Ngugi wa Thiong’o's new novel Wizard of the Crow—the first book in 20 years from the Kenyan author—is designed to feel like a fable. For starters, it’s set in a mystical land, the African Republic of Aburiria, and has a cast of dastardly villains—Aburiria’s dictator, known only as “The Ruler,” his chief sycophantic subordinates, Sikiokuu and Machokali, and their own protégés. There’s a plucky little hero (the titular Wizard of the Crow) whom, although he suffers his share of ups and downs, is never really in danger as he wanders from adventure to adventure with his love interest: the beautiful Nyawira, a member of Aburiria’s chief opposition, the Movement for the Voice of the People. Lastly, the story is rife with exaggerated feats—black men try to literally turn themselves into whites, the dictator uncontrollably inflates like a balloon, a pond made out of tears stops time, eyeballs are surgically enhanced to the size of light bulbs.
The tone of Thiong’o's language matches the setting and characters: the story feels as though it is being told orally, as though Wizard of the Crow is only a transcribed version of a story told and retold across Aburiria. (Providing evidence of how well Thiong’o's books work when related verbally, James Gibbons in BookForum reports that they are routinely read aloud in Kenyan bars.) Often before relating a key event, the narrator will inform us that “opinions differ” as to what actually happened, or that the tale we are being told is but a codified version of rumor. Storytelling is also blended into the narrative: characters are continually telling each other improvised versions of what has just happened to them, and there’s even a character named Arigaigai Gathere (known throughout as A.G., which, we are told, often stands for the Attorney General of storytelling), who pops up throughout the book telling key parts of the narrative to a packed Kenyan bar at some indeterminate point in the future.
Thiong’o's continual return to the theme of storytelling is meant to convey a respect for and understanding of the Kenyan storytelling tradition. This is more than just an appreciation of his nation’s ancestry, however; Thiong’o's dedication to storytelling cuts to the core of his politics. These beliefs, laid out in Decolonising the Mind (written in 1986), center around the idea that only African languages can yield African literature. These views are deeply felt. At one point in Decolonising, Thiong’o declares it is
manifestly absurd to talk of African poetry in English, French, or Portuguese. Afro-European poetry, yes; but not to be confused with African poetry which is the poetry composed by Africans in African languages.
Thiong’o's linguistic beliefs have gotten him into considerable trouble with Kenya’s dictatorship. His first novel in Gikuyu (a language native to Kenya and often used in Kenyan oral storytelling), 1980′s Devil on the Cross (which makes a cameo appearance in Wizard), was written on toilet paper while he served a prison sentence for co-writing, and then attempting to produce, the play “I Will Marry When I Want” (also in Gikuyu) at a community theater in his home village. Thiong’o now lives in exile, but when he returned to visit Kenya in 2004 (only after the fall of the dictator Daniel arap Moi), he and his wife were beaten and robbed in their hotel room by four thugs, probably acting on behalf of the government.
In Wizard of the Crow, the idea of linguistic imperialism is very much present. Reminiscent of Tolstoy’s elite Russians in War and Peace, who danced in and out of French as they spoke to one another (and later were forced to disavow it when Napoleon invaded, only to discover that they had forgotten how to express many things in their mother tongue), the ruling class in Wizard often switches from Gikuyu to English (conveyed, unobtrusively, through “said in English” tags or italics). As with War and Peace, these switches are often made when a character wants to add particular emphasis, or uses a colloquialism with no equivalent in Gikuyu. Also as with Tolstoy, the foreign language is solely the province of the wealthy classes, and is bound up with a desire to both be set apart (read: above) the common, coarse hoards and to aspire a presumably superior culture. Similarly, many Aburirians have Westernized names, and in Wizard the concept of a Western name is explicitly linked to a lust for whiteness.
Although Wizard makes clear that Thiong’o still holds strong to his 20-year-old ideas about language and politics, it is equally clear that in Wizard he is trying out fresh new ideas about language and storytelling. Thiong’o's distaste for linguistic imperialism may be manifest, but it is but a backdrop to other ideas about language and storytelling that surge through this novel’s elaborate plot. In Wizard of the Crow, Thiong’o explores at least three new ways that storytelling can be vital to the present: it is a means of divulging the mechanisms of politics in an African dictatorship, a method that people use to discover and renew themselves, and a tool for constructing new ways to plot a novel.
