Wizard of the Crow: A novel

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Reading in Translation

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Tomorrow, as part of Scott’s month-long Reading the World series, I’ll have a review of Per Petterson’s In the Wake up at Conversational Reading. Reading the World is focused on “bringing international voices to the attention of readers,” and reading In the Wake and considering it as a “work in translation” rather than simply a novel got me thinking about how much non-English language reading I actually do. As it turns out, I don’t read many books that weren’t written in English. I don’t think this is necessarily a deficiency, but considering how much I’ve enjoyed the literature in translation that I’ve read, it seems I should seek these books out more often. Here are the books in translation I’ve read over the last few years (As you might expect, Ryszard Kapuscinski figures heavily.)2003:Imperium by Ryszard KapuscinskiThe Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll by Alvaro MutisThe Lonely Hearts Club by Raul Nunez – my thoughtsThe Shadow of the Sun by Ryszard Kapuscinski2004:Don Quixote by Miguel De Cervantes – my thoughtsShah of Shahs by Ryszard Kapuscinski my thoughts2005:Generations of Winter by Vassily Aksyonov my thoughtsThe Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas – my thoughts2006:Television by Jean-Philippe ToussaintWhite Spirit by Paule ConstantWizard of the Crow by Ngugi Wa’Thiong’O – Garth’s review2007:In the Wake by Per Petterson

Monday Links


A new issue of The Quarterly Conversation has arrived, featuring an essay on Wizard of the Crow by QC creator Scott and a review of William T. Vollmann’s Poor People from Dave Munger. Lots of other good reviews in there too.Also via Scott, Political Theory Daily Review, a dense and daily collection of linksIn a Newsweek sidebar accompanying an excerpt of his book The American Religion, Harold Bloom names his “five most important books.” The most recent one to appear on the list? A tie, more or less, between Don Quixote and the complete works of Shakespeare. Bloom was also asked to admit to an important book he hadn’t read. His answer: “I cannot think of a major work I have not ingested.” That’s a lot of pages to store in one’s belly. (via Stephen)Good week for Mark Sarvas, first he announces that he’s sold his novel and now he’s off on his honeymoon. Filling in at TEV is Joshua Ferris, author of the much praised Then We Came to the End.And finally, a Baltimore Sun review had me intrigued by a new squirm-inducing non-fiction book by a former crime scene investigator for the Baltimore County police. Dana Kollmann’s book Never Suck a Dead Man’s Hand: Curious Adventures of a CSI gives a real-life look at a profession recently glamorized by TV show “CSI” and its many offshoots. Krall, however, describes a job both more boring and more odious than the one described on TV, but she does so with “dark humor,” which I’d imagine the job requires. The book’s title, for example, “comes from a story that involves a dead man, his hand and her attempts to get fingerprints on a freezing cold day.” Yikes.

Monday Links


We’ve got some great stuff in the pipeline at The Millions, starting with a lierary magazine roundtable (part one of which will be up shortly), but before we get to that a couple of quick links:This week at the LBC we’re discussing our winter 2007 Read This! selection, Wizard of the Crow by Ngugl wa Thiong’o. A roundtable discussion kicks off a week that will include a contest, an interview, a podcast, and more.Speaking of the LBC, a past selection, and one of my favorites from among the books we’ve read, Firmin by Sam Savage, has been named a finalist for the Barnes & Noble 2006 Discover Great New Writers Awards. That little rat just keeps on trucking along.And finally, Robert Birnbaum sits down with Richard Ford (again) for another great interview. Thanks to Millions contributor Noah, we had some great coverage of Ford’s most recent book, The Lay of the Land, in November, including a review, a reader question, and a (very brief) interview..

Ngugi wa Thiong’o Victim of Racism at San Francisco Hotel

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Exiled Kenyan Novelist Ngugi wa Thiong’o was in San Francisco promoting his novel Wizard of the Crow and staying at the Hotel Vitale. According to a report in a Kenyan paper, the author was sitting in a common area of the hotel and was confronted by a hotel employee who said, “This place is for guests of the hotel. You must leave.”The worker would hear none of the professor’s explanation that he was a guest. He insisted that he must leave immediately.After it was established that indeed Ngugi was a distinguished guest of the hotel, the management apologised by offering some complimentary whisky.The incident is being talked about in other corners of the Web but has yet to be picked up by any US papers. The hotel is already trying to cover its tracks by saying that it was the action of an individual who “under review, as is the hotel’s diversity training program,” according to an email reprinted at this hotel review site (scroll down).At the blog Black Looks, where another email from hotel management has been reprinted (scroll down to the comments), demands are being made for a public apology in “to be placed in a Bay Area newspaper, no later than the end of this month.”It seems likely that this was indeed the isolated stupidity of one person at the hotel. The hotel itself, meanwhile, is now in serious backpedaling mode. It just goes to show that even in what is considered one of the more “enlightened” cities in the world, we haven’t made as much progress as we think.

