NGUGI’S MASTERPIECE: LITERARY FEAST, POLITICAL INDICTMENT
I enjoyed the Kenyan novel WIZARD of the CROW so much that I could not resist sharing my pleasure with my readers. This column is a shorter version of a comprehensive review of that masterwork that will be published elsewhere later. When Ngugi wa Thiongo, Kenya's most distinguished novelist, appeared at the Garden City Literary Festival in Port Harcourt, Nigeria in September 2009 his masterly and impassioned advocacy of literary expression in the traditional languages of Africa became the hallmark of his participation.
Unfortunately it is reasonably certain that most of the youthful Nigerian audience that listened to him there had not read his masterpiece Wizard of the Crow, itself originally written in his native Gikuyu language, at that time. If they had, the wisdom and courage of his views on this subject might have resonated with greater relevance to the political circumstances that have existed and continue to exist in their own society.
This is a work that can genuinely be described as a tour de force. Apart from its substantial length and the prodigious feats of both linguistic dexterity and imaginative fertility displayed by Ngugi in the course of telling his incredible tale, the book is simply a most impressive example of pure African storytelling. Although it is a complex satire on the exigencies of confusion and dictatorial ignorance that has bedeviled governance in many African nations of the post-colonial era it is more than anything else a cracking adventure story as well as a fantastic psychological thriller. Ngugi has managed to compose a believable tale out of the antics and presumptions of a most unbelievable set of characters. He keeps his readers enthralled through the credible emotional resemblance of the situations that he weaves to events in the contemporary history of several African nations.
This portrait of a nation whose leader is an overbearing patriarch can fit several African nations in every sub-region of the continent, but there is hardly any doubt that Kenya of the immediate post independence period of the sixties and seventies, and maybe its neighbour Uganda in the same era, served as models for the country of Aburiria. The portrayal of incredible brutality disguised as buffoonery that characterises not only The Ruler but also his entourage of sycophantic followers brings back haunting memories of Idi Amin's Uganda.
At the same time the use of mythical structures to move the tale forward suggests that Ngugi is telling a tale that is both universal and local thus indicating that his own experience of oppression in his home nation is the fundamental source of the narrative. The most profound element of this rollicking and farcical romp is neither its humour nor its challenging imaginative fertility, but its accuracy in analysing governance as a betrayal of the trust of the ordinary people in modern African society. In this wise the novel is one of the most important creative experiments to have arisen out of the maelstrom of creative responses to African independence. It is both a cautionary tale and a critical masterpiece of literary adventure. In some ways while it can be read as a straightforward fantasy of Swiftian intensity it should also be regarded as an accurate depiction of the modern reality of many African nations. When it is read in this spirit the book becomes not just an exciting story but also a frightening reflection of a catalogue of uncomfortable truths.
Kamiti 'The Wizard of the Crow' must rank as one of the most interesting central characters of world literature if only because he is portrayed as a reluctant and almost unconscious hero. He did not set out to antagonise or oppose the system. The central prognosis of the story is that by regarding the true course of life as the need to relate to his fellow human beings with compassion and honesty he became not only the most beloved member of society but also the most intransigent enemy of the state. Ironically Kamiti did not know or understand his power as a cathartic advocate and mobiliser of resistance when he commenced pretending to have powers of prophecy and divination.
He was actually making fun of the state's attempt to suppress his will when he threatened to unleash his supernatural wrath on the security apparatus. The author's finest achievement is that he is able to turn this improbable circumstance into a believable challenge to authority. In doing so he tells the story of the implosion of authoritarian excess in a credible and exciting modern novel while paying homage to age-old traditional values. The work utilises the fundamental principles of traditional narrative exposition in a fresh and dynamic manner and provides a unifying theme between the content and the method of its creation. As a consequence the underlying theme of the battle for moral regeneration under the siege of official greed and corruption is delivered with a powerful tone of voice.
The most impressive strength of this work might very well be in the way that it examines the role and relevance assigned to women in modern African society. One of the underlying themes of the tale is the role assigned to male dominance in modern African communities and the attendant folly that this engenders. The assumption on the part of the dominant men that women by their sexual provenance are less than first class citizens proves to be the undoing of scores of presumptuous so-called leaders of society and this device also provides the foundation for some of the most hilarious and devastatingly satirical events in the tale.
Ngugi has an incredible sense of the absurd and it is deployed to maximum effect in his examination of the sexual divide. His depiction of the harmony of sexual compassion between characters who have overcome the folly of gender-based chauvinism by confronting and overcoming their own false presumptions is remarkable. This adds weight to the resolution of the tale as it draws to an inevitably moralistic conclusion and the protagonist is shown to be almost dependent on his female mentor Nyawira. In fact by the end of this work it is clear that the real heroes are the heroines and Nyawira is in many ways an even more fully realised creation as the symbol of the resistance to tyranny than is Kamiti himself.
This work is a stylistic as well as an intellectual triumph. The fact that it has been translated from the original Gikuyu by the author himself might explain the adventurous use of the English language. His early novels like Weep Not Child and A Grain of Wheat displayed a sense of pastoral poesy that is not as evident in the overall pattern of narration in this work. There are, however, some unique passages in which the description of the lives and thoughts of the masses is detailed with a passion and strength of imagery that is remarkable. In such passages his use of the English language reads not like a translation but rather like a direct expression of experience narrated without the detachment of the translator.
In such moments this book becomes a diary of pain and disenchantment that is so intensely realised that it takes on the guise of several different genres of literary endeavour. Some sections read like science fiction while others resemble nothing so much as a retelling of ancient myths. At the core of this passionate work there is also a deep attachment to the belief that the human spirit can be transformed into a superhuman, not to say supernatural, force when confronted with tyranny. As this element is developed throughout the narrative the modern tale is suffused with a mytho-poetic strength that is unique in African literature of the last five decades. For this reason if for no other Wizard of the Crow should be compulsory reading for all students of modern literature as well as for anyone who enjoys reading good fiction for either pleasure or enlightenment.