Thiong’o's storytelling theme is integral to the politics at the heart of this massive novel. Although it is many things, Wizard of the Crow is foremost an allegory for Kenya’s, and other African nations’, post-colonial dictatorships. It charts a path that many nations have taken as they toss off imperialist rule, move on through the transition from dictatorship to democracy (often “democracy”), and stumble toward other forms of governance that are appearing on the horizon of the 21st century.
Even as an outline, the story of Thiong’o's fictitious nation sounds familiar: When Aburiria finally rid itself of British rule, a dictator was installed, a man whom the British felt they could trust to bring the country to democracy while maintaining their interests. At this point, the man who would become the Ruler was still a lowly bureaucrat, but during and after the transition to self-rule he ingratiates himself to the U.S. by helping it battle communism, and for his efforts he is given covert help overthrowing the British-backed dictator. The novel starts decades after this, when the Ruler is simply a fact of life, a man who has dominated all aspects of Aburiria for so long that no one can conceive of the country without him. When the novel starts, he is petitioning the Global Bank (think IMF and World Bank) for funds to create Marching to Heaven, a latter-day Tower of Babel that will be, in the Ruler’s words, the world’s first “superwonder.”
The contrast between Aburiria’s decaying cities and Marching to Heaven’s pointless extravagance (and the wealthy Aburirian dignitaries who figure to profit from it) is ripe. Just as the Ruler begins trying to present a good image to the Westerners who hold the fate of his superwonder in their hands, the dissident Nyawira’s Movement for the Voice of the People begins to emerge as a thorn in his side. The funds from the Global Bank are not forthcoming, and eventually the Ruler goes on a diplomatic mission to America where he becomes absurdly pregnant. Yet just when it looks like the poverty, rebellions, and runaway violence will bring the Ruler’s reign to a close, he manages to birth “Baby D,” democracy, a multiparty system in which the legislature is compliant and the Ruler automatically becomes head of whatever party receives the most votes. Those who would forge a reformed Aburiria are back at square one.
Well done as it is, this lamentably familiar plot would be sorely lacking if it only showed us Aburiria at the macro level. Thiong’o's book is a breakthrough because he drills down deep into the heart of how politics gets done—the Ruler ordering his subordinates about, the subordinates’ own machinations, the deals made by leaders of Aburiria’s business community, the rise of new blood in Aburiria’s government, the methods of the resistance. Thiong’o takes us to the atomic level, showing us how politics happens in Aburiria on a person-by-person basis. And in all these transactions, storytelling is key.
Storytelling exemplifies the techniques and the architecture used by political actors in Aburiria as they continually invent tales that, with breathtaking speed, become the new realities that the country must live by. Whether it is the Ruler purposefully creating realities with an iron hand, businessman doing it in ignorance as they arrange deals, or even the resistance innocently slipping into stories that help them toward their goals, the creation of stories remains central.
An example to flesh this all out: Thiong’o tells us that the Ruler delights in playing his two principal ministers, Sikiokuu and Machokali, off one another. The two well know that the price for falling out of their ruler’s favor is likely death, but they’re both inexperienced and incompetent—completely unfit to execute the tasks the Ruler sets before them. When they inevitably fail, they fall back on the only resource they have—their tongues.
For instance, early in the novel the Ruler convenes his cabinet to decide how best to persuade the West to disburse the necessary funds for Marching to Heaven. Spurred by rumors of work related to the construction of the project, long lines of people spring up all over Aburiria, and The Ruler becomes worried that this will make a bad impression. He looks—angrily— to Machokali for an answer. Machokali knows that if he doesn’t come up with an explanation quick he’s dead meat, but what is he supposed to say? That Aburiria is so destitute that people will spring up in miles-long lines at the merest hint of employment?
Instead, Machokali has the bright idea to tell the Global Bank that the lines are manifestations of support for the project. The Ruler likes it.
