If you’re like me, you may also be unfamiliar with African literature outside Chinua Achebe. I requested this book knowing nothing about Ngugi, hoping to expand my literary horizons. I wanted a different style of prose, one that was distinctly non-American, non-European, and non-Eastern. I was also intrigued by the notion of a satirical dystopia written as an epic folk myth. I very much wanted to like this book.
To its credit, Wizard of the Crow does deliver on all of these things. It’s a rather lengthy tale about Aburiria, a fictional African dictatorship nation where the Ruler and his sycophantic ministers exert absolute power. On the Ruler’s birthday (any day he chooses, since he controls the calendar), he announces a new public works project called Marching to Heaven, a new tower of Babel. The ridiculous political system is juxtaposed against the state of the nation, the spiritually and economically destitute victims of tyranny. Among the countless jobless and impoverished is Kamiti, a man who has some vague preternatural abilities (the most explicit are astral projection and turning his soul into a bird). After a mix-up at a demonstration, he evades police by leaving a sign outside a house claiming that it is the shrine of the wizard of the crow, and that those who enter are cursed. The trick works too well, and eventually the popularity of the wizard of the crow as a healer and diviner soars. The crumbling myth of the Ruler’s rule and the escalating myth of the wizard’s power (which is really just the power of self-empowerment) comprise the bulk of the plot.
Ngugi flirts substantially with the ridiculous to make his point hit home. For example, the Ruler’s cabinet surgically enhance their bodies. The foreign affairs minister enlarges his eyes to become the eyes of the Ruler; in retaliation, the minister of information enlarges his tongue to be the voice of the ruler, only to find that he must enlarge his mouth to retain the ability to speak. Or take the dogged readiness with which people believe the “magic” of the wizard.
While the novel abounds in such peculiarities, which provide the bulk of the humor-satire edge, the absurdity really hits home when considering Aburiria in context of the greater world’s eye. We’re privy to precious little knowledge about the real state of life in Africa besides what we see in melodramatic news stories. It is a place about which most of us must plead ignorance. It seems that Ngugi’s point is not necessarily that this is what goes on there, but rather that this could be going on there without our knowledge. Wherever the Ruler goes, he gets neither press nor attention (except for rumors about him being pregnant, fitting in with a tabloid interest in world news). When appealing to the Global Bank for funds for Marching to Heaven, he is treated with the most obvious veiled superciliousness.
His people get no further attention. American ambassador Gabriel Gemstone’s (get it?) only concern about the Ruler’s harsh treatment of his people and the developing quasi-civil war is the way it effects America’s image. One actually feels sympathy for the Ruler when he angrily notes that back during the Cold War, the Americans loved him for mass-murdering communists; now he is chastised. Aburiria is a country no one cares about, an isolation made all the worse by the fact that there are many in the novel who want to be just like the whites who treat them so poorly, a disease the wizard calls “white-ache.” This is the bite of Wizard of the Crow, perhaps unintentionally so—it was only later translated into English by the author. But for an American audience, witnessing a burlesque of what may lie behind the walls of ignorance may be exactly what we need.
Regrettably, the novel fails in many other respects. It’s significantly longer than it has to be, and the plot-driven narrative feels painfully clunky. While suggesting a complex magical world is usually a good thing in these modern folktales, there must be a consistency to it. Take for example, the world in Neil Gaiman’s Anansi Boys: it is cleanly mysterious and just comprehensible enough. Wizard of the Crow leaves points unfinished and magic unexplained (even when it needs to be—and the fact that explanation is necessary in magical realism is yet another error of the text). The focus on characters is weak, which wouldn’t be a problem except that the picture is incomplete; it would have been better for there to be an archetypical characterization rather than a half-done effort. Additionally, the satire is tired and at times clichéd—psychotic ruler, gullible and greedy capitalists—we’ve seen much of this before, and with more care. As a result of all these flaws, the process of reading most of this seemingly endless book is boring and sometimes tedious.
Another concern that I feel needs addressing is the writing style. It is indeed a unique style, neither Western nor Eastern, and while this may earn it praise for “sticking to its roots,” that doesn’t make it good. Ngugi has a tendency not just to leave necessary things unexplained, but to explain things that necessitate no such explanation, like basic motivations for actions that are easy to infer, like the logic behind the ministers’ jockeying for favor. At other points the narrative is painfully blatant: “…the movement gave purpose and direction…Most politicians want to master people. But your people want to master themselves before they can master others. I want to work with you.” There’s little to capture the imagination in these words; this is the case for most of the text. Moreover, the writing itself feels awkward and stilted. The prose is very polite and feels far too much like a non-native English speaker trying to find the right words and convey them with dignity. This may be a fault of English not being able to capture the original text’s nuances, but that doesn’t change the bewildering word choice and expository style.
I did very much want to like this book. And it does pack a message Americans should care about, and presents it in a relatively unconventional, curious, and sometimes funny and entertaining way. But the failings of the narrative prevent the experience from feeling like it is worth the struggle. Wizard of the Crow leaves the reader with some good jokes and some painful tragedy, but far more tedious pages till its close.