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Ngugi's greatest novel!
on September 25, 2006
I was first introduced to Ngugi's novels in my African literature class when I was an undergrad. My mentor, Peter Nazareth, who also teaches an incredible course on Elvis Presley, went to college with Ngugi in Uganda and postgraduate school in Leeds, England. The only writer from Africa I'd read up until that course was Achebe, but there are so many truly amazing novels by Africans out there that most Americans simply don't know about--a whole literature that goes far beyond Things Fall Apart: The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born by Armah, Maru by Bessie Head, A Season of Migration to the North by Salih, The Famished Road by Okri, The Palm-Wine Drunkard by Tutuola, The Book of Secrets by Vassanji, Nehanda by Vera, A Walk in the Night by La Guma, The General Is Up by my mentor Peter Nazareth, and on and on. The best storyteller among them all, however, I must say, in my own opinion, is Ngugi wa Thiong'o. From his first works on up, they've just been better and better. A Grain of Wheat was the first I read, all about England giving up colonial power over Kenya, the Mau Mau movement, and Gikuyu culture. Another of his novels I love and have read several times is Devil on the Cross. He was detained by the Kenyan government in the late seventies after his novel Petals of Blood sparked the popular imagination and made him a threat to the regime. While in detention, he wrote Devil on the Cross, I'm told partly on toilet paper as it was all there was to write upon. Soaring with magic realism, it gives a mythic, moral critique of the Kenya he was experiencing. It's one of the great books I've read. And until this summer, it was my favorite of his works.
His latest book is Wizard of the Crow and I literally don't have the skills to convey how great it is. It's been awhile since he published a novel. His last novel before this was Matigari, which he wrote in 1983-84, first in Gikuyu and then translated it himself into English (as he'd done with Devil on the Cross). Over twenty years, then, since he finished his last novel. As it's published, it's 766 pages long, his longest work. And, I have to say, it is his best. It is the kind of story that cannot be written quickly, its scope encompassing much more than most novels do. This was a book that demanded incubation.
Wizard of the Crow isn't so much an African novel as it is a novel that explores Africa in a global context. It focuses on a fictitious country called Aburiria, which is controlled by a dictator called The Ruler. He's completely bonkers, and it isn't hard for me to see Idi Amin in this leader--the Ngatho - Acknowledgments at the end also point back to the Moi dictatorship of Kenya. But he, and his cabinet (with men who've undergone impossible plastic surgeries in Europe to have lightbulb-sized eyes and forearm-length ears--so as to be the eyes and ears of the country), aren't the only villains in this book. There's also the greedy businessmen and the Global Bank, who come to consider giving The Ruler money to build his very own tower of Babel so that he can speak to God every morning. On top of that, the country's money is cursed, giving off an overpowering stench to those people sensitive enough to such things as corruption, greed, and evil.
There are good guys, too, though. Of course there are. Ngugi isn't one of those writers who turns his back on hope. Kamiti is a young man, educated postgrad in India, who has been homeless and unemployed for several years after graduating--no one in Aburiria will hire him. He falls into his role as the Wizard of the Crow after pulling a prank to get a cop off his tail. He doesn't believe the mumbo jumbo he speaks, but everyone around hears of his powers and believes he's a healer and incredible sorcerer. Nyawira is a young woman he meets and the two of them develop an intense bond. She's tough, secretly being one of the top members of an underground movement that is against The Ruler and his barbaric administration. She also, interestingly, comes to wear the mantle of the Wizard of the Crow.
Ngugi's satirical edge is sharper than it's ever been, and he really cuts open the lies and shams of the world to get down to what's really moral and good in human beings. The ongoing current of humor is evenly tempered with moments of both sadness, in the harshness some people use against others, and wisdom that really gets to the heart of what's important in the world. I can't recommend this novel enough. If you're already into novels by African writers, you'll love this and might be amazed, as I have been, at how he ties the African experience together within the bigger picture. And if you haven't read any novels by Africans before, well, this is the one to read. It's got it all.