Monday, June 13, 2011

Wizard of the Crow

   The pen is mightier than the sword. I just finished reading a powerful novel, Wizard of the Crow, by Ngugi wa Thiong'o (b. 1938), an exiled Kenyan novelist, playwright, poet, and literary critic. Ngugi has taught at many universities, but now lives in Irvine, California and teaches English and Comparative Literature at the University of California, Irvine, as well as directing the university's International Center for Writing and Translation.
   Ngugi wrote this novel in Gikuyu, and translated it himself into English. He was baptized James Ngugi, but later in life he renounced English, Christianity and his name as vestiges of colonialism. Today he writes in Gikuyu in order to reject the colonial ties that are expressed in European languages. Instead, he wants to build an authentic African literature using native languages.
   Due to his writings about the dictatorial government in Kenya Ngugi was first imprisoned and later exiled. Wizard of the Crow (2006) was his first novel after almost 22 years in exile.
   Ngugi sets this novel in the "Free Republic of Aburiria," and populates it with a host of fantastic characters, of whom the weirdest, no doubt, is the Ruler, who confuses his own persona with that of his country. He is your typical self-obsessed African tyrant, who is not afraid to use brute force to achieve his goals.
   The Ruler is surrounded by advisors, who constantly vie with each other for his ear and his favor and are obsessed with enriching themselves from the public coffers. They too are typical of Africa, although they not exclusive to that continent.
   The eponymous Wizard, who inadvertently adopts that role, is the hero of the story. He is a spiritual figure who moves the drama forward, without fully understanding the consequences of his actions. His girlfriend, Nyawira, is also gifted spiritually, yet she is the most politically and socially conscious character. Perhaps she is Ngugi's alter ego, or to use a more contemporary term, his avatar.
   There are too many other characters in this novel to list much less describe now. This is not a book review, after all.
   The aim of Ngugi is, in his own words, "to sum up Africa of the twentieth century in the context of two thousand years of world history." With corrosive humor, he attacks African politicians, foreign missionaries, American diplomats and functionaries, and sundry other powerful people who victimize ordinary Africans.
  This novel is a parody, in which the author with his pen sketches these characters, many of whom in the end destroy themselves, vividly and mercilessly. At 766 pages it is long, yet it is a very powerful and effective tool. Tyrants and their sycophants,whether in Africa or elsewhere, ought to quake in their boots. Their end is coming. Even the Emperor, who replaces the Ruler at the end of the novel, must realize his mortality.
   The Wizard represents a reality that is unfamiliar to most people from the West. In Africa, and indeed in much of the world, people believe that spirits are real. He uses his knowledge of herbs to heal people, but he also utilizes their fear of spirits to influence events.
   Ngugi condemns much in this novel, everything from greed to Western paternalism. But he does not pick any one cause as the chief source of the continent's misery. There is no happy ending to this novel, yet it is suffused with hope.
   The strongest characters are women. In a culture that condones wife-beating, they turn the tables. Nyawira, especially, typifies the African woman in her search for justice. She is revealed in the end as the head of the opposition movement in Aburiria.
   Women will save Africa. Not that they cannot be as ambitious and greedy as men, but they are closer to the earth and do the  bulk of the work. As the Chinese say, "Women support more than half the sky."
   These observations are my personal take on this magisterial novel. Even if you never been to Africa, you will enjoy it immensely. I have spent many years there, and revel in the opportunity to introduce African literature.
   It is too bad that Ngugi has not yet won the Nobel Prize for Literature, in spite of being nominated numerous times. Please do yourself a favor and borrow it from your local library.
   The pen is indeed mightier than the sword.

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