It is hard to read about the fictional African country in which Wizard of the Crow is set, Aburĩria, and its larger-than-life tyrant known only as “the Ruler,” without being reminded of the author’s own story. In 1977, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o was first imprisoned in a Kenyan jail, and then exiled, for writing a satirical play that then-dictator Daniel arap Moi did not find funny. Eighteen years later, having achieved success and acclaim in America, wa Thiong’o was finally allowed back into his homeland for a visit—during which thugs broke into his hotel room and brutalized him and his wife. Maybe it was random violence; Kenya’s capital Nairobi is not known as Nairobbery for nothing. Or maybe tyrants can hold grudges for a long, long time.
But while Aburĩria is not unlike Kenya, and its Ruler not unlike some unholy cross between Moi and the (alleged) child-eater Jean-Bédel Bokassa, Wizard of the Crow is no roman à clef. For one thing, I doubt Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o’s life was ever this much fun.
Yes, that’s right, fun. You might be thinking: “a 700-page novel about an oppressed African nation from a professor of English literature who was himself exiled; must be one of those highfalutin dutiful reads full of clever turns of phrase and onion layers of symbolism that you fight through like quicksand so that you can finally achieve some understanding of its Meaningful Message about the Human Experience, or maybe just feel self-righteous for finishing it, right?” Well, let’s just shelve that attitude right there. Wizard of the Crow is part satire, part comedy, part farce, and wholly absurd. It is an angry book, yes, but even at its most furious, it is never not funny.
The work it most reminds me of is Vaclav Havel’s (hilarious) play Temptation, which I guess is not so surprising – after all, wa Thiong’o was a playwright too; both he and Havel made their bones, so to speak, satirizing vicious, venal, iron-fisted power; and both Temptation and Wizard of the Crow are all about black magic.
“‘What I most fear,’ he told me candidly, ‘is that the sorcerer will arrive at the airport dressed in a garb of uncured leather, a necklace of sharp animal bones around his neck, a gourd of stinking oil and green leaves in his hand, amulets on his wrists, and bangles around the ankles of his bare feet. These people here are very sensitive to the importation of agricultural products for fear of dangerous viruses. What if customs officials stop him? What if Immigration mistakes his powders for drugs, and the sorcerer then discloses that he is here at the Ruler’s request? The Ruler could met the fate of that Latin American head of state imprisoned for life in an American jail for drug offenses!’ Worried that a scandal might erupt around the sorcerer’s visit, he now wished that he had specified that the wizard be dressed decently and his paraphernalia be shipped in a diplomatic bag!
“Well, I could not help laughing at the minister’s words and worries.
“‘The Wizard of the Crow is a modern sorcerer,’ I told him. ‘He dresses in suits. Besides, he uses only a mirror for his divinations.’
“True! Haki ya Mungu!“
The story, or at least the setup, in all its absurdist glory:
Kamĩtĩ, a job-seeking vagabond whose family mortgaged their future to get him a useless university degree, is begging outside the hotel where representatives of the Global Bank are pondering the Ruler’s proposal to borrow money from them to build a monument to himself that will reach to the heavens. A protest against this “Marching to Heaven” proposal breaks out; the police crack down; Kamĩtĩ and a protestor find themselves fleeing across the city, with the police in hot pursuit. Cornered, Kamĩtĩ pretends to be a witch doctor imbued with otherworldly powers—and the police flee in terror.
The story soon spreads, and almost before Kamĩtĩ knows what’s happening, he finds customers lined up outside the house where he and his fellow escapee Nyawĩra have holed up, eager to consult this Wizard of the Crow. And it turns out Kamĩtĩ has something of a talent for divination…
Meanwhile, Nyawĩra, who by day is secretary to the chairman of Marching to Heaven and by night a leading figure in the underground resistance movement, tries to recruit Kamĩtĩ into the resistance; both her boss Tajirika and her ex-husband Kaniũrũ jockey for the nation’s prime bribe-taking positions; above them, the chief ministers Machokali and Sikiokuu toady, scheme, and plot; and above them looms the Ruler, an arbitrary, vicious, and megalomaniacal semi-deity.
