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Wizard of the Crow [Paperback]

Ngugi wa Thiong'o
4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (25 customer reviews)

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. The fictional Republic of Aburiria chronicled in this sprawling, dazzling satirical fable is an exaggeration of sordid African despotism. At the top, a grandiose Ruler with "the power to declare any month in the year the seventh month" and his sycophantic cabinet plan to climb to heaven with a modern-day Tower of Babel funded by the Global Bank; beneath them, a cabal of venal officials and opportunistic businessmen jockey for a piece of the pie; at the bottom are the unemployed masses who wait in endless lines behind every help-wanted sign. Kamiti, an archetypal New Man with two university degrees and no job prospects, sets up shop as a wizard; with the help of Nyawira, member of both an underground dissident movement and a feminist dance troupe, he dispenses therapeutic sorcery to a citizenry that finds witchcraft less absurd than everyday life. Kenyan novelist Thiong'o (Petals of Blood) mounts a nuanced but caustic political and social satire of the corruption of African society, with a touch of magical realism—or, perhaps, realistic magic, as the wizard's tricks hinge on holding a not-so-enchanted mirror to his clients' hidden self-delusions. The result is a sometimes lurid, sometimes lyrical reflection on Africa's dysfunctions—and possibilities. (Aug.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Booklist

Magic realism drives this mammoth novel set in the imaginary African country of Aburiria, and exiled Kenyan writer wa Thiong'o roots the wild fantasy in the brutal horror of contemporary politics. His ridicule of the powerful knows no bounds as the novel chronicles greed and corruption in Aburiria and in the West, including the Global Bank's funding of the Aburirian ruler's Marching to Heaven Tower of Babel. But even more than the crazy plot of coup, countercoup, flattery, and betrayal, what holds the reader here is the intimate story of one couple. Quiet secretary Nyawira, secret leader of the people's resistance movement, persuades her intellectual lover, Kamiti, to give up his search for himself in the wild, and they embark on a plan to change the world, with Kamiti disguised as a sorcerer. Set off by the global farce, this unforgettable love story reveals the magic power of the ordinary in people and in politics. Hazel Rochman
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

Review

Wizard of the Crow is first and foremost a great, spellbinding tale, probably the crowning glory of Ngugi’s life’s work. . . . He has turned the power of storytelling into a weapon against totalitarianism.”
The Washington Post Book World

“In his crowded career and his eventful life, Ngugi has enacted, for all to see, the paradigmatic trials and quandaries of a contemporary African writer, caught in sometimes implacable political, social, racial, and linguistic currents.” —John Updike, The New Yorker

“An allegory presented as a modern-day folk tale (complete with tricksters, magic, disguised lovers and daring escapes). . . . Ngugi writes simply and unaffectedly about his characters. . . . It recalls a long yarn told by firelight.”—The New York Times Book Review

“Ngugi is one of Africa’s greatest writers, and certainly the foremost voice of Kenyan literature. . . . Possibly the best comparison to make of Wizard of the Crow is with Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children.”
San Francisco Chronicle

About the Author

Ngugi wa Thiong'o is the author of, among other works, Petals of Blood, Weep Not Child, The River Between, A Grain of Wheat, The Devil on the Cross, and Decolonising the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature, now an essential text in post-colonial studies. Ngugi has argued that English is a "cultural bomb" that continues to erase pre-colonial cultures and history, even as it institutes new and more insiduous forms of colonialism. As Kenyan, he writes in his native Gikuyu, translating his works into English himself.

From The Washington Post

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.

The tale is in turns fantastical, surreal and scatological. One cabinet minister has undergone plastic surgery to enlarge his eyes "to the size of electric bulbs" in order to spot the Ruler's enemies. Not to be outdone, his main rival has his ears enlarged to the size of a rabbit's in order to be able to detect danger from any direction. On the day the building scheme is announced, the stage full of cabinet ministers and visiting dignitaries collapses and sinks into a pit of foul ooze. These flights of the imagination, the merging of real and unreal worlds, are in keeping with the qualities of African oral literature, as is the fast-paced narrative, marked by short chapters packed with continuous action.

Meanwhile, Kamiti, the poor job seeker, inadvertently becomes involved in a protest by the underground Movement for the Voice of the People during a visit by a delegation from the Global Bank. Kamiti, along with the mysterious female leader of the Movement, a woman named Nyawira, finds himself running for his life, chased by policemen. Hiding out in Nyawira's house, he comes up with the ingenious notion of posting a sign claiming the property is inhabited by a powerful sorcerer in order to frighten the pursuers away.