The Empire Writes Back

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Kenyan 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!

Hard to Pronounce Literary Names

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Update 3: Thanks to some friendly advice, and seeing competing pronunciations flying around in the comments, especially for that pesky Goethe, I decided to go to the library and to do a little more Internet research to try to get some definitive pronunciations for these names, specifically printed references where available. So here is a new updated post on Hard to Pronounce Literary NamesAsk the Internet any question you want, and usually you’ll be able to learn the answer, but for some reason it’s not very good at helping people find out how to pronounce words and names. I’ve noticed, looking at my visitor logs, that people show up here again and again trying to find how to pronounce a handful of difficult literary names. Sadly they’ve found no answers here… until now. So on to the pronunciations.J.M. Coetzee – the Nobel Laureate’s name is pronounced “cut-ZEE-uh” according to this Slate article and a number of other news items.Paul Theroux – This well-known travel writer’s name “is pronounced ‘Thor-ew,'” says the Honolulu Star-Bulletin, “not like the dude from Walden Pond” (which would be Henry David Thoreau, whose name, according to the “Pronouncing Thoreau” sidebar to this NPR story is frequently mispronounced; it is supposed to sound like “thorough.”)Spy novelist John Le Carre is pronounced “luh KAR-AY” or “luh kahr-AY,” according to this site, which lists pronunciations found in the Pronouncing Dictionary of Proper Names (who knew that such a book existed?). Incidentally, Le Carre is actually the pseudonym of David John Moore Cornwell.Contemporary novelist and short story author Dan Chaon is pronounced “Shawn.” So says my friend Edan, who was a student of his at Oberlin.Pulitzer, as in the prize and newspaper magnate Joseph Pulitzer – Number 19 in the Pulitzer FAQ: “The correct pronunciation is ‘PULL it sir.'”If anybody else has other ideas for hard to pronounce literary names, leave them in the comments and we’ll add them to the list. Meanwhile, here’s a bonus link. The BBC has launched a pronunciation blog (via LanguageHat).Update: Some great suggestions are rolling in from the comments. Kyle’s got some classic problem names:Donald Barthelme = “Bartle-may” not “Bar-THELM” as I had originally heard. Michael Silverblatt solved that one for me.Michael Chabon = “SHAY-bun” not “Sha-BON” like my friend has said.Thomas Pynchon = “PIN-chawn” not “PIN-shin” or “PIN-chin” etc. etc….and for kicks here are two German oldies that need some respect…Rainer Maria Rilke = “RILL-kuh” not “RILL-kee”and Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe = “GOO-tuh” not “GARE-tuh” like we smarmy Americans like to think it is. I have heard it as “GO-thee” and all kinds of botched up ways, but yesterday I asked a German woman who is a Lit. major and she straightened it out. Apparently, here in the states we overemphasize the umlaut to an R when it isn’t as harsh as that. [Bud contends that you don’t “ignore the r sound altogether in Goethe.” In Chicago, there is a Goethe Street in the Old Town neighborhood, which the locals apparently pronounce Go-EE-the, though I could never figure out if they were just pulling my leg. –Max]Laurie adds Ngugi Wa’Thiong’O, the Kenyan author whose latest book Wizard of the Crow just came out and Eoin Colfer, neither of whose names I know how to pronounce. Any help? She also suggests Seamus Heaney, Nobel laureate, which The Traveller tells us is pronounced SHAY-mus HEE-knee.Update 2: Some debate about Seamus Heaney in the comments, but this NY Times article seems to confirm it: “SHAY-muss HEE-nee”. Kyle, meanwhile, informs us that Eoin Colfer is pronounced “Owen”. My favorite unpronounceable book title, by the way, is James McCourt’s Mawrdew Czgowchwz, pronounced “Mar-dew Gorgeous”.

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