As soon as the other ministers realized that the Ruler was excited by Machokali’s motion, their tongues loosened, each claiming, one after another, that queuing was more intense in his respective region with his constituents singing nothing but songs in praise of Marching to Heaven.
This leads the ministers to spontaneously decide that the Ruler has invented a new, queuing-based theory of politics, one which they elect Machokali to write down into a book. Sikiokuu, fearing that his rival is getting the upper hand, springs forth with the idea that the Ruler should publicly thank the people for demonstrating his theory and supporting Marching to Heaven.
In the space of just a few pages, a miraculous inversion has been effected. Marching to Heaven has gone from a boondoggle that has revealed Aburiria’s desperation to a vision of national strength, fervently attended to by popular demonstrations all over the country. Significantly, the Ruler has not said a word to create this new reality. Merely by indicating his displeasure with the story that reality has given him, he has spurred his ministers to invent an entirely new reality, and to find methods by which to force it into existence. If Thiong’o is correct, and I think he is, this is how an African dictatorship functions.
And so it goes, on and on throughout the 700-plus pages of Wizard of the Crow. Each new development in Aburiria is twisted by Sikiokuu and Machokali to fit narratives meant to facilitate their lust for power and preserve them from the Ruler’s wrath. Soon it becomes evident that Sikiokuu and Machokali are master storytellers, that this gift—and not any capacity to actually govern—is what has made them suitable for the high echelons of government.
Marching to Heaven is eventually scuttled because the West won’t hand over the cash, but no matter. The Aburirians already have their own tower of babble, one that Sikiokuu, Machokali, and a cast of dozens more Aburirians are building every day. Theirs is a shaky edifice, haphazardly patched together with layer after layer of stories; it holds atop itself the whole of Aburiria. As Thiong’o takes Sikiokuu and Machokali higher and higher, the country tips ever more precariously toward chaos and revolution, and, finally, after a climactic showdown between the Ruler and the Wizard (allied with the Movement for the Voice of the People), the tower crumbles to the ground. In a short coda Thiong’o takes us through the first days of the new regime—”democracy”—and implies that the Aburirians are well on their way to erecting a new tower, but unfortunately, not a more representative government.
Yet if Thiong’o sees in storytelling an allegory for the mechanisms of power that have held down his nation for so long, he also sees in it a potent engine for renewal. As James Gibbons writes in his review of Wizard in BookForum,
Ngugi’s emphasis on dynamic self-fashioning and cultural renewal—he has long conceived his own relationship to indigenous African forms, particularly storytelling, as a productive dialogue rather than a nostalgic embrace of tradition—complements the value placed on the quest for an authentic voice, whether individual or collective, that is at the heart of the novel’s politics and morality.
If the political angle of Wizard is best displayed by the Ruler, Sikiokuu, and Machokali, self-renewal is most manifest in the Wizard of the Crow. When we first meet the Wizard, he is not the Wizard at all. He is Kamiti, a beggar lying half-dead on a trash heap. After dragging himself back to life he goes off in search of a job (despite his master’s degree from a prestigious Indian university, he’s been searching for months), is humiliated by a would-be employer, and decides to simply exist as a beggar. That night he inadvertently joins a group of political activists that are protesting Marching to Heaven by pretending to be beggars. Police disperse the crowd, eventually chasing Kamiti to the house of Nyawira (who was leading the protest in the guise of a beggar) where he takes refuge.
It is here that the Wizard is born. In order to frighten the police from looking for them in Nyawira’s house, Kamiti and Nyawira put a threatening sign outside:
Warning! This property belongs to a wizard whose power brings down hawks and crows from the sky. Touch this house at your peril. Sgd. Wizard of the Crow.
Rather than dissuade the police, this sign attracts officer Arigaigai Gathere, who wants the Wizard to use his powers to help him advance in the police force. When he arrives, A.G. is told to “stand in front of a small window.” It “looked like that of a confessional in a Catholic church.” A.G. is convinced the Wizard can help him, and the Wizard, still terrified of being discovered, just wants to get rid of him. He asks A.G. some suggestive questions, letting him do most of the talking, and A.G. confesses that he believes “there is a person whose shadow crosses” his. If he could eliminate this shadow, he would be promoted. The Wizard tells A.G. to bring him a mirror. “We need mirrors to see our shadows. We need mirrors to see other people’s shadows crossing ours.”