But what begins as a ruse soon takes on a life of its own. The Wizard, played by Kamiti but sometimes Nyawira, begins to receive a stream of visitors. First comes the policeman who pursued them and who becomes an occasional narrator in the novel, seeking help in winning a promotion. When his dream comes true, word spreads of the Wizard's power. After the wealthy come the poor and the oppressed by the thousands.

In a world that seems hopeless, magic provides the only possibility of hope. But what at first appears to be all smoke and mirrors, plus a basic understanding of human psychology, soon has both Kamiti and Nyawira wondering if Kamiti does indeed have magical powers. During a trip home to his family village, Kamiti's father reveals that Kamiti comes from a long line of sorcerers. 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.

Reviewed by Aminatta Forna
Copyright 2006, The Washington Post. All Rights Reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

1

There were many theories about the strange illness of the second Ruler of the Free Republic of Aburiria, but the most frequent on people's lips were five.

The illness, so claimed the first, was born of anger that once welled up inside him; and he was so conscious of the danger it posed to his well-being that he tried all he could to rid himself of it by belching after every meal, sometimes counting from one to ten, and other times chanting ka ke ki ko ku aloud. Why these particular syllables, nobody could tell. Still, they conceded that the Ruler had a point. Just as offensive gases of the constipated need to be expelled, thus easing the burden on the tummy, anger in a person also needs a way out to ease the burden on the heart. This Ruler's anger, however, would not go away, and it continued simmering inside till it consumed his heart. This is believed to be the source of the Aburirian saying that ire is more corrosive than fire, for it once eroded the soul of a Ruler.

But when did this anger take root? When snakes first appeared on the national scene? When water in the bowels of the earth turned bitter? Or when he visited America and failed to land an interview with Global Network News on its famous program Meet the Global Mighty? It is said that when he was told that he could not be granted even a minute on the air, he could hardly believe his ears or even understand what they were talking about, knowing that in his country he was always on TV; his every moment--eating, shitting, sneezing, or blowing his nose--captured on camera. Even his yawns were news because, whether triggered by boredom, fatigue, hunger, or thirst, they were often followed by some national drama: his enemies were lashed in the public square with a sjambok, whole villages were blown to bits or people were pierced to death by a bows-and-arrows squad, their carcasses left in the open as food for hyenas and vultures.

It is said that he was especially skillful in creating and nursing conflicts among Aburirian families, for scenes of sorrow were what assuaged him and made him sleep soundly. But nothing, it seemed, would now temper his anger.

Could anger, however deeply felt, cause a mystery illness that defied all logic and medical expertise?

2

The second theory was that the illness was a curse from the cry of a wronged he-goat. It is said that some elders, deeply troubled by the sight of blood flooding the land, decided to treat this evil as they had epidemics that threatened the survival of the community in the olden days: but instead of burying the evil inside the belly of a beast by inserting flies, standing for the epidemic, into its anus, they would insert the Ruler's hair, standing for the evil, into the belly of a he-goat through its mouth. The evil-carrying goat, standing for the Ruler, would then become an outcast in the land, to be driven out of any region where its cry announced its evil presence.

Led by a medicine man, they mixed the hair, obtained secretly from the Ruler's barber, with grass, salt, and magic potions and gave it to the goat to swallow. Needle and thread in hand, the medicine man started sewing the seven orifices of the body beginning with the anus. The struggling he-goat gave out a bloodcurdling cry and, before the medicine man could seal its mouth, it escaped. It is said that it cried grief across the land, until the Ruler heard the cry and, learning about the curse, which he imagined to be a call for a coup, sent soldiers to hunt down the he-goat and all involved. Rumor has it that the goat, the barber, the medicine man, the elders, and even the soldiers were given over to the crocodiles of the Red River to ensure eternal silence about the curse. And it was to mark this day of his deliverance that the Ruler had the picture of the Red River added to Buri notes, the only picture besides his own to honor the Aburirian currency.

Still, he worried about the fact that the goat had a beard, and he secretly consulted an oracle in a neighboring country, who assured him that only a bearded spirit could seriously threaten his rule. Though he read this as meaning that no human could overthrow him, for, since they had no bodily form, spirits could never grow beards, he became sensitive to beards and then decreed what came to be known as the Law of the Beard, that all goats and humans must have their beards shaved off.

