Back to Index
politics of the post-colony
& Guardian (SA)
November 17, 2006
reviews Ngugi wa Thiong’o's latest offering Wizard of the Crow
Ngugi wa Thiong’o
says his aim in Wizard of the Crow is "to sum up Africa of
the 20th century in the context of global forces of world history".
Set in the Free Republic of Aburiria, this is an often dark, enigmatic
and humorous story that spans 760 pages and is a refined culmination
of the socialist vision of Petals of Blood, Devil on the Cross and
translated the novel from his mother tongue, Kikuyu, in which it
was written and first published. The action is set at the point
when Kamiti, the Wizard of the Crow, crosses paths with the Ruler,
as the life president of Aburiria is known. In an egotistic moment,
the Ruler decides to build a modern-day version of the biblical
Tower of Babel, to be known as Marching to Heaven -- "a building
to the very gates of Heaven so that the Ruler could call on God
daily to say good morning or good evening or simply how was your
day today, God?"
As usually happens
with these sorts of projects, there is no money for the exercise,
so funding must come from the Global Bank, a pervasive institution
in the affairs of the country. The bank is non-committal about finance
but before project financing has even been secured, Tajirika, the
chairman of the project and a real estate and construction industry
magnate, begins receiving visitors (in the parlance) bearing gifts,
who want to get tenders.
frequently hilarious caricatures of the politics of the post-colony.
This is a world, for instance, where foreign affairs minister Markus
Machokali enlarges his eyes to the size of light bulbs "so
that he would be able to spot the enemies of the Ruler no matter
how far their hiding places". Not to be outdone, security minister
Silver Sikiokuu enlarges his ears so that he can "detect danger
at any time and from any direction".
This is also often
a burlesque world with no rules, except for the sometimes frightening
and warped ones of the improbable. Take the episode when the Ruler
acquires a strange illness that baffles the best medical opinion
and makes him puff up "like a balloon, his whole body becoming
more and more inflated, without losing the proportion of parts".
This is just like the Aburirian currency that "changed its
value every other day the way chameleons change colour" --
a barbed remark directed perhaps at Zimbabwe, whose flag and national
symbols are on the front cover.
It is also a world
where the ruling elite are afflicted by a strange illness called
white-ache, in which words get stuck in the throat and the only
thing that sufferers can say is "if only". When Tajirika
suffers from this ailment, he goes to the wizard, who unlocks the
subsumed wish: "If only my skin were white like a white man’s
In a book this
long, of course, one expects many themes to be woven in. There are
attempts to champion the feminist cause and find more meaningful
and realistic roles for female characters. By the time the book
ends, even Kamiti, who "had no set views of a woman’s place
in the world", has been won over to the cause.
Kamiti and Nyawira
both play the Wizard of the Crow. The ease with which they assume
the role recalls an argument in Salman Rushdie’s The Jaguar Smile:
A Nicaraguan Journey that a culture of masks is one that understands
a lot about change. The wizard figure, though, is a curious one.
Perhaps it is Ngugi’s admission of the inadequacy of the socialist
vision that he championed zealously in Devil on the Cross, Petals
of Blood and other books, and which must now be shored up by the
spirituality and healing powers of the Indian-educated Kamiti.
This book strengthens
Ngugi’s commitment to the orality repertoire, which he effected
so expertly in Matigari. It also marks his first foray into the
world of magical realism, and in that it has the oversights one
expects of experimental works.
Ngugi’s book ends
with Kamiti and Nyawira going home while holding hands, "a
mixture of teardrops and raindrops running down Nyawira’s face".
Up to the point when the Ruler is deposed, the book carries the
weight of its tale quite well. But with the Ruler gone, the suspense
and the fascination it generates over several hundred pages dissipates
as we are given yet another ample dosage of life under Tajirika,
the ruler’s successor. Perhaps, though, Ngugi is trying to underscore
the dreary, cyclical and pessimistic vision and life in a "free"
post-colony -- and that might well "sum up Africa of the 20th
century in the context of global forces of world history".
Please credit www.kubatana.net if you make use of material from this website.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License unless stated otherwise.