A.G. promptly complies. “Deeds define needs, and the promptness with which I executed his commands and wishes must have convinced him of my desperate need for a cure.” The Wizard tells A.G. to mentally focus on the image of his enemy; by doing that he “will capture it in the mirror. . . . Once the image is captive in my mirror, I will take a sharp knife and scratch it, and from that moment on your enemy will vanish forever.” At the end of the ceremony, A.G. “felt tears, but they were not tears of sorrow but of joy at having the burden of many years lifted from [his] heart.”
This exchange encapsulates the way that self-discovery through storytelling works throughout Wizard of the Crow. The Wizard knows that he has no magic powers; if anything, he has a potent capacity for seeing into the heart of his countrymen. As with A.G., the Wizard works his “magic” by getting people to discover—and then speak—what lies latent in their minds. The Wizard’s studio looks like a confessional, but instead of asking people to confess their sins, the Wizard gets people to confess their deepest ideas of who they truly are. A shadow does cross A.G., but it is not the shadow of an enemy. It is the shadow of another A.G., the person that A.G. truly sees himself as and wants to become. The Wizard puts this shadow in the mirror so that from now on A.G. will see himself as he wants to be seen. From that moment, A.G. lives not as the old A.G., but as one who has been freed from his thoughts. He begins to tell himself new stories of the world, stories that coincide with this new A.G., and, unsurprisingly, he succeeds where he previously failed.
It is essential that the Wizard gets his patients to speak their thoughts. At many points throughout the book, characters (including the Wizard himself at one point), become afflicted with an inability to speak. When this happens, their development becomes stalled; they are in a complete stasis, stuck still in a world that continues to evolve around them.
For instance, when Tajirika, a small-time businessman with political connections, becomes chairman of Marching to Heaven, eager contractors line up outside his office and begin giving him business cards laced with bribes to carry favor in hopes that the Global Bank will approve the project and they will get fat contracts. No sooner has Tajirika pulled three sacks of money home with him than he loses almost all ability to talk; he can only stare in the mirror and declare “if” and “if only” as he scratches at his skin. In a scene similar to A.G.’s, the Wizard gets Tajirika to speak with the aid of a mirror and reveals the source of his affliction—”whiteache,” an overwhelming desire to be white. Tajirika is “cured” when he vomits up the words stuck in his throat: “If only I was white.” Thiong’o presents this as a moment of momentous self-discovery: up till then, even Tajirika did not realize that he had whiteache. It only becomes real for him when he speaks it into being.
And then how does the Wizard get Tajirika to (momentarily) relinquish his desire to be white? He and Tajirika collaborate on a story in which they envision what the white Tajirika would be like. The quickly turns into a cautionary tale, as the white Tajirika is left as a destitute Englishman. The story of this possible future contains such power that it frightens Tajirika out of his desire to be white.
Although the Wizard of the Crow helps many characters realize and renew themselves through storytelling, the Wizard himself remains the novel’s best and most thoroughly realized example of the quest for one’s own true voice. When the Wizard first starts as Kamiti, he is undergoing a period of intense self-doubt: was he wrong to get his university degrees and look for a career? Perhaps so, as he gives up the job search for life as a beggar. Kamiti then becomes the Wizard, adding nuances to this new self each time he counsels a patient, but even then he is not complete. As this mammoth tale unwinds before us, Kamiti becomes discontented with his role as the Wizard and re-envisions and recreates himself once again, this time as a hermit in the countryside. Eventually he returns to being the Wizard, and as he suffers more ups and downs, he adds new layers to this story of himself. He continues to evolve, and by the end of Wizard of the Crow, the Wizard is a very complex character with a very complex story.
The Wizard’s evolution exemplifies what is possibly the book’s greatest innovation: the zigzagging paths that each of the main characters take through the novel. On a schematic level, Thiong’o novel could be seen as so many jagged lines superimposed atop one another. Back and forth, these narratives pass whole-cloth from black to white, development to counter-development, and occasionally they intersect. What emerges from these very coarse developments are very nuanced, conflicted characters, a morality and a vision of the world that is deep and troublesome because it feels so true. As Gibbons writes, “Ngugi has perfected in Wizard of the Crow an art of radical simplicity, of sharply defined conflicts that, paradoxically, is less reductive than ostensibly more nuanced accounts of Africa proffered by historians and political analysts.”
