I did not enjoy reading Ngugi Wa Thiong’o’s hefty almost 800-page tome The Wizard of the Crow. This is a shame, for I love Ngugi. I remember his book Weep Not Child with much fondness. I will always remember the chemistry between the two main characters young Njoroge and Mwihaki. As a boy, I fell in love with the way those two fell in love. Ngugi is a gifted writer and a noble son of Africa. But Ngugi has always been given to quixotic journeys; I say quixotic because I am not quite sure his experiments in this book were productive, especially to the extent that he has not been able to foster a substantive dialogue on what and how we should communicate our literature as Africans. The question remains hanging in the air: What should be our language of discourse? Ngugi’s latest book is short on analysis but long on theatrics. Any experiment as ambitious as Ngugi’s has to acknowledge that the novel as a medium is not a constant. Africa’s oral tradition breathes free and vibrant on YouTube, Facebook, and on blogs. In The Wizard of the Crow, Ngugi brings together an unlikely riot – of the voice, the written word, and the narrative – on print. It simply doesn’t work.
The Wizard of the Crow is a familiar, dated, perhaps tired tale. Think of the stereotypical African novel and its recurring characters. There is the supreme dictator (The Ruler) in an imaginary country (Abruria) teeming with long-suffering people, there are the fawning hangers-on, and there is the idealistic great black hope (Kamiti), scheming freedom for the masses. Throw in some magic realism and a tedious literary ride is born. Despite Africa’s best efforts, Idi Amin’s buffoonery is as dated as my platform shoes. We have new buffoons. This book is what happens to the writer stuck in exile for too long, living decades mummified in despair, fretting about the Africa that has moved on.
The reader wonders how Ngugi could spread tedium through almost 800 pages. The clue is in its unrelenting wordiness, displaying armies of words where a word (or blessed silence) would richly suffice. Ngugi is understandably very unhappy with Africa; he must process his anxieties and stress through writing because the Guinness book of Records may have just logged in the longest angriest riff on paper ever. I mean ever. It is sheer tedium, the book as a medium flies like a lead balloon under the weight of so many issues, several of them unresolved. The attempted use of humor, satire and hyperbole is grotesque and does little to mask Ngugi’s overly documented rage.
Ngugi’s unresolved anxieties and strong political views mar the quality of the book. The book provided absolutely no new insights into the African condition, whatever that may be and the observations appear dated – like a slide rule competing with the awesome wonders of an iPod. Africa has moved on, for good or for bad, a realization that stubbornly eludes Ngugi. Ngugi may still be stuck in the sands of his time. The reviews by Western reviewers do not get this, they are fairly swooning. They see Africa painted as one woeful place full of exotic Ben Okri type imagery. Even at that, Ngugi’s experiment with magic realism is simply farcical. Be warned: You are not going to get much in terms of hard hitting critical reviews of this book; the Western reviewers are largely patronizing. The late great John Updike provides a largely avuncular panning of the book but I agree with him when he says: “The author of this bulky book offers more indignation than analysis in his portrait of post-colonial Africa.”
Readers may have difficulty relating to the notion of a lone savior with a monopoly of good solutions walking around weighed down with his supreme sense of self-importance. Well meaning visionary statements are mistaken for community mandates and the anxiety is to replace the buffoon’s tyranny with that of the pen. It is truly farcical when you really think about it. The African Big Man lives in the tyranny of our politics and in the tyranny of our writers’ pens. Their alter egos of the African Big Man live in our writers as reflected in their idealistic do no wrong attitudes; the main characters of their books indict them as being clueless or indifferent to their role in Africa’s mess. What it boils down to is that these are autobiographic fantasies that involve the ME in the author, systems be damned.
However, given Ngugi’s brave fight for justice in postcolonial Kenya, his work in ensuring Africa’s rightful place in the World history of literature, and the trauma of his forced exile, any assessment of his work ought to be nuanced. Ngugi put a lot of effort into this tome – six books in one, first written painstakingly in Kikuyu – and then translated into English. Ngugi remains a visionary; our writer-warriors should carry his ideas on their giant shoulders and continue the fight he started – on Facebook, YouTube and on blogs. I salute Bwana Ngugi Wa Thiong’o.