Review: Wizard of the Crow by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o

translated by the author

original publication (from the Gikuyu): 2004

this edition: Pantheon, 2006

grab a copy here or through your local independent bookstore or library

“Sprawling” is the best way to describe Kenyan author Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o’s Wizard of the Crow, a multi-layered, complex, and hilariously absurd magical realist book about the deeply corrupt Free Republic of Aburiria and the man who accidentally becomes the powerful Wizard of the Crow.

The Ruler of Aburiria, who often brags about how he killed thousands of communist during the Cold War and was praised by Western leaders, has now found himself in a post-Cold War world in which the rules of the game have changed. Global leaders don’t seem as interested in him and refuse to invite him to state functions or appear with him for tv interviews. After exiling his wife to a farm on the outskirts of the country for questioning his relationships with young girls (he feels that he has the right to sleep with anyone he wants, whether they’re young or old, married or not), he decides, with the help of his constantly-feuding ministers, to launch a project called Marching to Heaven. This will be a monument to the Ruler’s brilliance and generosity to his people, and the greatest wonder of the world, even though, as the people around him admit, the Tower of Babel didn’t go so well. The Ruler, though, is undeterred, and immediately applies to the Global Bank for funds to start construction.

After the Ruler travels to America to try to drum up support for his project, the story turns to a young man named Kamiti, who, despite his comprehensive education in India, has been unable to find a job in Eldares. He isn’t alone, though- his former fiancee and many other young people, with their degrees in business, finance, and administration, have been unable to find work in the major city of Aburiria. Thus they wander from temp job to temp job. Kamiti finds himself starving and homeless, lying on a trash heap, when he feels his soul leave his body. Determined not to die, he snaps back to life, scaring the three trash men who were about to hurl his body into the dump truck.

Kamiti then applies at a construction company for a temp job and is humiliated by its boss Tajirika, who only has contempt for Kamiti’s education and fluency in English. Tajirika’s secretary, Nyawira, is kind to Kamiti after he leaves and tries to make him feel better about his life, since she, too, had wandered for a while looking for work. A few days later, Kamiti and Nyawira both find themselves being chased by policemen at a dinner for the Global Bank representatives–Kamiti because he’s seen begging, and Nyawira because she’s with a protest movement pushing for freedom and free speech in the country. Nyawira brings Kamiti back to her house on the city’s outskirts to hide out until the police stop looking for them, but Kamiti has the idea of putting some materials associated with sorcery outside of the house. The policeman is terrified at the charms and runs off, after which Kamiti and Nyawira decide to continue the wizard act for a few more days.

Before they realize it, people have started showing up at their door, demanding to see the Wizard of the Crow (the name that Kamiti wrote on a sign at the door). Knowledgeable in the healing arts and the herbs that grow in the land around Eldares, Kamiti begins to advise his clients when they come to him with their medical problems. Even those, like the policeman who first chased them, who come with complaints about being passed over for promotions, are pleased with what the Wizard tells them. As Kamiti explains to Nyawira, just making someone see things from a different perspective is all that’s necessary to help them change their life. At other times, Kamiti does seem to have otherworldly powers; when he visits his parents after many years, his mother tells him that, actually, he is descended from a long line of seers and healers.

Meanwhile, Nyawira is busy organizing protests against the Ruler, including a dance, performed in front of the Global Bank visitors, in which a group of women demand that the Ruler release his wife. Embarrassed and angry, the Ruler decides to stand out the Movement for the Voice of the People. Nyawira’s ex-husband (John Kaniuru), seeking to move up in the government, tries to turn her in for her revolutionary work, but Nyawira escapes and hides with Kamiti.

The rest of the novel explores how the mythology of the Wizard of the Crow grows out of all proportion to its origins. Begun as a joke, it soon becomes the most important cultural phenomenon in the country, with regular people and government leaders all either wanting to consult with the Wizard or capture him to use him for their own means. Magical realist elements abound in the story, including a lake near Tajirika’s house where time stands still (the spell is only broken by tears of joy) and the Ruler’s “self-induced expansion” after he is humiliated by the Global Bank, which turns him down for funds for Marching to Heaven. While in New York, the Ruler suddenly starts expanding before everyone’s eyes, his anger at the Global Bank filling him up with hot air (?). After he returns to Aburiria, frustration over the fact that Nyawira and the Wizard of the Crow have disappeared makes him expand once more and fly up to the roof of his palace.

The constant feud between his top two ministers, and the rise of Tajirika and Kaniuru, expose the layers upon layers of corruption in the Ruler’s government, with embezzlement, backstabbing, lies, and forced confessions under torture the main features. Ngũgĩ offers us a clear, disturbing, and absurd picture of the state of the world in the early twenty-first century, with people like the Ruler trying to cut deals with Western governments, only to be told that now they must change their countries into democracies because the Cold War is over. The Ruler isn’t prepared to do that, but does tweak the system a little, though his overthrow is inevitable. The Wizard of the Crow and Nyawira, meanwhile, pursue their newfound purpose- changing their country’s culture one person at a time.

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