Once it gets going, this form of storytelling is very addictive. Swept up in the back and forth motion of the story, one comes to expect the reversals that will transform victory into defeat, safety into danger, and waiting for the other shoe to drop is one of Wizard’s pleasures. True to the oral tradition that underlies Wizard, this is a form of storytelling that puts much weight on the author. Throughout the novel, we are again and again promised that something delightful will appear just over the ridge, right after the permutations of the current configuration have played out just long enough. This means that Thiong’o must constantly surprise us, constantly dazzle us with development after development, to forestall our disappointment. To Thiong’o's great credit, reversal after reversal, promise after promise, he constantly delights, rarely disappoints.
Moreover, Thiong’o's sense of pacing is downright frightening. He knows just how long to hold back a promised revelation, for precisely how many pages he can tickle our anticipation before the waiting grows stale and one begins to hurry through the prose to see what happens. Many authors make the mistake of holding mysteries over a reader’s head for the entire length of a novel, so long that these mysteries transform from perplexing riddles to weighty swords that one begs to finally drop. Thiong’o's book, with enough satisfying revelations for an entire shelf of one-trick novels, feels like a walk down a verdant, winding path in which after each turn is revealed a more spectacular vista than any before.
This form of storytelling points toward the many possibilities inherent in fable to provide us with rich metaphors enabled by a surreal, imaginative landscape, yet to also define eminently real, finely tuned characters, places, and moralities.
The book’s two most problematic characters, Tajirika the businessman and his wife Vinjinia, exemplify the fruits of Thiong’o's style. Tajirika starts off as a wealthy jerk, his wife a pliant Christian with no greater ambitions than to make home and accept the occasional beating from her husband. As Wizard’s gears grind these two down, Vinjinia transforms into an enraged feminist, and then to an accomplished, yet decidedly conservative, member of the governing regime. Tajirika gains a greater capacity to empathize with other people (and does finally stop beating Vinjinia), but remains an unpredictable coward with a lust for whiteness. By the end of the novel, these two have become far better people than they were at the beginning, and we want to feel satisfied with their development, yet they remain incomplete, even harmful. We are faced with a question that any good novel must give us: how are we to feel about these problem characters?
Thiong’o makes these problematic characters wholly the constructs of very broad events. These dramatic upheavals are never painted with a fine brush, yet out of these comic, caricatured reversals come two characters that by the novel’s end are thorny and confounding. What are we to make of Vinjinia, who has seen so many transformations, and has perhaps come further than any character in the book, yet at the end remains such an unsatisfying person? As with Vinjinia, so with the rest of Wizard of the Crow: by book’s end, so many perspectives have been presented, sullied, and made to reveal their virtues and contradictions that little comes out looking absolutely good or bad. Out of very clear developments come very unclear results.
Wizard of the Crow reaches toward very great ambitions: a detailed explication of how politics works in Africa, and a summation of the last 50 years of an African country’s history; an investigation of how our identities are developed and our selves can be renewed through storytelling; an homage to and enrichment of oral storytelling, a form that Thiong’o believes is vital to an authentic African culture. Despite this book’s weighty aims, its greatest virtue is that they are seamlessly hewn into what is simply a wonderful story. Wizard satisfies as a book that is fun to read, a ripping story that never flags. For an oral storyteller, providing this kind of absorption is crucial: if his story grows dull, a storyteller is faced with his audience, who can mock him, or leave him, or simply let their faces fill with disheartening boredom. By contrast, a writer never has to face this kind of judgment; he is separated from his audience’s reaction, good or bad. Yet Thiong’o writes as though he expects to be faced with his audience. In some authors that would be a bad thing; their books would be filled with cheap thrills and bogus developments to keep an audience compliant. Thiong’o instead has taken this commandment to entertain and turned it into the engine of a novel that is every bit as intelligent as it is fun.
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