There are some who dispute the story of the bearded he-goat and even argue that the Law of the Beard applied only to soldiers, policemen, civil servants, and politicians, and that the herdsmen shaved their he-goats out of their own volition, shaving goats' beards then being the fashion among Aburirian herdsmen.

These skeptics wondered: what has the cry of a he-goat whose anus, ears, and nose being sealed, have to do with the strange illness that befell the Ruler?

3

Others now came up with a third theory, which said that since nothing lasts forever, the illness had something to do with the aging of his rule: he had sat on the throne so long that even he could not remember when his reign began. His rule had no beginning and no end; and judging from the facts one may well believe the claim. Children had been born and had given birth to others and those others to others and so on, and his rule had survived all the generations. So that when some people heard that before him there had been a first Ruler, preceded by a succession of governors and sultans all the way from the eras of the Arabs, the Turks, the Italians, to that of the British, they would simply shake their heads in disbelief saying, no, no, those are just the tales of a daydreamer: Aburiria had never had and could never have another ruler, because had not this man's reign begun before the world began and would end only after the world has ended? Although even that surmise was shot through with doubts, for how can the world come to an end?

4

The fourth theory asserted that his illness had its origins in all the tears, unshed, that Rachael, his legal wife, had locked up inside her soul after her fall from his grace.

The Ruler and his wife had fallen out one day when Rachael asked questions about the schoolgirls who, rumors claimed, were often invited to the State House to make his bed, where he, like the aging white man of the popular saying, fed on spring chicken. Of course, the Ruler would never admit to aging, but he had no problems with the "white man" comparison, and so he amended the proverb to say that a white man renews his youth with spring chicken. Imagine how he must have felt about Rachael's attempt to deny him his fountains of youth! How indiscreet and indecorous of her to ask the unaskable! Since when could a male, let alone a Ruler, be denied the right to feel his way around women's thighs, whether other men's wives or schoolgirls? What figure of a Ruler would he cut were he to renounce his right to husband all women in the land in the manner of the lords of Old Europe, whose droits de seigneur gave them the right to every bride-to-be?

Rachael thought she was being reasonable. I know you take the title Father of the Nation seriously, she told him. You know that I have not complained about all those women who make beds for you, no matter how many children you sire with them. But why schoolgirls? Are they not as young as the children you have fathered? Are they not really our children? You father them today and tomorrow you turn them into wives? Have you no tears of concern for our tomorrow?

They were dining in the State House, and to Rachael the evening was very special because it was the first time in a long while that they were alone together: the burdens of presiding over the nation hardly ever gave them time to share meals and engage in husband-and-wife talk. Rachael believed in the saying that clothes maketh a woman, and that night she had taken particular care with her appearance: a white cotton dress with a V-shaped collar, short sleeves pleated at the edges, a necklace highlighting her slender neck, rings on her fingers, and dangling from her elegant ears, diamonds sparkling all about her.

We can very well imagine the scene. Guiding his fork unerringly toward his lips, the Ruler was about to place a morsel of chicken into his mouth, when suddenly, at Rachael's words, the fork froze in midair; slowly, he lowered the fork to the plate, the piece of chicken still on it, took the napkin and wiped his lips with deliberation. Before replacing the napkin on the table, he turned to his wife and asked: Rachael, did I really hear you say that I have been forcing myself on schoolchildren? That I don't cry over our tomorrow? Have you ever heard of a Ruler who cries, except maybe, well, never mind him, and where did those daily tears of a grown man lead him? He lost his throne. Do you want me to end up as he did?

There is always a difference between a thought and its description: what the Ruler had been dwelling on when lowering the fork to the table and wiping his lips with a corner of the napkin was not the fate of a Ruler who wept and so lost his throne but rather what he would have to do to make Rachael understand that he, the Ruler, had power, real power over everything including . . . yes . . . Time. He shuddered at the thought. Even before the shuddering completed its course, he had made up his mind.

Speaking with studied calm, a faint smile on his face, he told Rachael that the unfinished meal would be their last supper together, that he would go away to give her time to think about the implications of her allegations, and since she would need space to think, he would bring to pass what had been written in the scriptures: In My Father's House Are Many Mansions. Even for ...
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