Though available in English for a couple years, it’s worth a revisit. Reviewed by Aminatta Forna:
In the year in which the despotic leader of the fictional African nation of Aburiria announces a grand scheme to build the world’s tallest building, Kamiti, a luckless job seeker, wakes up on a rubbish heap to find himself possessed of magical powers.
So begins Wizard of the Crow , Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s epic African political satire, his first novel in 20 years. Daunting in its ambition and scale, spanning more than 700 pages, it is, in the author’s own words, the story of “Africa of the twentieth century in the context of two thousand years of world history.”
The Aburiria of Ngugi’s imagination is representative of many African dictatorships. Its leader — known only as “the Ruler” — and his band of sycophantic and feuding ministers govern (the term is used loosely) through a blend of showmanship and brutality. Corruption is rife, the economy nonexistent, and the giant building — “Marching to Heaven” — is intended to shore up their leader’s popularity. In the era of globalization, all those who have fought for Africa’s soul in the past — church, despots and sorcerers — are now joined by the Global Bank, on whom the government depends to finance its project. Since the end of the Cold War, the Ruler, like many Third World strongmen once useful to First World powers, now finds himself dispensable. His efforts to secure the funding for his world’s tallest building project provide the arc of the novel’s narrative.
. . .
When a corrupt businessman loses the power of speech, the Wizard diagnoses it as a case of “whiteache,” the yearning to be European. Later, a similar ailment, though with a different cause, afflicts the Ruler. And the common people themselves feel the same weight of silence, which explains the appeal of the Movement of the Voice. “We want our voice back,” cry protesters.
The themes of speech and silence have long preoccupied Ngugi, who achieved international fame with Decolonising the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature (1986), in which he wrote, “The bullet was the means of physical subjugation. Language was a means of spiritual subjugation.” In Kenya, English became the official language of education and communication. Ngugi pointed out that his own arrest and detention (without charge and in a maximum security prison) came only after he began to write in Kikuyu instead of English, thereby reaching a far greater number of ordinary Kenyans, a development that the authorities found threatening. Ever since, Ngugi has questioned the gulf between African intellectuals and their audience and resolved to write in his own tongue; Wizard of the Crow was first written in Kikuyu and translated by the author into English. If the language sometimes feels simple and if the narrative contains somewhat didactic set pieces on AIDS and domestic violence, it is worth remembering that Ngugi’s works are often read aloud in public spaces.
Wizard of the Crow is first and foremost a great, spellbinding tale, probably the crowning glory of Ngugi’s life’s work. He has done for East Africa what Ahmadou Kourouma’s Waiting for the Wild Beasts to Vote did for West Africa: He has turned the power of storytelling into a weapon against totalitarianism. ·
Also see: Thrice Told Tales: How Stories Become Reality in Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s Wizard – an essay by Scott Esposito; part II of V:
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.