Those half-dozen satirical storylines meet, merge, and intertwine, and one comic misadventure follows another. Nyawĩra becomes Aburĩria’s most-wanted criminal; Kaniũrũ is promoted for his unparalleled ability to steal from the state; Tajirika takes a military base hostage with a bucket of shit; and the Wizard of the Crow travels to America, to treat a strange illness that befalls the Ruler, and becomes the key to all of their futures:
The Wizard of the Crow held the mirror just above the table.
“Listen very carefully. It’s my turn to ask you a few questions.”
“Ask whatever you like. No one was ever convicted for asking questions.”
Sikiokuu saw the mirror begin to shake in the hands of the Wizard of the Crow.
“What’s wrong?” he asked.
“Can’t you see?”
“I don’t really know. But let’s find out. What did you say when I told you that I had some questions for you?”
“I said that no one is ever convicted for asking questions.”
The mirror shook violently, even as the Wizard of the Crow tried, with both hands, to rest it on the table.
“When you say that no one is ever convicted for asking questions, what do you mean?”
“Even a little child would know what I am talking about,” Sikiokuu said, resenting the wizard for seemingly belittling his intelligence.
“The mirror is not a little child. and it wants to know.”
“Okay. Okay. I am saying that one is never prosecuted in a court of law for aksing question. You don’t put a person in prison for asking questions.”
The mirror responded by shaking so uncontrollably that it was with much difficulty that the Wizard of the Crow prevented it from flying toward Sikiokuu.
“Why is it shaking so? What have I said to upset it so?” asked a frightened Sikiokuu.
“Mr. Minister. You have to look into your heart. Are you very sure that one is never prosecuted and convicted for asking questions? Even in Aburĩria?”
Sikiokuu thought about the question. He was beginning to grow a little concerned about the wizard and the mirror.
“Well, sometimes we actually do imprison people for asking questions, but only those that question established truths or that undermine the rule of law or how this country is governed.”
The mirror became still. “The mirror has stopped shaking,” said the Wizard of the Crow as he wiped sweat from his brow. “I told you to listen to my questions carefully. You must answer truthfully, for you have seen that a mirror is not something to be trifled with.”
The supernatural here is an interesting blend of fantasy and magic realism (lest we go back and cover already-well-worn ground, here’s my take on the distinction between the two.) Kamĩtĩ’s magic is sorcery like you might find in a fantasy novel, with regimented rules and limitations, but he lives in a magic-realist world, with neither rhyme nor reason to its supernatural.
Wizard of the Crow has been compared to Midnight’s Children, which is a little unfair: it’s not that good, but what is? Wa Thiong’o doesn’t have Rushdie’s pyrotechnical sentence-level chops, and both the satire and the sentimentality are in places drawn a little too breadly. But it’s still both a Great Novel and a great read. There is no pat Hollywood finale, but the end is both appropriate and satisfying; and as with all great stories, you’re left wanting just a little more.
Later, after his own life had taken twists and turns defying all rational explanation even for him, a trained police officer, Constable Arigaigai Gathere always found himself surrounded by crowds wanting to hear story after story about the Wizard of the Crow. It was then that people started calling him fondly by his initials, A.G., some listeners allowing that they stood for “attorney general of storytelling.” If his storytelling took place in a bar, it was fueled to new heights of imagination by an endless supply of liquor. When the setting was a village, the marketplace, or a crossroads, Constable Arigaigai Gathere felt charged with energy on seeing the rapt faces of the men, women, and children waiting to catch his every word. But whatever the setting, his listeners came away with food of the spirit: resilient hope that no matter how intolerable things seemed, a change for the better was always possible. For if a mere mortal like the Wizard of the Crow could change himself into any form of being, nothing could resist the human will to change.
Jon Evans is the author of several international thrillers, including Dark Places and Invisible Armies, and the forthcoming Vertigo graphic novel The Executor. He also occasionally pretends to be a swashbuckling international journalist. His novel Beasts of New York, an epic fantasy about a squirrel in Central Park, is freely available online, under a Creative Commons license.