The Empire Writes Back

October 11, 2006 | 3 books mentioned 1 4 min read

coverKenyan writer and political dissident Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s seventh novel, Wizard of the Crow, is unquestionably a work of epic ambition – a quality American readers once found commendable, and perhaps still do. Its achievements are doubly impressive, in that Ngugi first penned this 300,000-word tale of tyranny and freedom in his native Gikuyu, and then translated it himself into English. The translation is supple and swift enough that the novel, at 760 pages, never feels like a slog, and colorful set-pieces abound. Any work that swings this hard for the fences, however, will be judged on runs produced. Readers who admire Wizard of the Crow‘s world-historical reach – and Ngugi’s storytelling gifts – may emerge disappointed that it isn’t quite a homer.

Ngugi sets his story in the fictional African country of Aburiria, a republic-in-name-only run by a nameless dictator. Decked out in military garb appliqued with the skins of great cats, “The Ruler” instantly evokes Kenya’s Daniel Arap Moi and Uganda’s Idi Amin… and one imagines the resemblance to actual persons is not “entirely coincidental.” Ngugi very much wants us thinking about the recent political geography of Sub-Saharan Africa. But Wizard of the Crow is no naturalist roman-a-clef. As the novel opens, the Ruler has contracted a Rabelaisian affliction – his body is inflating as rapidly and as wildly as Aburiria’s economy. In a typical feat of dialogic energy, Ngugi treats us to five rumored explanations why – thus grounding his third-person narrative directly in the voices of the Aburirian people.

The country’s cabinet, scrambling to heal and appease the Ruler, is a political cartoon come to life. Machokali, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, has had his eyes surgically enlarged “to the size of electric bulbs… so that they would be able to spot the enemies of the Ruler no matter how far their hiding places.” Not to be outdone, the head of the secret police, one Silver Sikiokuu, has had his ears lengthened – the better to eavesdrop on potential conspirators. From the ministers’ jockeying for position emerges the book’s Maguffin, a giant construction project called Marching to Heaven (to be funded by a thinly disguised World Bank). If completed, it will allow the Ruler to talk directly to God, “to say good morning or good evening or simply, how was your day, God?”

Ngugi gets great comic mileage from his politicians, and there is something oddly sympathetic about the paranoid machinations of Sikiokuu, in particular – as in the old Dan Ackroyd sketches where Nixon talks to the paintings on the West Wing walls. But here the novel’s refusal to settle for mere satire, its flirtation with psychological depth, opens up an instability; one starts to wonder why the Ruler, in a three-dimensional environment, remains flat, an object for fun.

This instability deepens when Kamiti, a penniless college graduate, and Nyawira, a receptionist, begin to lay the groundwork for revolution. Kamiti’s depressive asceticism, Nyawira’s spirited sass, and the chemistry between the two (including some of the hottest foreplay I’ve read recently), move Wizard of the Crow firmly into a textured human reality. Ngugi enlivens their romance with some wonderful magical touches. The plot strand in which Kamiti poses as a powerful “Wizard of the Crow,” and then (to the consternation of the authorities) finds himself mysteriously growing into the role, would be enough to fill a lesser novel. And yet, as this book rolls on, the exploits of the Wizard of the Crow start to feel like a subplot. Dramatic cause and effect give way once more to satirical grandstanding.

Satire, in my reading, is Ngugi’s least revelatory mode. Absent the historical specificity an actual location might have provided, we are treated to revolutionary platitudes, to the revelation that power corrupts and the World Bank and the mass media are accessories to the crime. Well, obviously, but…

Here I find myself running up against the problem of translation. Gikuyu, as I understand it, is largely an oral language. Since deciding for ethical reasons to stop composing in his adopted English, Ngugi has heroically pioneered the use of Gikuyu for literary purposes. And thinking back to the schematics of Walter J. Ong’s Orality and Literacy (a useful companion text for Wizard of the Crow), I remember that the aims and techniques of the griot may differ greatly from those of the workshop-trained novelist. In particular, the oral poet’s mnemonic didacticism clashes with the “literary” desire for understatement.

It seems no more fair to tax Ngugi with preachy dialogue, then, than it does to tax The Illiad with flashy similes. (I feel like John Updike missed the boat on this one in his New Yorker review.) Nonetheless, I can’t deny that the antic quality of the second half of Wizard of the Crow frustrated my desire to dwell with Kamiti and Nyawira – to see diasporic political generalities given flesh, as they are in Patrick Chamoiseau’s magisterial Texaco.

Still, as hard as it is to discover such shortcomings in a book its author clearly intends as a masterwork, it’s equally hard to dismiss Wizard of the Crow out of hand. Ngugi is a masterful manipulator of narrative time and narrative voice, and the fleetness and charm of the telling tend to blur over some of the novel’s deficiencies. In a particularly moving bit of analysis near the end, Nyawira laments the way the West, with all of its problems, attempts to stamp the developing world’s heterotopic spaces with its own monolithic image, and it is possible to read this review as symptomatic of the problem, and the book as gesturing toward a solution. Wizard of the Crow clears a space within literary postmodernism for African traditions and African characters, and one can only hope Ngugi will use it as a platform for future works that bring his expansive vision to fruition. Haki ya Mungu!

is the author of City on Fire and A Field Guide to the North American Family. In 2017, he was named one of Granta's Best Young American Novelists.

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