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the complete review - fiction
Wizard of the Crow
Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o
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- Translated by the author
- Gikuyu title: Murogi wa Kagogo
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A- : generous and enjoyable
See our review for fuller assessment.
Generally impressed (if also a bit overwhelmed), with most also finding some weaknesses
From the Reviews:
- "Ngugi is a playwright as well as a novelist, and in one sense Wizard of the Crow is a meditation on theatricality, particularly the theatricality of politics. (...) Though long, the novel has few longueurs, and races ahead with the animated pacing of traditional storytelling. (...) Addressing primarily a popular Kenyan audience that includes the nonliterate -- his works are often read aloud in bars -- Ngugi has perfected in Wizard of the Crow an art of radical simplicity, of sharply defined conflicts that, paradoxically, is less reductive than ostensibly more nuanced accounts of Africa proffered by historians and political analysts. At once an epic burlesque of a sick, lumbering state and a praise song to the manifold forms of African resilience, the phantasmagoric saga of Aburiria is as clear a view of Africa as we are likely to get for some time." - James Gibbons, Bookforum
- "Wizard of the Crow is rich in metaphor, symbolism, and biblical allusion, and Thiong'o employs his razor-sharp wit throughout the book to contrast two parallel worlds -- that of the powerful and that of the powerless." - Elizabeth Owuor, Christian Science Monitor
- "(F)unny if messy. (.....) Aburiria is recognisable as Africa in all its splendour, squalor, economic malaise and venality, but it comes with more than a touch of magical realism. (...) Despite the book's faults, it is hard not to be cheered by the spirit of gentle resistance that is at its core, in defiance of everyday greed." - The Economist
- "At its deepest level, however, the novel is really about re-centring the author's discourse in Africa itself by a radical focus on multiple African voices. There are many tellers of tales in this saga, and each has an individual authenticity. While this causes a problematic bulkiness, the story has heft as a political satire." - Keith Garebian, The Globe & Mail
- "Yet for all its grotesque hyperbole, Wizard of the Crow struck me as truthful in its dissection of power, and remarkably free of bitterness. At more than 700 pages, its flaws, of obsessive reiteration and prolixity, arise partly from its bold experimentation with oral forms, and from giving rein to the pathologies of the corrupt at the expense of the more intimate dilemmas of those who challenge them. But the poisonousness of its targets never infects the author's vision, nor his faith in people's power to resist. Perhaps that in itself is a triumph." - Maya Jaggi, The Guardian
- "Ngugi writes simply and unaffectedly about his characters and the cartoonish trouble in which they land. Itís hard to think of another recent novel so heavily steeped in oral traditions; at the level of language and cadence it recalls a long yarn told by firelight. Strange, then, that Wizard of the Crow should lack the distilled smoothness of a story passed down over many generations." - Jeff Turrentine, The New York Times Book Review
- "Such readers would do well to remember that it is a translation from a language whose narrative traditions are mostly oral and heavy on performance; the tale is fantastic and didactic, told in broad strokes of caricature. (...) The author of this bulky book offers more indignation than analysis in his portrait of postcolonial Africa. (.....) (S)even hundred and sixty-six pages of fiction too aggrieved and grim to be called satire (.....) The narrative, then, is a journey without a destination, and its characters are improv artists. This ambitious, long-mulled attempt to sustain the spell of oral narrative in an era of electro-visual distractions leaves the Wizard where the reader finds him, up in the air." - John Updike, The New Yorker
- "Wizard of the Crow may improve his status, but only for those willing to wrestle with its incredibly demanding text. Nevertheless, the novel has many rewards for those willing to face its challenges. (...) The novel is full of moments that are entirely predictable and others that appear to pop out of nowhere. From an ingrained Western perspective this could be annoying, which could lead to this novel not receiving the recognition it deserves. But to enjoy this book readers should first abandon any expectations they may have of literature and just surrender themselves to the story." - David Hellman, San Francisco Chronicle
- "At best the prose is limber. At worst it is lax. But there is method in his laxity. He mimics the oral storytelling of his continent. The eye of the story is restless, it darts and backtracks, it brims with wise sayings. (...) This is a book about choosing sides. A book above all about the individual's responses to moral dilemmas. (...) It's a book of wonderful purple phases (the greatest lyrical description of making love I have ever read, a marvellous evocation of wilderness), but at almost 800 pages it should be serialised for consumption, not swallowed whole." - Tom Adair, The Scotsman
- "As well as writing with pace and tension, the author is a master of farce." - Tom Payne, Sunday Telegraph
- "Some of this burlesque is funny and lively, but there is a stiffness and didacticism about some of the good charactersí discussions that betrays a surplus of political conviction. Nevertheless, given the facts on the ground, the real-life Big Men now ruling in Africa and the global machinations of American finance, this satire linking the two still has an important point to make." - Maggie Gee, Sunday Times
- "By turns witty and wise, beguiling and exasperating, this is Ngugi's most barbed (even bitter) satire on the betrayal of independence by corrupt governments in neo-colonial Africa." - Andrew van der Vlies, Times Literary Supplement
- "The tale is in turns fantastical, surreal and scatological. (...) 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." - Aminatta Forna, The Washington Post
Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers.
Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.
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The complete review's Review:
At 766 pages Wizard of the Crow is a long book, so it comes as somewhat of a surprise that it is not in the 'sweeping epic'-genre mould.
Ngugi does pack a great deal into his novel, but does not force the issues; the result is a surprisingly breezy read that's enormously entertaining and almost incidentally provides a broad picture of the African condition in the early 21st century.
Wizard of the Crow is set in the fictional Free Republic of Aburiria, governed by the second Ruler (and -- no great surprise -- where there's not that much emphasis on the 'Free').
There's little concern at the government-level about actually governing: maintaining power and (for those serving under the Ruler) jockeying for position are the highest priority -- and that largely only because that might make wealth-accumulation even easier.
The people are largely an annoyance and irrelevancy -- except, of course, that they can be a source of cash.
The Ruler is your typical self-obsessed African tyrant; rumour has it that he bathes "in the preserved blood of his enemies", but while he will order the use of brute force when necessary for most of the novel his main concern is getting the Global Bank (think World Bank and IMF) to fund his new pet project, Marching to Heaven.
A huge structure, a sort of modern Tower of Babel, it would be: "the first and only superwonder in the history of the world", superseding all previous so-called wonders of the world.
Maybe not the best use of resources in a developing nation, but a proper monument to the Ruler .....
Among the Ruler's (for the most part) trusted advisers are Machokali, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, and Sikiokuu, the Minister of State -- who must constantly try to prove their devotion to the Ruler, even as they try to position themselves to accumulate more power.
Machokali was called into the Cabinet after having had plastic surgery on his eyes, having them "enlarged to the size of electric bulbs" (the better to see the Ruler's enemies !) -- leading Sikiokuu to follow suit and have his ears enlargened, so that he would be able to hear even the most private conversations of citizens (in order to, of course, protect the Ruler).
(The fad of body-augmentation of this sort -- which had given career boosts to these two -- fortunately fell out of fashion when the next fellow had his tongue elongated, a misguided attempt to be able to convey the Ruler's commands throughout the land .....)
Kamiti wa Karimiri is not your typical Aburirian -- he has even studied abroad, in India -- but he's living proof of the country's failures: well educated (at great sacrifice by his parents), he can't find any sort of job back in Aburiria.
A particularly humiliating job interview at Titus Tajirika's Eldares Modern Construction and Real Estate Company really gets to him -- but at least there he meets Nyawira, Tajirika's secretary.
The two find themselves thrown together again shortly afterwards, chased by the police -- and only escape through some quick thinking: hiding in a house and putting a sign out front, warning people away in the name of 'Wizard of the Crow'.
When they forget to take the sign down they find they have to play the role of the Wizard of the Crow (Kamiti first, but they both get in on the act), a mix of sorcerer, healer, and wise man.
It's something they are surprisingly good at -- though often more by coincidence than because of any spiritual powers they actually have.
Soon enough the Wizard of the Crow is both much in demand as well as feared.
Meanwhile, the Marching to Heaven project is only advancing slowly, as Global Bank has not committed any funds yet.
Nevertheless, Machokali suggests Tajirika should be named first chairman of the Marching to Heaven Building Committee -- and once word of that gets out Tajirika finds his offices overrun by those looking for a piece of the pie (who leave behind envelopes stuffed with cash) as well as job-seekers -- the first immense queues in what becomes a nation-wide queuing epidemic.
Tajirika finds himself quickly overwhelmed (suffering from 'white-ache' -- diagnosed and then cured by none other that the Wizard of the Crow), but as the only one who actually has made any money out of the Marching to Heaven project finds himself in a spot of trouble later: the higher-ups, all the way up to the Ruler, want to be in on this as well.
