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