desire to be white, powerful and wealthy. His wife Vinjinia and Nyawĩra have him ‘cured’ by the Wizard of the Crow. Various people are detained for questioning or fed to crocodiles. Nyawĩra is blamed for the queuing and becomes a wanted criminal. Eventually it becomes apparent that only the Wizard of the Crow can locate her.

When Tajirika recovers he is suspicious of Vinjinia’s success at running the business and eventually gives her a beating. She goes to the Wizard of the Crow for help and Tajirika is kidnapped by women and beaten in return. Ruler learns of this and is fearful that men’s right to rule their wives is being usurped.

The rumors that Aburĩrian women were up in arms against their husbands, which later spread to all corners of the country, had origins in Kaniũrũ’s investigations. Despite the fact that he had been instructed to do it secretly, Kaniũrũ decided that this scandal was all he need to strip Tajirika of dignity and manhood.

On his return from the US, Ruler admires the skill with which Tajirika and Kaniũrũ have been accumulating bribes and makes them his principal advisors, though both are eventually outsmarted by their wives. Ruler abandons his grandiose building project and adopts the semblance of democracy to placate Western bankers – who are very keen to make sure he does not adopt the real thing. Throughout, Kamĩtĩ and Nyawĩra are becoming a couple but are often apart.

There’s lots more! All along wa Thiong’o is satirising the subservience of African states to the West, Global Bank’s opposition to Keynesianism, and the complete absence of morals in the African ruling class. Women are generally shown as the only bearers of common sense, while the church acts as a refuge. There is a dichotomy between Kamĩtĩ and Nyawĩra, who personify respectively buddhism and marxism, which is partly but not fully explored.

Narrative tension is provided by the development of the relationship between Kamĩtĩ and Nyawĩra, by the way the myth of the Wizard of the Crow gathers steam, and partly I guess, by the changing political dynamic. I suppose there are other books as ambitious in scope, but not many.

 

Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, Wizard of the Crow, Anchor Books, New York, 2006

12 thoughts on “Wizard of the Crow, Ngũgĩ Wa Thiong’o

  1. This book sounds very complex. Very outside my zone of what I could concentrate on at the minute but it does sound fascinating in its own way. I am having to really crack down to read anything as I’m so distractible at the minute but getting better. How did you happen to come across this book?

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    • I asked Lou, my son, what was current in Africa. I’m not sure in rural Malawi he should have been expected to know, but he spent some time in Ethiopia waiting for his job to start and while there he bought Wizard of the Crow, and unlike other books which he mostly discards, he brought it home for me.

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      • I think I’m more like Lou in that I oftentimes give away books after I’ve read them if I’m sure I’ll likely never read it again. I’ve written about how books hang around and get dusty and will invite tiny mites, but I know that doesn’t scare most people off. What in particular was it about the book that made it so hard for you to put down? Were you drawn into the characters’ lives a great deal, or perhaps the political situation was interesting?

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      • You’re right, some of my shelves have embarrassing amounts of dust (not a problem confined to my bookshelves), but I can’t let go of those books. And Lou was boasting to his friends about my ‘library’ before he came home.

        I didn’t expect to be drawn into the story, which is why I remarked on it. I was certainly drawn to the ups and downs of the relationship between Kamĩtĩ and Nyawĩra, but also to the broader story – the way the legend of the Wizard of the Crow grew, and the rises and falls within the ‘elite’ around Ruler.

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  2. I don’t get on with Thiong’o. People say that his treatment of women is fine, but I don’t think so. I’ve read two of his, one where he seemed to be saying that female circumcision was part of the tradition and one that should not be swept away by western Christianity, and the other that included a dismissive rape scene, where the woman complains only that her skirt has been ruined. Nobody raises his misogyny because he’s lionised as a literary hero writing about the failed politics of Africa.

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    • All I can say is that this book takes a relatively feminist view (as best I an old white guy can tell) in that the men are mostly idiots and the women are mostly sensible. It is quite an important theme of the book that wife beating should not be tolerated and there are no rapes. Mainstream christianity is treated as benign, which surprised me a little.

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  3. It sounds complex but it also sounds like the kind of book I’d enjoy if I was prepared to make a 700+ page commitment 😳 It’s already on my wishlist but I will bump it up a little higher. I have read very few African writers, something I need to rectify. (Ditto for South America.)

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    • I didn’t find the 760 pages a struggle at all, the same with War & Peace. If the book keeps moving along then I am happy to stick with it (though it’s a long time since I read multiple 1000pp books in a SF series). It seems to me books like this and Murakami and Alexis Wright for that matter expand what Eng.Lit is capable of expressing.

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  4. Sounds interesting, although I’m not good with books on Africa (so often centred around govt, corruption and war, even though not all of Africa obviously is) presumably it’s what gets translated as with all the Icelandic noir and nothing else. Anyway I also don’t get on with magical realism. So not one for me but still an interesting review and I’m glad it’s out there.

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    • This is definitely a book about corruption in African government. Now you’re making me think, what does the Wizard have to do with that? Most of the interaction between the govt and the Wizard demonstrates that people will see what they think they’re going to see, but if there’s a message of hope I think the author is suggesting that is more likely to come from Nyawĩra’s side and action by the people.

      As for MR, for Western writers it was just a fashionable device that they used without fully understanding, and one which in that context I really dislike. In an African context it seems to me that MR is used to express an underlying belief in the spirit world, not a belief which I share, but the two, spirits and MR seem to go together very well to express a non-European view of the world. In Australia the great (Indigenous) author Alexis Wright uses MR in a similar way.

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