Finally there is also Kaniuru, who used to be married to Nyawira, and who rises from teacher to increasingly more powerful positions, ready to betray anyone or do anything for advancement.
(Besides her part as Wizard of the Crow, Nyawira is also part of a democratic underground Movement for the Voice of the People, and responsible for embarrassing the regime several times; Kaniuru's relationship with her both helps and harms him as he strives for greater power.)
The Ruler heads to America, to try to get the necessary funds from Global Bank, but while there also comes down with a mystifying ailment, dubbed SIE (self-induced expansion) -- eventually leading to rumours that the Ruler is pregnant.
Even the American doctors don't know what to do about the disease (though in a nice touch one of them warns off Kamiti: "The patient is mine and I will patent the patient, the name of the illness, and any cure"), and they actually fly the Wizard of the Crow over to help heal the Ruler.
In the Ruler's long absence, Aburiria muddles along as usual, but there are a few disturbing things going on.
There's that backlash against traditional wife-beating, for one (in which a variety of the characters get caught up), and that annoying queuing phenomenon.
For a while the Ruler thought it might be useful, but then he imposed a ban:
Queues were a Marxist invention, according to the Ruler, having nothing to do with African culture, which is characterized by the spirit of spontaneity.
Mass disorganization -- pushing and shoving -- was to be the order of the day.
Here, as elsewhere, the Ruler's interpretations and orders don't always have the desired results; his style of country-(mis)management -- barking some orders, and then getting back to worrying about his own concerns -- rarely helps improve any situation.
Of course, the Ruler isn't helped by the changing face of the West.
The clear rules of the Cold War made everything so simple, but now everything has changed, and he's completely stymied when, for example, he talks to the American ambassador:
In the days of the cold war, they used to shower him with praises for dispatching thousands of his own people to eternal silence.
And now, even after he had assured them that he was ready to repeat what he had done for them, they were lecturing him about restraint and the new global order !
What's a despot to do or think in such circumstances ?
Well, some who have risen in the government ranks have some suggestions:
We should volunteer Aburiria to be the first to be wholly managed by private capital, to become the first voluntary corporate colony, a corporony, the first in the new global order.
With privatization of Aburiria, and with the NGOs relieving us of social services, the country becomes your real estate.
So, yes, Wizard of the Crow is a (gently) wicked satire on Africa and the West, where the self-interest of individuals completely dominates all decision-making.
Essentially all the authority figures and people in power -- including the American doctors -- are only looking out for themselves; the only push for positive change comes from the largely anonymous masses, with Nyawira one of the few characters who are shown being consistently politically (and socially) active and trying to achieve change.
(Kamiti is a more spiritual figure, and though he acts when thrust into the limelight or he can't do otherwise, he seems to prefer to be at a remove from this and most civilisation.)
Wizard of the Crow doesn't cover some huge expanse of time, not even one particular life-time, and concentrates on a relatively small circle of characters -- but in refraining from too broad a sweep, and its comic approach, the novel is an appealing and no less penetrating look at contemporary Africa.
There are parts that are too simplistic and obvious, or where Ngugi tries too hard to be didactically correct (such as when Kamiti and Nyawira want to have sex for the first time and realise they can't because they don't have a condom), but for the most part this is quite the rollicking adventure.
It's not as obvious as one might expect, either, with the Ruler off-stage in America for much of the novel and the Wizard of the Crow not an ever-growing presence, and while the basic story is fairly simple, Ngugi does offer quite a few very imaginative turns.
Wizard of the Crow is also exceptionally generous in spirit, not reveling in the misery of the conditions caused by the local mis-rulers as so many books about similar circumstances do, or pointing fingers at a single cause: Ngugi condemns a great deal in the novel, from everyday greed to Western paternalism, but there's a good deal of optimism throughout, too.
There's no single answer, no easy happy end, but there is, always, hope.
Oh, yes, and it's a very funny book, too.
Wizard of the Crow isn't the 'Great African Novel', but it is a very good novel about Africa, and one with obvious popular appeal.
A good story well told.
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Wizard of the Crow:
Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o:
Other books by Ngugi wa Thiong'o under review:
Other books of interest under review:
- Index of books relating to Africa
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About the Author:
Kenyan author (James) Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o was born in 1938.
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© 2006-2021 the complete review
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