Tuesday, 1 September 2015

Wizard of the Crow by Ngugi Wa Thiong'o

Wizard of the Crow is a satirical fantasy novel by Kenyan author Ngugi Wa Thiong'o. It was originally written in the language of the Gikuyu people, but has been translated into English by the author himself.

It is set in the fictional African country of Aburĩria. It is ruled over by a dictator known only as The Ruler. As the novel begins, The Ruler has decided to build a tower that will reach the heavens and fulfil what humanity attempted with the Tower of Babel. The project is called "Marching to Heaven".
We also meet the well-educated beggar Kamiti, who discovers that he has magical powers. He becomes the Wizard of the Crow of the title and uses his powers to help people with their problems (which are often psychological in nature). He also meets a woman, Nyawira, who is a member of a resistance movement.

This is fundamentally a book about dictatorship, or rather an absurd satire of it. The Ruler is one of the most dislikeable figures in modern literature, viewing the people he governs merely as a way to make money or to sate his megalomaniac desires.

The portrait of dictatorship comes main from the author's experiences with the regime of Daniel Arap Moi in Kenya, who imprisoned Wa Thiong'o and eventually drove into exile.  The Ruler of the book has strong similarities with Moi. But as all good fiction, the novel has universal qualities and The Ruler could sadly stand in for many real dictators.

An important theme of the book is the complicity of Western capitalism in these kinds of dictatorships.  The Ruler's dictatorship is portrayed as more or less a puppet of the West, once used as a weapon by them in the Cold War. His purpose is essentially to keep Aburiria open to the profit-making of Western corporations.

The novel also satirizes the hollowness of most African democracies. When democracy seemingly comes to Aburiria near the end of the novel, it's a continuation of the Ruler's dictatorship in another guise. Wa Thiong'o points out how bourgeois democracy is often wholly controlled by the forces of capital, resulting in many parties with a single goal: the free reign of capital.

Another important theme is feminism. With the character of Nyawira, Wa Thiong'o paints a portrait of a strong, independent woman, the political conscience of the novel. And never have I seen a male author get so passionate and uncompromising about the issue of domestic violence.

The humour of the novel is somewhat absurd and broad. It contains everything from witty political satire to slapstick. To give an example of the latter, there is a funny scene in which a man takes over a military base armed only with a bucket of shit.

But this book is not only funny, it is also moving and beautiful. This very long novel (767 pages) gives itself time to develop it's characters. Among the humorous and satirical passages, there are also wonderfully written lyrical parts, such as descriptions of nature and an interesting magical realist sidestory involving a lake where time is frozen. The venal corruption of the dictatorship of the ruler is contrasted with the altruism and the gentle, Buddhist influenced spirituality of The Wizard of the Crow.

Wizard of the Crow is a masterpiece. It's many pages fly by due to Wa Thiong'o easy-flowing style (inspired by oral tradition, perhaps). The whole book is illuminated by the warmth and sheer joy of his storytelling.

I haven't read any other works by Ngugi Wa Thiong'o, but this book alone is good enough to make him, in my opinion, one of the most important authors writing today.

No comments:

Post a Comment